Attie Mackechnie

OF THE dozen or so stone masons who gave much of their lives to George MacLeod’s project to restore Iona Cathedral Attie Mackechnie, who has died aged 80, was probably the most significant.

A quiet and self-effacing man, he was born and brought up at Lee, a croft near Bunessan on Mull which his family had farmed for more than 100 years.

One of six children, of whom he is the first to die, Mackechnie’s feisty father fished creels, delivered the mail and worked the croft, and it was probably his quieter mother who gave him his soft, caring nature and his father who gave him his grit.

Like most islanders of his generation, his first proper job was at sea, sleeping on sheep fleeces in his hammock after traumatic shifts as a gunner in the Russian convoys.

After the end of the Second World War, Mackechnie returned to Iona, which lay almost within sight of his family land, to initially work as a driver for stone masons involved with the project to restore Iona Cathedral. He reputedly named his lorry "Annie" after the song.

An internationally acclaimed Gaelic singer, Mackechnie was completely immersed in the restoration project, becoming a full-time member of the religious organisation known as the Iona Community for the next 50 years, and making a name for himself with his weekly lectures on the bird life of the islands and haunting singing at ceilidhs.

Later, after some time working in Govan and as a farmer, Mackechnie returned in some glory to the Iona project to be appointed the clerk of works to the team who were now engaged in the maintenance of the building.

This was probably the high point of his career as his unique skills as a diplomat and experience of the re-building made him invaluable, particularly as the Iona Community and the cathedral trustees were often in almost comical dispute - Mackechnie was the ever gentle yet indestructible bridge between the two.

Mackechnie retired to Mull to look after his beloved wife, Mary, a former publications manager for the community, and after her death became a successful personality in Gaelic broadcasting.

He once teasingly observed to a squirming and duplicitous television producer that as all you had to do was look straight into the camera and tell the truth he couldn’t really see why they all had to make such a "bourach" (fuss) about everything.

It was about this time that someone famously remarked that Mackechnie was the sort of man who carried a calendar instead of a watch.

In his latter years he became something of a legendary figure on Mull and his house at Fhionaphort seemed seldom to be without scholars without microphones or friends without generous drams.

In many ways Attie Mackechnie personified what the Iona Community had been set up for. He was a decent and imaginative Gael who gave his days to not only re-building and maintaining the world’s first and last Gaelic cathedral, but also imbued many thousands of the people who went there with the principles of his race.

He was famous for never having been known to either shout at or insult anyone, though he was once heard to gently apologise for one elderly hospital nurse’s irritation, saying that her manner wasn’t her fault as she probably came from Partick.

He lies buried a mile from the house where he was born among some of the other Mull masons who worked alongside him, sweating on slippery wooden scaffolding as they lifted giant granite blocks into ruined abbey walls.

Across the dark waters of Loch Scridan lies their shared and well made headstone; the restored cathedral of St Mary on the sacred island of Iona.