Friday, 4 April 2014


My mother, Isabella Marion MacDonald, was born in Glasgow, on 7 May 1922, and was brought up above the old Fire Station in Gairbraid Avenue, Maryhill.  Her parents, Alexander MacDonald, a fireman and sailor, and Anna Graham, were from the island of Skye, from Sleat and Uig respectively.  She was thus a ‘Glasgow Gael’, familiar with Gaelic, which, in her childhood, she knew well but did not speak. Her arrival in Tiree changed that, as she had to become fluent to survive in the household and the community, which were predominantly Gaelic-speaking. 

My mother spoke warmly of her girlhood in Maryhill, reliving her experiences of its shops and schools and people.  She remembered, for example, Sibbald’s fruitshop, and the fragrance and quality of its fruit.  She remembered the shopkeeper too, and his various adventures in Glasgow and Canada.  He was only one of many characters whom my mother recalled.  She often spoke of the Primary School, and receiving cups of warm cocoa from her mother through the school railings. Glasgow’s colourful tramcars, with different colours for different routes, still trundled happily through her mind, even in old age, and she passed on to me her affection for many aspects of the city, including the tramcars, on which we both had memorable journeys in the 1950s.  Bilsland Drive, with its steep gradients and dangerous bend below the aqueduct of the Forth & Clyde Canal where trams had sometimes come to grief, was one of the landmarks of her Glasgow years.

My mother’s connections with Skye were well laid in those formative years.   She and her two sisters, Margaret (the older) and Catherine (the younger), frequently returned to Uig for holidays, where they were welcomed in the home of their grandparents, Angus Graham and Margaret Bruce (from Glenhinisdale).  My mother identified strongly with her Skye roots, and was particularly proud of her Graham relatives, who had been noted fishermen.   Skye relatives, both the Lamonts of Glenconon and the Grahams of ‘Pier View’, figured strongly in her life, especially latterly, when they showed her great kindness in her years in Muir of Ord.  She often spoke of her uncle, Captain Malcolm Graham, MC, MA, a young Acting Captain in the Gordon Highlanders, who, like many of his age and era, was killed at Passchendaele (Third Ypres) late in 1917.  She admired his intellect and his heroism.  Her aunt Ishbel, married to Jack Lamont, taught in Uig Primary School, and she and Jack, living in ‘Conon Villa’, were as kind to me, when I was a boy, as they were to my mother and her sisters.

My mother had a phenomenal memory, and recollected how, as a girl of four, she had been on board the Canadian Pacific liner, ‘Metagama’, at Glasgow in 1926, to say farewell to R. MacGregor Fraser, a friend of the family who lived in Canada.  My mother thought that he might be a descendant of William Fraser, the Baptist minister in Uig, and later (after 1831) minister of Breadalbane Baptist Church, Glengarry Co., Ontario.  My mother remembered every detail of the occasion, including the clothes she wore on board the ship.

Her secondary schooling was undertaken at North Kelvinside, where she excelled at mathematics and had Oliver Brown, an early Scottish Nationalist and a Gaelic enthusiast, as her French teacher.  She was active in Gaelic choirs, and enjoyed music.  Bright in every subject, she was due to sit her Highers at the age of 14.  However, she chose to leave school, and went to work with quantity surveyors as a comptometer operator (a computer programmer, in today’s terms). 

My mother had close links with the Free Church of Scotland in her early days, as her parents attended Duke Street Free Church (later Grant Street), Glasgow.  During her Glasgow commuting, however, she met young people on a train who challenged her about her Christian commitment, and in her Bible she noted that she had been ‘saved through Sovereign Grace, 21st  December 1937’.  She then became a member of the Findlay Memorial Tabernacle, St George’s Cross, where she made many life-long friends.  Her commuting friends, Ian and Jessie Campbell, were associated with Lambhill Mission.

In the Second World War, the company which employed my mother, John Laird & Co., became sub-contractors to the Air Ministry, which oversaw the maintenance and development of aerodromes.  My mother was posted to Tiree, which was developing a large wartime airfield to serve Coastal Command.    This was another life-changing step.  She often spoke of the people she met there, and the many ‘characters’ who were part of the very large team constructing the aerodrome.  She recalled the fun of those years with pleasure.

My mother attended the Baptist Church, where my father, Hector MacDonald Meek, a Tiree man, was then ministering, having returned in 1939 from Colonsay (where he had been minister from 1930) to steer the Tiree church through a difficult phase.  She first saw and heard my father preaching in Gaelic, and never forgot the sermon on 25th September 1941, her first Sunday in Tiree!  My father preached on 2 Thessalonians 16 (‘our Lord Jesus Christ…hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace’).  I am not sure if the minister noticed the beautiful young lady in the pew, but she noticed him, and appreciated his words, which she later underlined with a note in red ink in her Bible.

When I looked today at my mother’s physical remains, calm and peaceful and still beautiful in her coffin, the story of that ‘first Tiree sermon’ came back to me, as did the many occasions on which she recalled my father’s calm, quiet, but powerful preaching.  She is now participating in the fullest realisation of that ‘good hope through grace’.

My mother came to Tiree in 1941 and left in 1943, moving south to Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire, and then back to Ayr, before her marriage.  My father terminated his Tiree ministry in 1944, and was called to Port Ellen, Islay, where his calm and calming ministry was deeply appreciated.

My father and mother were married in Glasgow in 1946, and for three brief years they had the joy of being together in their own home, ‘Texa House’, in Port Ellen, my father fulfilling his calling as Baptist minister, and enjoying a degree of personal freedom, before the shackles of the Tiree croft began to close upon him once again.  Texa House was so close to the sea that he was able to catch fish for the tea over the garden wall!  He and my mother loved Islay and its people, and always spoke about the island with a warmth and gratitude which Tiree did not earn in their hearts, however good it may have been. 

Shortly after I was born in May 1949, my father made a decision which radically affected the course of his own life and my mother’s – and mine.   He felt compelled to return to Tiree from Islay in order to provide assistance to his uncle Donald, who owned the Tiree croft, ‘Coll View’, Caolas, and who was now suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. On the basis of the prognosis, my father believed that he would be in Tiree for six months.   The six months became 20 years. 

During those years, my parents nursed a succession of my father’s relatives, six in all – Hector, Marion (Donald’s wife), Donald, Charles, Maggie and Annabel.  ‘Coll View’ was like an eventide home, of which my mother was in effect the Matron. She and my father attended devotedly to the needs of these elderly folk, in addition to all the demands of the croft.  I too was part of the team, learning very early in life how to care for the infirm, the dying and the deceased.  Whenever I hear the word ‘commode’, I am taken back instantly to the ‘Coll View’ of my boyhood, as the ‘commode’ was at the centre of my own duties.   Some people would regard this as a less than ideal childhood, but to me it was quite the opposite, as I had the happiest possible upbringing, even if I had to ‘grow up fast’ to meet the various demands made of me.  I saw care, courtesy and efficiency in every one of my parents’ actions.  I also saw love made real in practice, and at very considerable personal cost, including my parents’ careers, sacrificed for the sake of others.

In Tiree my father helped the Baptist Church as before, but as an assistant minister, alongside the Rev. Dugald Lamont.  Later, following Dugald Lamont’s death in 1958, he assumed the leadership of the church, taking it through to the next settled ministry in 1965.  My mother was busy in the church too, organising Sunday School socials, playing the organ, and visiting members and friends.

My mother did not find ‘Coll View’ easy.  The ‘old folk’ were a challenge, and the demands were never-ending. The ‘young wife’ had to earn her place in the hierarchy, and had to endure the sharp wit of very eloquent Gaelic speakers. However, she was soon sufficiently fluent to meet them on their own terms, and give as good as she got. She learned the work of the croft too, and was an expert milker of cows (several of which would refuse to be milked by anyone else).  She mastered tractor-driving, and could gather the hay and help with the stacking. 
She cooked, baked, made butter and cheese, all to the very highest standards.  She was a natural perfectionist, but was always aware that her best endeavours fell short of ‘perfection’.  We certainly heard about it, if the product was deemed to be significantly ‘defective’.  The same devotion and standard were applied to knitting, sewing and dress-making.  Skirts and dresses were regularly unpicked if there was one stitch in the seam which did not seem ‘right’.

The crofting years were far from easy, and not solely because of the never-ending hard labour needed to maintain the land, the crops, the animals and the people. There were many unexpected heartbreaks, the worst of all being the day our herd of cows was diagnosed with TB, and had to be put down.  Storms and bad weather often added an extra challenge. 

In the midst of this, my mother discovered that I had a ‘lazy eye’, and from the age of two I was taken to Glasgow Eye Infirmary every six months.  This was, for me, a splendid opportunity to visit other parts of Scotland, and especially Glasgow.  I revelled in its shops and tramcars, its buses and lorries, and particularly its docks, constantly admiring the ‘big boats’ at the Broomielaw and Bridge Wharf and far down the Clyde.  I got to know its Scots dialect, and the great good humour of the Glasgow folk, whose kindness to the ‘wee kiltie’ from Tiree was never-ending.  I also became eternally fond of the ships of David MacBrayne Ltd, and especially the ‘Claymore’, which conveyed me regularly from Tiree to Oban and back.  The ‘lazy eye’ and my mother’s determination to get me the best possible treatment were wonderful developments, which contributed greatly to my appreciation of the world and life beyond Tiree.

When the last of the ‘Coll View’ relatives died in 1969, my father and mother had a few years of peace together, and I was able to undertake many aspects of the croft work, as I was then in my early 20s, and completing studies at Glasgow University.  However, in the 1970s my father had a very serious tractor accident (1973), from which he recovered, but which gave my mother the fright of her life.  Then he too began to develop Parkinson’s Disease.  This affected him badly, causing great pain in his shoulders.  He soon required nursing, and by the early 1980s he was failing noticeably.  My mother nursed him devotedly, to the extent of neglecting herself, and relying too much on her own input.  I used to come home to help, only to find that the schedules of a normal day had been overturned, and even forgotten, by the priority of attending to my father.  My mother did nothing by half-measures.

After my father’s death in 1984, my mother was somewhat unsettled, and left Tiree to work as a home-help in Appin and later in Edinburgh.  She was by then a seasoned ‘nurse’, with a very deep awareness of the need for what is now called 'palliative care', and it was impossible for me to persuade her to take up a university course or two for a degree in History, in which she had a great interest.   She had a first-rate brain, and I have no doubt that she could have achieved a first-class degree, but by then she did not think that a degree was worth the effort for her.  She had an astonishing memory, especially for local history and genealogy, and also church history, which astounded all of us. Precise recall of dates was accompanied by an ability to remember every jot and tittle (and tattle!) of everyone’s life history, however recent or remote.

In 1989, she surprised, indeed shocked, Tiree (and her relatives) when she went off to Inverness, in considerable secrecy with a ‘news blackout’, to be married to an ‘old flame’, Andrew John Ross, by then a widower in Dornoch.  She and Andrew lived in Dornoch, and then in Muir of Ord, until Andrew’s death in December 2000.  In Dornoch and Muir of Ord, she associated with the Free Church of Scotland, the church of her Skye relatives.  These were very happy years for my mother, as she no longer had to worry about the maintenance of 'Coll View', and, as Andrew was an enthusiastic driver, she enjoyed many jaunts in the north of Scotland, and frequently to Inverness, where she was able to visit her Skye relatives and renew connections of kith and kin.  Andrew's kindness to my mother enabled us to buy a flat for her in Falkirk when the time came.  The members and friends of Urray Free Church provided a new circle of support and companionship, which was invaluable on many occasions.

My mother remained in Muir of Ord until 2005.  We did our best to persuade her to move south to Falkirk, as we were aware that her memory, once sparklingly bright, was beginning to show gaps.  My mother, however, was not the easiest person to persuade, and I remember resorting to conversations with Muir of Ord friends and neighbours, and also the Skye relatives in Inverness, to see if they could succeed where I had failed.  Suddenly, she said she was coming south, and we moved immediately to buy a flat for her in Johnston Court, Carron – speed being of the essence, lest she should think of changing her mind.  The fish was on the hook, and we were determined to keep it there.

It proved to be a good move, and Rachel and I were able to look after her in her own home until 2012.  By 2009 she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but the symptoms were already more than obvious by 2006.  She had a great desire to achieve 90 years of age, and indeed was delighted to regard herself as ‘90’ at least three years before she had reached her 90th birthday.  It was a feather in her cap that she had outlived all her former ‘charges’ in ‘Coll View’!  She won the chronological competition!  Well done, Mum!

My mother’s time in Falkirk was very happy, not least because of her close links with Falkirk Free Church, and the great kindness of members there.  She discovered a new and very dear friend in Johnston Court, namely Mrs Margaret Grant from Lewis, whose generosity, kindness and understanding were truly outstanding.  Rachel and I owe Margaret a debt of gratitude which we will never be able to repay.

My mother declined rapidly after her 90th birthday, and was admitted to Caledonian Court Care Home in January 2013.  Rachel and I had done our best to keep her going independently, with the assistance of an excellent team of carers who were organised by Falkirk’s Social Services.  Her medical needs, however, required professional help, which was provided splendidly by Caledonian Court Care Home, where she passed away on 1 April 2014, after a brave struggle with vascular decay.  We thought we were going to lose her in November 2013, when the first serious seizure occurred, but she recovered remarkably well, and surprised everyone once again.

My mother was a remarkable lady, with a heart of gold, sometimes too easily swayed by emotions.  She would weep for others’ sorrows, and shed many tears over photographs of departed relatives, to the point that I sometimes had to take action with very firm words, and remind her that there was a present as well as a past, and that the world had ‘moved on’, whether we liked it or not.  Visits to ‘Coll View’ in the early 2000s were particularly difficult in that respect, as she tended to regard it as a mausoleum, whereas to me it was, and is, still a croft and house requiring further hard work to keep it viable for potential future use.

My mother, at her brightest and best before the early days of nascent Alzheimer’s, also had a mind of steel which preserved her dignity. Her beautiful looks concealed the fighter, the commander, the disciplinarian.  She would speak in whispers when confiding in you, but these gentle tones disguised a very firm underlying sense of purpose.  I often told her bluntly that she was stubborn and ‘thrawn’, that it was time she did what she was told, and that she should begin to consider that she might not be quite as fit as she once was.   Alzheimer’s did not help her self-understanding, and Rachel and I had some very fraught and difficult experiences with her, often struggling to keep order in her increasingly challenging life, which she thought she was living ‘normally’.  She had a very clear sense of command to the very end, and her last words to me were ‘Stop it!’, when I tried to sooth her face during her final days.  The little boy still needed to be ‘told off’ by his mother. She took great pride in my work, especially in public and often to the point of embarrassment, but behind closed doors I required to be ‘sorted out’, even after I had reached 60 years of age.  My virtues were for public proclamation only. 

My mother disapproved of my enthusiasm for ships and boats, which she regarded as an unfortunate 'inheritance' from her father, who was 'boat daft', and acted as a yacht skipper during the summer for Lord Inverclyde and other gentry.  My grandfather, Alex MacDonald, had also received the Mercantile Marine Medal for his services in dangerous waters on HMS 'Harlow' during the First World War.  No doubt Alex contributed to my DNA, but so also did my own father, who was an outstanding boat-builder, to say nothing of the skills of the 'Coll View' MacDonalds as both boat-builders and sailors.  My mother, of course, had nothing at all to do with the transmission of this 'disease'!

Our relationship was often ‘robust’, with exchanges of witty barbs across many happy meals of fish-and-chips, from Benny T’s celebrated shop in Falkirk. There were also quite a few occasions when my mother and I had our disagreements, our divergences of opinion.  Mother and son were both strong-willed, subscribing to ‘the laws of the Meeks and the Persians’, and I loved to tell her that she had given me my awkward nature and my dogged determination to ‘carry on regardless’.  These disagreements and friendly quarrels, however, helped to keep her mind sharp, as the darkness gathered and confusion set in.

Rachel and I are very grateful to God that we were able to look after my mother, and I am very, very glad that I had Rachel to carry the burden with me, with the assistance, as needed, of our daughters Rhoda and Anna.  My mother deserved our care and devotion, as care and devotion had been her own hallmarks.   I will always remember her loyalty, devotion and faith, her beautiful looks and her generosity, and I will be eternally thankful for an outstanding upbringing with the brightest and best of parents.