Obituary: Father Calum MacLellan, priest and politician
Born: 6 June, 1926, in Glasgow. Died: 14 June, 2012, in Inverness, aged 86.
Father Calum MacLellan, who has died at the age of 86, was a charismatic Hebridean priest and outstanding local politician with a lifelong dedication to the faith, values and culture of his people.
In his final years, Calum gained wider celebrity as the voice of sage experience in the BBC2 television series Island Parish, a role that attracted an even steadier flow of visitors to his home on Eriskay. But the same wisdom, laced with dry humour, had long been familiar to the people of his own islands.
Calum believed profoundly that the Gaidhealtachd had been ill-served, culturally and politically, by remote decision-making that failed to value the complexity of its needs. The results were seen in continuing de-population, absence of internal leadership and linguistic decline.
The opportunity for something better came through reform of local government. By the early 1970s, Calum was a member of Inverness County Council, a landlord-run body that treated the islands within its jurisdiction with notorious parsimony. As he later said: “The big decisions were taken in the Highland Club while the rest of us were sent to the pub.”
This can be summed up by a tragedy on Vatersay in 1972. Two children died in a house fire after the hoses could not reach a water supply.
The issue had been raised repeatedly in Inverness and dismissed on grounds of lack of affordability. I blew up Calum’s quote as the headline in the West Highland Free Press: “If we were to accept all the arguments about spending so much money for so few people, then we in the islands might as well pack up and go”.
There are occasions when these words still carry relevance today.
The Wheatley Commission had recommended that the Western Isles should be divided into two districts of Highland Regional Council, thereby perpetuating both mainland control and also the insidious division between Lewis (then part of Ross and Cromarty) and the rest of the chain, including the Catholic islands of Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra.
Calum had a vision beyond what was eventually achieved. He envisaged “a wee Gaelic empire” in the west, controlling its own destiny.
He sent out feelers to Skye and Tiree without response. But in Lewis, he found allies. Stornoway town council initiated a campaign for a single islands authority, with Calum and the formidable Lewis politician, Sandy Matheson, at its head.
Eventually, the Secretary of State, Gordon Campbell, accepted the arguments and Comhairle nan Eilean (Council of the Isles) was born as a single-tier authority. Calum became vice-convener and the absolutely key figure in melding together a group of islands that hitherto had few physical links and contained well-advertised religious distinctions.
The belief that there was more to unite than divide soon prevailed. The Inverness-run islands had far fewer services than Lewis, and bridging that gap involved self-sacrifice by the dominant island. Calum was supported by an outstanding group of councillors, including a clutch of Church of Scotland ministers. This triumph of political ecumenism confounded the sceptics.
Calum stepped down from the Comhairle when he transferred from Barra to the larger parish of Benbecula in 1980 but continued to occupy a succession of public roles, particularly where the interests of Gaelic language and culture were involved. In 2004, he was made a Freeman of the Western Isles in recognition of his public service. One of eight children, Calum grew up on Eriskay – a self- contained community of 500 where fishing was the dominant means of livelihood. At 14 he went to Blair’s College to study for the priesthood. Three years in the army intervened – while he was at shooting practice in readiness for action, a despatch rider arrived to tell them the war was over.
His early postings as a priest were to Oban and Dunoon, where I first knew him. Calum was the young priest who used to kick a football around with the kids on a piece of waste ground near my home. There was an aura of goodness and integrity about him that left a deep impression, never subsequently contradicted.
Years later, he described the prejudice he encountered in my home town including the secondary school rector telling him to his face that, as long as he held that position, a Catholic would never be Dux of the school. Dealing with such attitudes doubtless helped Calum develop his hallmarks of dignity, acerbic humour and moral authority.
When I became a Scottish Office Minister in 1997, he wrote to remind me of what was expected. “As you know, I have worn many hats in my time and knocked on many doors to advance of the cause of various communities. The only hat I wear now is as parish priest of Eriskay with consequent reminders of prophets in our own land”.
Eriskay was down to 140 people and a causeway was urgently needed. Calum was looking for “a wee miracle” which, happily, was delivered a few years later. He despaired that Objective One money had been squandered “in places which are viable rather than in helping peripheral and fragile areas”. The old conflict between numbers and needs has never truly been resolved.
Calum lived to see the biggest community land buy-out in Scotland, covering South Uist and Eriskay.
Needless to say, he was an enthusiastic and influential supporter. He was a great man who served his church, his people and his culture, all with the same degree of distinction.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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