Obituary: Rev Roderick MacKinnon, joiner turned cleric and councillor who helped transform life in the Western Isles

Rev Roderick Mackinnon
Rev Roderick Mackinnon
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Reverend Roderick Maclean MacKinnon. Born: 28 March 1928 in Bunavoneader, Harris. Died: 12 January 2019 in Inverness, aged 90

The Reverend Roderick Mackinnon, who has died aged 90, was the last but one of a generation of Gaelic-speaking clerics tasked with rebuilding local government in the Western Isles following the upheaval of mid-1970s reorganisation.

The newly formed council, Comhairle nan Eilean, faced an uphill battle to ensure redistribution of services across 150 miles from Lewis south to Vatersay, after decades of perceived neglect by mainland administrations.

All the islands, except Lewis, had been run by Inverness County Council, on which sat lairds who owned vast swathes of Inverness-shire, in some cases stretching from coast to coast, and who were seen as not unduly concerned about daily life out on the Atlantic fringes. MacKinnon, then a parish minister in South Uist, became chairman of the Social Work Committee and vigorously applied himself to bring about improvement in the level of services people were entitled to expect.

The momentum became unstoppable as the council, led by an eclectic mix of ministers and priests, defied the odds and put in place an infrastructure of which previous generations could only have dreamt. This set the tone for the inter-island causeways that are now commonplace, bringing islands and their people closer to each other.

Those early years gained the council a reputation for vision far outwith the islands and two of its leading figures, Roy MacIver and the late Douglas Sinclair, would later become Chief Executive of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Roderick Maclean MacKinnon was born in the tiny Harris village of Bunavoneader, where the business magnate Lord Leverhulme owned a whaling station in the 1920s. With the whaling station in decline and the war years taking their toll, it was not unusual for young folk to head for the mainland.

MacKinnon ended up in the Ross-shire capital, Dingwall, where his political instincts were honed on the town council in the mid-1950s. He was by then a time-served joiner, a trade that would serve his congregations well in later years.

As the years went by the call of the pulpit became too strong to resist, and after a period as a lay missionary in Tiree, he embarked on a theology degree at Glasgow University, finishing in 1968.

Later that year, at the age of 40, he was ordained and inducted to Daliburgh parish, South Uist.

The call of politics was also strong and he became a member of the Western Isles Council at its inception, serving for six years until called to Kilmuir Easter and Logie Easter, near Tain, in 1981. It was no surprise that he immersed himself in community affairs in his new parish, having quickly sensed what was required to make it a better place to live.

During those years he combined his pastoral duties with service on numerous bodies, among them the North of Scotland Electricity Consultative Council, Ross-shire Health Council, the BBC’s Religious Advisory Committee and Highland Blindcraft. He was for years a member of the Kirk’s General Trustees until disqualified by age, having reached 75.

He retired from his parish in 1995, but not from active ministry. He provided a locum service to more than a dozen vacant congregations throughout the north for many years afterwards.

Such was the esteem in which he was held in the islands that he was sounded out about a return to his former parish in South Uist, but at the age of 60 he was well settled on the mainland.

A council colleague from the 1970s, Rev Dr Roderick Macleod, paid tribute to MacKinnon’s passion for helping fellow islanders. “The southern isles at that time had nowhere near the level of facilities that existed in Lewis, because they’d been run by different local authorities,” said Dr Macleod, who chaired the Finance Committee.

“Roddie worked extremely hard to rectify that and to lay the groundwork for improvements that were to transform people’s lives over the years. He was particularly aware of the need to upgrade transport links between the islands, links that are now of a very high standard. He was a very capable man who got through a lot of work on the council.”

MacKinnon married, in 1968, Margaret Robertson from Caithness, who survives him along with children Rhona and John and three grandchildren. He was predeceased by his twin brother, Murdo, in 1986.

The well-attended funeral service was held in Castle Street Church, Dingwall, where he was an elder in his early twenties. The funeral took place next to the renowned Luskentyre sands in his native Harris.

PETER MACAULAY