STORMS battered the island of Tiree and the scheduled ferry was unable to call, as Robert Beck, the island’s much-respected veterinary surgeon from 1959 to 1974, passed away peacefully in mid-December after a short illness.
His passing was keenly felt in the community, as was evident in the cortège which extended from Kirkapol Cemetery to the west end of Gott Bay. Across the bay, looking on, stood the strong, white walls of erstwhile Tigh a’ Bhet, (the vet’s house), the former Church of Scotland manse where Robert, Shena and their family made their home when Robert was in practice. Tiree Pipe Band awaited the cortège and led the procession, as the island paid its last respects to a ruggedly original man who had played a major part in developing its agricultural and musical traditions.
Born in 1926 in Kilwinning, Robert was educated at Irvine Royal Academy and Glasgow Veterinary School, achieving his MRCVS in 1950 – Glasgow later awarded him its BVMS – and meeting his future wife, Shena Calder, an outstanding first-year veterinary student who transferred to Agricultural College. He practised in Penzance, the Isle of Wight, Cockermouth, Kirkcudbright and Auchinleck, before settling in the Inner Hebridean island of Tiree, as vet for both Tiree and Coll. The self-contained nature of Tiree gave Robert (“Mr Beck”) an ideal opportunity to rule his own roost.
His fundamental aim was not merely to attend to sick animals, but essentially to improve the island’s stock-rearing capability and the quality of its stock. This he did with great professionalism and a stubborn pride devoid of any pomp. He was a first-rate diagnostician. For him the most important matter was finding the cause and cure for any ailment. As chairman of the agricultural sub-committee of Tiree Council of Social Services and with the backing of the community, he undertook a rigorous inoculation programme from the mid-1960s, which made Tiree the first brucellosis-free area in the UK, and, by his own reckoning, the first in the world.
Robert served Tiree devotedly, responding instantly to calls for assistance, and arriving minutes later in his blue Land Rover, his curly red forelock leaping vigorously as he set about his task. His skill as a diagnostician was complemented by an uncanny ability to communicate with a frightened animal, calming it with soothing words. While treating an animal, he would explain what he was doing, and why. Duties small and large, from routine injections to major operations, were carried out with the same direct, forceful, but unfailingly kind professionalism.
His manner with animals sometimes contradicted his approach to humans. The former did not talk back, though the latter occasionally did. He was fond of an argument, and would hold his own to the end. A visit from the vet was a lively affair, as Robert challenged commonly held views, often in matters political. He laid down his life’s precepts in his boyhood, and did not deviate from them. He was a devoted Scottish Nationalist and a patriot when it was extremely unpopular in Scotland to hold such opinions. He rejoiced in the creation of a Scottish Parliament and the growth of support for the Scottish National Party. One of his last highlights was a visit to Holyrood as the guest of Michael Matheson, MSP for Falkirk West, when he was able to meet Nicola Sturgeon and sit in the First Minister’s chair.
Robert knew the meaning of the word “commitment”, whether to his profession or his party. At Auchinleck, he was responsible for the health of the last set of pit ponies in Scotland, and he transferred his affection to their Hebridean counterparts as a founding member of the Association for the Preservation and Development of the Eriskay pony. He kept a couple of Eriskay ponies at Tigh a’ Bhet, and it was not unusual to see Shena or one of their three boys, Robin, Drew or Gavin, riding a pony of a summer evening.
Keeping ponies was close to Robert’s professional interests, but he was also a committed piper, proud of Scotland’s bagpipes and pipe music. He was not long settled in Tiree before he and Alasdair Sinclair, a noted local piper, created the Tiree Piping Society, which later became Tiree Pipe Band, of which he became Pipe Major. He was as rigorous in his leadership of the band as he was in his profession, and there too reaped the highest rewards. The island felt immensely proud when the band was placed second in Grade 4 at the World Pipe Band Championships in Oban in 1967. “World class” was Robert’s standard in piping as in veterinary medicine.
It came as no surprise to Tiree when Robert was appointed to a university lectureship in animal husbandry at the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Medicine, Edinburgh, in 1974. This was indeed just recognition of his practical skills. Although missing the open spaces of Tiree, he found fulfilment in teaching in Edinburgh, where, with Ramsey Borthwick, he established another pipe band, the Royal Dick Pipers. He was also able to engage in research and writing, publishing a book on the Eriskay pony, which is soon to be reprinted.
When setting out his case, Robert was not afraid to challenge received opinions and to create the occasional academic equivalent of a healthy Hebridean storm.
Tiree, however, did not lose Robert Beck. The island was deep in his heart, and, following retirement in 1990, he and Shena returned to Tiree from Peebles in 1994. This time his creative influence was felt in the teaching of the bagpipe to pupils at Tiree High School.
Robert qualified as a piping instructor through the College of Piping, in conjunction with the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming, and produced a stream of fine young Tiree pipers, some of whom played him to his last resting-place at Kirkapol. Along with Gordon Connell, an equally able and devoted accordionist, he generated the flow of music which has given Tiree its annual Music Festival and its well-known bands, pre-eminently Skipinnish and Skerryvore.
Robert was predeceased by his devoted wife Shena, who was his foremost supporter. Her death was a very painful parting. Yet Robert remained strong to the end, and wrote one final letter on his death-bed, thanking the organisers of Tiree Music Festival for dedicating one of their major prizes to him. It was indeed fitting recognition of an unflinchingly loyal, proud, strong-minded and influential man. His contribution to music and to veterinary medicine will long outlast him.
Robert is survived by his sister, Beth, in Canada, and by his sons Robin, Drew and Gavin and their families, to whom we extend our deepest sympathy.