Obituary: Paul Galbraith, decorated paratrooper and seaman who wrote up his wartime adventures in Gaelic

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Born: 28 June, 1923, on Barra. Died: 3 December, 2011, in Morar, aged 88.

Hours ahead of the main D-Day assault on the Normandy beaches during the Second World War, Paul Galbraith was one of the advance party slipping behind enemy lines on board a fleet of gliders.

At the tender age of 20, he was a paratrooper with the crack 6th Airborne Division on a mission to drop into enemy territory in France before daybreak to secure the eastern flank.

But the top secret operation almost proved fatal for the brave young Gael. His glider was fired upon by the Germans on its approach and he was one of only eight in his group who managed to bail out and open their chutes before the aircraft crashed, killing all those left aboard.

He went on to complete the mission, one among many, was mentioned in despatches for his role in Normandy, and later enjoyed a career as merchant seaman and author, writing in Gaelic of his wartime experiences with the division.

The son of a merchant seaman and crofter, he was born at Eoligarry on Barra, where he spent an idyllic childhood with his six brothers and sisters, helped on the croft and watched the boats and fisherman in the Minch plying their trade.

He was educated initially at Glenfinnan, where his aunt was the schoolmistress, before going to secondary school in Fort William. He began further study in Glasgow but gave it up to enlist, having witnessed queues of other young men doing the same. He had been a member of the Home Guard before joining the army, where he found himself in the elite 6th airborne division as a radio operator.

After seeing action in Normandy in June 1944, he was involved in the Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine before making up another advance party, this time going through northern Germany, to Schwerin and Wismar on the Baltic.

When the Second World War ended, he was moved with the Paras to Palestine, as part of a peacekeeping force, until 1947 when they were disbanded just before the termination of the British Mandate and the declaration of the independent state of Israel.

Back in Scotland, Galbraith, who had several medals to his name including one presented latterly by the mayor of Caen inNormandy, joined the Merchant Navy as a radio officer. He worked initially for Marconi on a variety of vessels, including ocean-going salvage tugs and tankers, before taking a job with the British & Commonwealth Shipping Company’s Clan and Union Castle Lines.

In the early 1950s he met and married his wife, Mary, a teacher from Bracora, Morar, with whom he had two sons.

A man with an ability to express himself beautifully, he regularly sent his boys letters and postcards from ports around the world, his way with words painting fascinating pictures of the exotic destinations he visited and the things he witnessed there.

Over the years, his writing eventually reached a wider audience through articles, short stories and books in Gaelic and English. He also made appearances on radio and television.

He and his wife had been living in Newton Stewart while she was teaching there, but they retired to her old family home at Morar in the 1980s.

He took up writing again, becoming a regular correspondent for the Oban Times as he campaigned for the communities of Morar and Mallaig.

Galbraith fought for the upgrade of the Fort William to Mallaig road and took an active interest in the Fisherman’s Mission and the Mallaig Heritage Centre.

He had a fund of facts on Lochaber and Highland life and was the first person people turned to for information on local history. He also kept a watchful eye on events in his birthplace and the surrounding islands and his book covering his wartime experiences included his childhood on Barra.

Air Druim an Eich Sgiathaich – On The Back of the Winged Horse – was published in 1987 and won the top award for literature at the National Mod in 1988.

The tales of his adventures at sea later became a collection of stories, titled Turas Thar Chuan, or Voyage Overseas, published in 1989, the same year that his book Morar Bheannaichte or Blessed Morar, appeared in print.

It was the history of the local community and St Cumin’s Church in Morar, which he attended and in which his christening, marriage and funeral services were held.

In retirement, he spent many years caring devotedly for his wife before her death in 2007. His determination, as her health declined, to ensure that she was as comfortable as possible was a reflection of the man who had not only displayed valour in war but who also had the moral strength to face up to myriad challenges with acute resolve, a deep sense of purpose and abiding sense of humour.

Paul Galbraith is survived by his sons, Sandy and Donald James and their families, and his sister Peggy.

Alison Shaw