Obituary: John Willie Campbell, teacher, player, coach and broadcaster who became known as the Voice of Shinty

John Willie Campbell, the Voice of Shinty, has died at the age of 84. Picture: BBC
John Willie Campbell, the Voice of Shinty, has died at the age of 84. Picture: BBC
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John Willie Campbell, former President of the Camanachd Association, science teacher, broadcaster and Gàidheal. Born: 26 May 1934 in Edinbane, Skye. Died: 15 December 2018 in Inverness, aged 84.

John Willie Campbell of Skye and Inverness was one of the most significant figures in the world of shinty in the 20th century. A man of immaculate appearance, diligence and excellence in all that he touched, he left his mark on the world of education through a 33-year teaching career in three schools in Inverness. He died last Saturday in hospital in Inverness aged 84, having bravely borne a long illness.

The late Jack Richmond said on the occasion in 1992 of the BBC marking the retirement of one if its most distinctive Scottish voices and personalities: “A voice is not very much without substance behind it”. As ever, Jack’s way with words captured the man with an unmatched succinctness.

John Willie, as he was universally known, was born and brought up in Skye (Edinbane, then Clachamish near Bernisdale), where he received his first education. He reckoned that Clachamish was the first-ever shinty Academy, producing, as it did, some remarkable exponents of the caman.

From the local school he went to Portree High School and then, after two years’ National Service in the RAF in the mid to late 50s where he was part of the Mountain ­Rescue team, he went on to complete his BSc degree at University in Glasgow where he played shinty with distinction, winning Littlejohn Vase medals, the Southern League title and was awarded a Blue.

After graduation in 1961, a 33-year long career in teaching in Inverness followed, including marriage to Margaret on 25 July 1963. He taught at Inverness Royal Academy from 1961 to 1967; Millburn Academy from 1967 to 1969; then Crown Primary School where he was Deputy Head from 1969 to 1972 and in Millburn, he was Assistant Rector from 1972 to 1994. An active retirement in Gorthleck saw him serve for a number of years on his local community council as well as being a ­Justice of the Peace and ­Honorary Sheriff.

I met him first as Assistant Rector at Millburn with his great friends, the then Rector Willie Weatherspoon, and assistant rector Colin Baillie, as a probationer teacher. Being the Gaelic teacher and a shinty player (at that time), I was well looked after by the time-tabling master. We had shinty at lunch-times, evenings and weekends, till a ban on extra-curricular activity stopped all that. Before then, in the 1970s, he and Donnie Grant had coached hundreds of children in Inverness in the finer arts of the game.

He also contributed to the game’s history through written accounts of the Lochcarron, Inverness and Strathglass clubs and other work with the late Hugh Barron.

However, it is as a broadcaster he will be most widely and fondly remembered having reported and commentated on the playing side of the game for the BBC from 1968 to 1991, including the day Skye Camanachd won the Camanachd Cup in Fort William in 1990. It was his finest hour.

“I was very emotional during that broadcast,” he confessed, “but maybe that’s no bad thing.” It was a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled. He had, over the years, worked with many of the greats on the microphone: Douglas Lowe (Snr), Jock Brown, David Begg, Alister Alexander and a young Derek Rae, before he handed the baton over to me.

He himself provided results for BBC Scotland, BBC Highland and Gaelic radio and television throughout that time, as well as writing for national newspapers such as the Scotsman and Sunday Post, and a huge range of local newspapers such as the Press and Journal, Highland News, and West Highland Free Press.

John Willie had a wry Highland/island sense of humour. Funny in his own quiet way, sharp, erudite and sincere. He had but one joke, however, he told at dinners and repeated to anyone who would listen. Its short form was that he was once missing a score for his broadcast and the deadline for broadcast loomed. He phoned a woman in Wester Ross (probably a player’s mother) to enquire about the result. “I am sorry,” he was told, “I don’t have the score. But if you listen to the radio at half past five, John Willie will have them all.”

He has left a record of the game which is incomparable in the form of results of matches and competitions which is held in the Highland Archive in Inverness. He became known as “shinty’s Bill McLaren” and the Voice of Shinty through his distinctive presentation and delivery on radio. He was a man who placed his family and his faith above all else and will be sorely missed, one of the most distinguished servants of the sport and heritage of the Highlands, ever.

As the current Association President Keith Loades said: “John Willie Campbell served the game in every capacity from his boyhood as a player in Skye, through university to the full range of administrative duties and responsibilities imaginable. He will be remembered as a distinguished president who navigated stormy waters in the 1980s and faced many challenges with a calm and dignified manner throughout. He was never happier than on the day Skye Camanachd won the Camanachd Cup in 1990.

“Beyond the confines of the shinty communities, John Willie was, also, one of the best-known voices in Scottish broadcasting. Many people knew little of shinty itself but were regular devotees of his results reporting on BBC Scotland of a Saturday evening and on BBC Highland and Gaelic radio and television from 1968 to 1991. The Camanachd Association and shinty in general will be forever in his debt and his passing marks the end of an era and a contribution to our sport and heritage which is unlikely to be matched. Fois is sìth dha.”

John Willie mentored me as a teacher, taught me a huge amount about organisation which came naturally to him, and attention to detail. I don’t think I have ever met a more modest, caring and patient man whose stoicism and ­fortitude when meeting his final challenges were unimaginable.

The sympathy of the whole shinty community, throughout the world, is extended to his wife Margaret in Gorthleck, Stratherrick, his older sister Mairi in Australia, his son Donald in Edinburgh and daughter Shona in Inverness, his five grandchildren, Eilidh, Rory and Peter (Shona’s) and Hannah and Catherine (Donald’s) as well as the extended family and friends in Skye and elsewhere.

John Willie Campbell’s funeral will be held noon on Friday 28 December 2018 at Greyfriars Free Church, Balloan Road, Inverness. Thereafter to Dores Cemetery and Kingsmills Hotel, Inverness.

Dr Hugh Dan MacLennan