Obituary: Charles Macleod (Charley Barley), butcher and farmer

Prize-winning butcher who fought to preserve the status of Stornoway black pudding. Picture: Contributed
Prize-winning butcher who fought to preserve the status of Stornoway black pudding. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 29 May, 1948, in Stornoway. Died: 10 September, 2015, in Stornoway, aged 67.

The Charles Macleod butcher’s shop in Stornoway is known far beyond the shores of the island of Lewis on account of the prize-winning reputation of the black pudding made there but the man behind the shop name, Charles Macleod, who died last week, was always known to his fellow islanders as Charlie Barley.

As is the way on Lewis, Barley was a byname initially given to his father to help differentiate this family from the many other members of the Macleod clan on the island. In fact, Charlie was called Charlie Barley Junior until his father died and his own offspring now carry the Barley name.

His father, who was a first-class livestock farmer, had started the butcher’s shop on his return from the war in the 1940s as a diversification from the Crobeag family farm, thus creating what nowadays would be called a farm shop.

Charlie attended school in Stornoway and then went on to Balmacara Agricultural School for a year. His time at the latter establishment should have been longer but with the determination that was to mark his life, Charlie announced he was not going back. Instead, he was going to work in the butcher’s shop.

“No, you are not,” was the reputed response from his father. A threat by Charlie that he would go and work as a delivery boy for the Liptons store in the town then convinced his father that it would be better to let the young man have his way.

As it turned out, his involvement in the business would not have been delayed for long as his father died prematurely, leaving Charlie and his brother Iain to run the business, even though both were still in their teens.

A great deal of hard physical work carried out for long hours followed as the young men learned the ropes of the business. Not only did they have to look after the butcher’s shop but the farm also made demands on Charlie’s time.

Not that he seemed to mind the long hours as it was soon evident he was a workaholic. Although preferring to start work in the butchery side of the business, his first love was the farm.

From the age of 14 when his father sent him to buy some sheep from a neighbour, he took a strong interest in livestock. This developed and he soon became well known both for producing top quality cattle and sheep with many victories at the island agricultural shows. He also gained a reputation wider afield as a top judge both of live animals and of carcasses. On various occasions, he would place the livestock at prestigious competitions such as the Christmas Classic at Thainstone.

For a long time, it was a family joke that most holidays coincided with major events like the Highland or Black Isle shows where he could observe the stock and enjoy the craic around the judging rings.

His devotion to livestock reached a new peak when he spent his honeymoon with Julia at the Perth bull sales.

Later on in married life, they travelled to Corfu where they came across a couple who were running a water-skiing business. Charlie, who had always been a bit of an adrenalin junkie, rekindled old passions as he returned to a sport he had enjoyed earlier in life. Such was his love and devotion to this sport that he was still mono-skiing aged 62 with his body already partially ravaged by early-onset Parkinson’s disease.

As a young man, he indulged in a range of exotic sports. He was one of the first to take up scuba diving; a sport very much still in its infancy in the Western Isles in the 1960s. He sold a cow in order to finance the necessary wet suit and in another deal with the barter undisclosed he bought a compressor for the air bottles needed for diving.

All this with no formal training in the sport marked him out as someone who, when he set his eye on doing something, it was done.

The scuba diving then led him into free-fall parachuting, when the famed Red Devils team were temporarily stationed on Lewis. They wanted to go scuba diving and Charlie had the compressor they needed. Soon he was off training with his new-found friends as they taught him the rudiments and joys of throwing oneself out of aeroplanes.

His work at both the butcher’s business and on the farm ensured he was physically strong and this was used to good effect in the winter months when judo took precedence in his sporting life. It was in this sport and actually on a judo mat that he first met Julia, a local Stornoway girl.

His active life was curtailed after it was confirmed in 1999 that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease but, as far as possible, he did not let it interfere with what he wanted to do.

He did withdraw from the frontline in the butcher’s shop where two of his three daughters and a niece took over but only after he and his brother had transformed it into a busy store where customers were told the provenance of the meat they were buying.

He was also involved in the battle to get recognition for Stornoway black pudding, which had for years been a staple food in the crofting community. Lewis men and women who had left the island would send back requests to Charles Macleod and other butchers on the island for what has been described as the “best pudding in the United Kingdom”, with its unique taste and texture reminding them of their homeland.

The battle was taken over to Brussels, where the politicians argued that the unique nature of the Stornoway black pudding had to be protected in a similar manner to such well-known products as Arbroath Smokies and Orkney cheese.

The decision was made in 2013 to give it Protected Geographical Indication status. This clumsy description means that the only location where the product can be made is on the island itself. This appellation and the award of the business being awarded Butcher’s Shop of the Year in 2013 brought the reward for the decades during which Charlie and his staff had transformed the business.

Sadly, by this time the tentacles of Parkinsons were taking over his body and he was confined to an electric wheel chair. Confined is the wrong word as, in his own determined way, he used this mode of transport to take him to local shows across the island.

One location he did not reach, and it was one he would have liked to travel to, was Patagonia. This remote country in the southern tip of South America had attracted Highlanders and Islanders a century ago when the Spanish landowners employed them as expert shepherds and stockmen.

Among the diaspora was Charlie’s grandfather, who worked for the Menendez family. He was so highly thought of that the family asked the Scotsman to give his son the Spanish name when he was born. Charlie’s father was duly christened Charles Menendez Macleod but, sadly, Charlie never managed to travel to see the wide-open prairies where his grandfather had worked.

With his increasingly frail body, his own farming came to a heart-breaking halt in 2012 with the sale of Crobeag, the family farm. In reality, he never really stopped farming as he would always talk about what needed to be done. Such was his love of the industry he was reputed to have bought some lambs after the farm had gone, thus requiring the auction company to instruct its auctioneers not to accept bids from Charlie Barley in future.

As a beloved son of the island and one who relished island life, there was a big turnout at his funeral held on Monday where the comment was made: “Charlie would have loved this.”

He is survived by his widow, Julia, his three daughters, Lorna, Shona and Ria, and their families, including two grandsons Charlie and Ronnie, and his granddaughter Eva, who only met her grandfather courtesy of being born seven weeks early.