Lesley Riddoch: Powering change one man at a time

Allan Macrae, an ordinary man who achieved extraordinary things with courage and dignity. Picture: Peter Jolly
Allan Macrae, an ordinary man who achieved extraordinary things with courage and dignity. Picture: Peter Jolly
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Self-confident communities can best resolve social issues, but real success relies on special individuals, writes Lesley Riddoch

Allan Macrae from Assynt was a man who made history. So was Tommy Riley from Drumchapel.

They both died on the same day last week but never met. Yet in many ways they were gentle brothers in the same fight for expression and dignity. They left a mark on their communities – and changed my life.

Against all the odds, 20 years ago, Allan Macrae, Bill Ritchie and John MacKenzie led the Assynt Crofters to the first community land buyout from a private landowner in Scottish history. A big achievement for a wiry, wee crofter, happier shifting sheep round the hill than dealing with media attention or large sums of money.

And yet Allan was full of surprises. He was an old-fashioned orator, belting out fiery, well-crafted phrases at a volume that defied his slight frame and shy manner. Like most Scots, Allan knew selling land over the heads of crofters like so many deer or sheep was completely unacceptable.

Unlike most Scots he said it – on public platforms, to lairds’ faces, in bureaucrats’ offices and most importantly to fellow crofters.

When Lord Vestey carved the North Lochinver Estate out of his massive northern domain and put it up for sale in 1992 – provocatively advertising the populated land as “an unspoilt wilderness [in which] man himself is perhaps the alien…” – he drew up boundaries which coincided with the local Assynt Crofters Union branch.

So people living on this new artificial parcel of “wilderness” already knew and trusted one another and had a shared history of practical deeds, land management, complaint mediation and action. If Vestey had doubled the acreage, he might have weakened the crofters’ resolve. As it was, the main obstacle facing the crofters was their own negative inner voice muttering constantly: “Dinnae get above yourselves.”

Happily Allan was not plagued by such self-doubt. He was a firebrand – and inherited that from both sides of his family. His great grandfather was cleared from the land but managed to stay in Assynt and his mother was a genuine Cockney. In response to my amazement after meeting her, Allan smiled and said: “Hybrids are the strongest plants.”

That’s very true. Allan lived in a caravan for decades – like many Highland natives – but spent 15 years gradually building a “stone barn” which bypassed planning before he moved in five years ago.

The stonework is a thing of great beauty – not surprising since its owner was a skilled stonemason as well as a hardy crofter and well-read iconoclast. I once watched Allan rounding up sheep in a force-8 gale reading Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed whilst remaining upright and rolling a cigarette (with one hand).

That book was important. Freire’s controversial classic suggests that living without power is an art form that requires vital life skills like spending next to nothing, making do with second, third or fifth-best, leaving instead of speaking out and above all discouraging defiance or ambition. But Freire’s contention is that these “skills” remain and a “second-best” attitude prevails long after conditions improve until they are consciously unlearned.

Freire may have been describing what we call “the Scottish Effect” – unaccountably higher rates of disease and premature death amongst Scots (particularly Glaswegians) compared to UK counterparts. Scotland’s bad health outcomes cannot be explained by deprivation alone – but may result from the crippling disempowerment of living in a society which outwardly strives for equality but fails to back those who sacrifice everything to achieve it.

After the Assynt buyout Allan visited Eigg to advise islanders there. His advice was simple. Buy everything. Buy all the rights. Don’t be fobbed off. Get everything – go for gold. I wonder if he knew how important his words would become. A few years later Eigg islanders were in precisely the position he foresaw – offered 49 per cent control of the island in a deal backed by National Heritage Lottery funders. It was more control than islanders had ever known under landowners like Keith Schellenberg – but with Allan’s advice ringing in their ears, they refused.

Later – when the people of Eigg 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 the first famous land pioneers to the next.

I met Tommy Riley about the same time. 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. Tommy helped set up the Danny Morrison Men’s Health Clinic and soon had waiting lists for aromatherapy, acupuncture, cooking classes and a walking club.

It was funded for one glorious year by Greater Glasgow Health Board before they took fright, axed the funding and left Tommy and the others back on the street where they’d started. Some got jobs – Tommy didn’t. He had been one of the few who didn’t drink before the project began but the stress of pushing, organising, running and losing the centre changed that.

Earlier this year I tracked Tommy down to write about the project for a new book. He had COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and was an alcoholic. Clear-eyed, honest to the end and broken by a system that’s used, discarded and crushed thousands of talented people. Men who have tried to fight against macho stereotypes in the face of official indifference and some peer hostility and women who’ve been left to pick up the pieces.

Amazingly, despite current concern about Scotland’s abysmal health record, there is no official interest in Scotland’s first purpose-built men’s health centre or the part played by men like Tommy Riley. Even though he was the Scottish Effect.

So in memory of these two great, thrawn men I’d make this point.

We can continue to apply sticking plaster solutions to Scotland’s problems – or shift power to communities because they alone can build the conditions for genuine change.

Charismatic and capable locals have long been ignored as engines of regeneration. And yet, without help from the authorities, they’ve worked to transform unjust situations around them.

Last week we lost two men who knew the way.