Allan Macrae from Assynt was a man who made history. So was Tommy Riley in Drumchapel. They both died yesterday, June 25th. Allan and Tommy never met. But in many ways they were gentle brothers in the same fight for expression and dignity. They left a mark on their communities. And they certainly changed my life. Against all the odds, twenty years ago, Allan Macrae, Bill Ritchie and John MacKenzie led the Assynt Crofters to the first community land buyout from a private landowner – for the first time in Scottish history. A big achievement for a wiry wee crofter, happier shifting sheep around the hill than dealing with difficult people. And yet Allan was full of surprises. He was eloquent in the manner of an old-fashioned orator – declaiming rather than speaking and belting out fiery words and inspiring ideas at a volume that defied his slight frame and shy manner. Allan let fellow crofters and the rest of Scotland know that being bought and sold like so many deer or sheep on the land was completely unacceptable.
Happily Allan was not a man plagued by such inner doubt. He was a firebrand – and attributed a lot of that to his mother. Allan proudly introduced her after a radio programme I presented for Radio Scotland in the Culag Hotel in Lochinver just after the buyout. I was (evidently) astonished when she started speaking with a broad Cockney accent. Allan smiled and said; "You know hybrids are the strongest plants." That was true. Whatever differences of opinion existed, whatever obstacles were hurled Allan just kept going in his own idiosyncratic, thrawn and independent way,
Buying the North Lochinver estate was one thing – reviving the communities' fortunes was another. I first met Allan through my friend and Assynt Crofter Issie MacPhail. I remember watching the two of them trying to herd sheep into a fank in a Force 8 gale. Somehow Allan was managing to read a well-thumbed paperback whilst gathering sheep, rolling a cigarette (with one hand) and staying upright. Later I found he was the second person I'd met reading Paolo Freire's Pedaogy of the Oppressed. In this snappily-titled book the radical Brazilian suggests that living without power or control is an art that has to be learned -- not just aspirations that have to be repressed. And like any artform, practitioners need to employ and refine their skills. 'Inferiorism,' as he called it, stops marginalised people "feeling free" or "taking responsibility" or "thinking big," even when circumstances have changed. Partly because these outlooks are not required when locals control next to nothing. But also because other once-vital life skills must be abandoned first. Skills like spending next to nothing, making do with second, third or fifth best, leaving instead of speaking out, and above all discouraging potential troublemakers and people showing defiance or ambition. Freire's contention is that behaving like a second-class citizen or inferior must be consciously un-learned.
Heady, important stuff. "This man is right," Allan muttered when he finally came inside, rustling with all his waterproofs. I spotted the cover-free paperback some years later in his car. Allan came across to Eigg to advise the islanders after the historic Assynt buyout in 1993. His advice was simple. Buy everything. Buy all the rights. Don't be fobbed off. Get everything – go for gold. I wonder if he realised how influential his words had been. A few years later islanders were in precisely the position he foresaw – offered 49% control of the island in a deal from Lottery funders. It was a heck of a lot more control than they'd ever had under absentee landowners like Keith Schellenberg – but with Allan's powerful advice ringing in their ears, they refused. Later – when Eigg islanders bought the whole island lock-stock and barrel in 1997, Allan came over for "Handover Day." Walking around with him was like walking with God. This smiling, unimposing man was known by reputation across the island. His presence was the ultimate validation – from one land pioneer to a set of island pioneers. I remember persuading him to wear my gold lame jacket for just one picture. Buoyed along by the euphoria of the day, he wore it. Impish, inspiring and independent-minded. He was a lovely man.
I met Tommy Riley in Drumchapel about the same time – in the late 90s. He was a founder of the Drumchapel Men's Health Group in 1993 – the architect of a minor social revolution in one of the hardest, most macho parts of Glasgow with the highest rates of chronic illness, suicide and premature death amongst men in Europe. He went on – with others -- to set up the Danny Morrison Health Clinic – funded for one glorious year by Glasgow health Board before they took fright, cut the money and left Tommy and the others back on the street where they'd started. Some of the team picked up and got jobs – Tommy didn't. He had been one of the few who didn't drink before the project began, but the stress of running the centre eventually changed that. Earlier this year I tried to find Tommy again to write about him and the project for a book I'm writing about Scotland.
When I found him Tommy told me he was in a bad way. He had COPD and was an alcoholic. Clear-eyed, honest and broken by a system that used and crushed thousands like him. Brave men who tried to face down the macho stereotypes to care for their own health and their children. Amazingly, despite the amount of column inches spent worrying about public health in Scotland , no-one has thought to record their incredible experience building (probably) Scotland's first purpose built men's centre. Despite all the difficulties, Tommy like Allan, could always see a much wider picture. We often talked about the raw deal working Scots have faced in cities and on the land. He envied my trips to Norway – it was like the Promised Land, he said – an equal country without slums. He'd love to see it but knew he wouldn't get there. So in memory of these two great men I'd like to make this point. Most Scots live beyond nature. Beyond our own physical nature and beyond the wild, glorious stuff outdoors. We continue to apply sticking plaster solutions – but we could build an equal society and empower members of our poorest communities to make it happen. Capable women and self-reforming "new men" have long been ignored as engines of change. And yet leadership and the capacity to transform Scotland exist everywhere.
Yesterday we lost two good men who knew the way.