ROBERT BECK, BVMS, MRCVS
Eulogy given at the Funeral Service in Heylipol Parish Church on 18 December 2013.
The day that Robert Beck passed away, Tiree was experiencing one of its winter gales. The ‘Clansman’ had set out from Oban in the hope of reaching Tiree, but she had to turn back when she passed the Cailleach.
That set me thinking about the man. Robert Beck chose his day, and his day chose him. There was a consistency there. Robert had his stormy side, but it was in the midst of the storms that we all saw his qualities. He wasn’t one to be defeated by challenges. He was strong to the end.
On that same day, I bought a copy of ‘An Tirisdeach’, and I read of Tiree Music Festvial’s latest award – ‘The Event of the Year Award’ sponsored by VisitScotland. Tiree, like the weather, had been making waves – musical waves – and in that too Robert Beck came into view. In fact, his contribution was so important that the TMF team dedicated the award to ‘Tiree piping tutor Robert Beck who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. They said: “His massive contribution to music on Tiree has played a significant part in the success of TMF.’
It was a beautiful and timely tribute. As soon as I opened ‘An Tirisdeach’, I saw a letter which read as follows:
It was with great pleasure that I heard that TMF had won the award of “The Event of the Year” at the Scottish Traditional Music Awards in Aberdeen. I am extremely proud of the young musicians that I have taught on Tiree over the years and was very touched that TMF dedicated this award to me.
That was so typical of the man. Even on his deathbed, he saw to it that the dedication of the award to him was duly acknowledged. I found that very, very moving.
Robert Beck will be remembered by the younger generation as the piping tutor who taught and inspired many budding musicians in Tiree. He worked with Joyce Gillespie, as she then was, and Gordon Connell, who has made such a sterling contribution to accordion music. He was a strong teacher, certificated through the College of Piping, and, as I have heard, he did not tolerate slackness of any kind. That too was typical of the man.
However, for me ‘Robert Beck, BVMS, MRCVS’, or ‘Mr Beck’ as he was generally known, was the Tiree Vet during the 1960s, when I was in early manhood. He was a towering presence here. He was broad-shouldered, red-haired, red-moustached, and his forelock used to bounce in the wind, but it leapt around in an equally lively fashion on calm days. Energy flowed out of him – purposeful, knowledgeable, brilliant at diagnosis, an outstanding example of the local Vet, capable of performing complex operations on sick animals, at any time of the day or night, or in any context.
When Robert Beck arrived in Tiree in 1959, little did the island realise that it had found not only a first-class vet, but also one who was to put the island on the map at various levels.
I remember Robert Beck best on the occasions when he attended to our animals on our croft at Caolas. He would come in minutes when asked. He would waste no time speculating. He would work out in minutes what was wrong with the animal, and what had to be done.
Let me share just a couple of memories. On one occasion we had a blue-grey heifer that was about to produce its first calf. Something had gone badly wrong in the delivery process, and a Caeserian section was required. The Vet asked my father to prepare the floor of the barn. It was cleaned and dusted with sand. Then the Vet phoned the local general practitioner, Dr Calvert at the time, and the doctor duly arrived. Next, fine ropes were placed on the animal to cause muscle reflex, and she was brought down on the floor. She was anaesthetised, and soon the operation was under way, and completed successfully. That was Robert Beck – and that too was Dr Calvert, who was ready to assist, and keen to learn about the medical care of animals, and would sometimes work alongside the Vet.
I remember another occasion, also involving a heifer – this time a young heifer in heat. The heifer had gone rampaging to Ruaig, crossing ditches, leaping dykes, running over rocks, caring not a whit as it searched for a bull. However, when we eventually caught up with it, it had a broken leg. It was about 11 pm when we found the runaway, and near midnight by the time we got it home. We phoned the Vet, and he arrived, and I can still see him, there in the fading light, with a big bucket of plaster of Paris, making a cast for the leg of that animal. I also remember his kindness and soothing words to the distressed animal, his calm professionalism, the masterly way in which he put a plaster on its leg. Soon the heifer was walking normally – and no doubt running normally too.
Robert Beck came regularly to test our cattle. He was meticulous, proud of his work, keen for the island to have the very best stock in Scotland, and indeed in the United Kingdom. That was his operating standard – no more, no less. In the late 1960s, Tiree became the first Brucellosis-free area in Scotland, if not the world, and that meant that its beefstock was even more desirable and valuable. The Vet had some strong allies in Tiree, including Angus MacLean, Willie Groat, John Lachie MacInnes and the Rev. William John MacLeod, who knew what Mr Beck wanted to do for the island. My own father too took full advantage of the excellent stock development which Mr Beck encouraged, and was regularly complemented by the Vet and by mainland inspectors for the fine quality of his cattle.
The 1960s were a remarkable decade in the history of Tiree. With Alex MacArthur, ‘Ailig Beag’, as the councillor for Tiree, the island was making waves in other ways – defying electricity surcharges, and leading Scotland and the United Kingdom in that respect too. I often look back at that period as the ‘glory days’ of my early manhood in Tiree, when local agricultural strategy and local politics worked splendidly together.
Politics was very much part of Robert Beck’s make-up. You didn’t wait long before you realised that he was a born Scottish Nationalist. He told you straight what was what, he would argue with your position, he would ask you ‘why on earth’ you believed this or that. A visit from Robert Beck, the Vet, was a lively affair, I can tell you. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he seems to have found one or two in Tiree.
I learned a lot from Robert Beck. He was something of a role-model for me. In particular, I learned that being in a job demanded commitment, it demanded the highest standards, and that these standards were to be maintained in different aspects of life.
That was the case with Robert Beck’s approach to music. With the assistance of Alasdair Sinclair, Greenhill, he established a piping society, which later became Tiree Pipe Band, and in no time at all it was competing for major awards. I was in Oban High School when he took Tiree Pipe Band to the World Pipe Band Championships, and won Second Prize for the particular category of band (Grade 4) in which Tiree’s band was placed. I can still remember him there, in full regalia with the band, and I remember too how delighted I was that ‘my island’ had won such a significant award.
Robert Beck was a born teacher. I remember well how he used to speak to me about no end of subjects in the scientific realm, and how he treated me as an equal. That amazed me. It did not amaze me, however, when, at a Cattle Show Day in Crossapol in 1974, he confided in me that he had been appointed to a Lectureship in Animal Husbandry at the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Medicine in Edinburgh. He had such a profoundly practical bent, and set such high standards, and was also such a fine instructor, whether in veterinary medicine or in piping, that such an appointment was inevitable, sooner or later. It was also a measure of the excellence of the man.
I used to meet him in Edinburgh University, in the former University Staff Club, when we were both lecturing there, and that was another happy aspect of our association. Usually, Robert’s subject was Eriskay ponies, and he was busy writing a book about their origins – a book that, quite typically, made waves when it was published. However, the book is scheduled to be republished by Birlinn – which makes the point that Robert Beck was quite probably ahead of the game in working out animal pedigrees. He encouraged the preservation of Eriskay ponies, and with Father Calum MacNeill, established a society ‘for the preservation and development of the Eriskay pony’. He had a couple of Eriskay ponies grazing at ‘Taigh a’ Bhet’, the Old Manse at Gott, where the family had their home.
I remember his great affection for these ponies. They were an integral part of the family, comprising Shena, his wife, and Robin, Drew and Gavin. From time to time, on summer evenings, I used to see Shena or one of the boys riding a pony, and I confess that I envied them, as I too loved horses. Shena was Robert’s life partner in all respects, encouraging him constantly in his professional work and in his ‘sidelines’, such as the ponies. And Robert was a man of ‘sidelines’, some well hidden from view. Only yesterday, when visiting the family at ‘Cnoc’, Ruaig, where Robert and Shena had their retirement home from 1994, I saw for the first time the model-rail layout that Robert had constructed. The meticulous mind was evident there too.
Robert Beck loved Tiree, loved its people and its history, and it is in that context that I have one last memory of him – the day that I put my arms round him, and gave him the biggest hug that I could possibly manage. It happened at the Conference on the history of Tiree at the end of May this year, 2013. I had been reminiscing with my wife Rachel about how Robert Beck had helped my family to avoid a potential disaster in February 1973, when my father was run over by his own tractor. When my father was airlifted to Glasgow for a long spell of reconstructive surgery at the Western Infirmary, the incomparable Robert Beck put together a band of local helpers, including Neil MacLean, ‘Carnan’, and Mary Ann MacLennan, ‘Dun Beag’, and together they kept the croft going while my father was away, and until I could return from Cambridge to take over. I have never forgotten that, and I wanted to thank Robert Beck for his outstanding generosity, his immense kindness, and that shown by his team.
I confess that tears flowed down my cheeks as I did so – and down his too. I had a strange feeling that I might not see him again, and I wanted to say how much I appreciated him, in the multiplicity of his skills and characteristics, but especially his kindness when we at ‘Coll View’ were in distress. He looked at me and said, ‘Aye, we weren’t the best kind, myself and Neil, “Am Builgean”. We swore and we told blue jokes, but we were there when you needed us.’ I got the point. The best help often comes from some very unexpected quarters, and it is in such circumstances that the rough diamonds really shine. Robert’s diamonds sparkled in the storms.
I didn’t see Robert again, but I did see him in May as I want to remember him – still a big, strong man, stooped a little with age, but unyieldingly himself and wearing his kilt. Now, after a comparatively short illness, he has left us.
Robert, outstanding Veterinary Surgeon, University Lecturer, piper and musician, we salute you for all you did for us here in Tiree. We will assuredly never forget you.
You gave us all of your very, very best. There will never be another like you.
Thank you – very, very much.