Simon Mackenzie

Actor and Gaelic activist

Born: 4 December, 1949, in Leverborough.

Died: April, 2008, in Clynder, Dunbartonshire, aged 58.

THE death at 58 of the Gaelic activist Simon Mackenzie has brought considerable distress throughout much of the Gaelic community in Scotland and abroad, with many claiming he was one of the finest activists of his era.

His close friend the former cabinet minister Brian Wilson has even gone so far as to say that nobody else has made a greater contribution to the language and culture's furtherance during recent decades.

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Mackenzie, primarily known by the public for his role in the Gaelic soap opera Machair (in which he played the college principle between 1993 and 1998) was greatly respected among his fellow Gaels as an activist who practised myriad Gaelic art disciplines over a 30-year career.

He had a reputation of being extremely focused and very enthusiastic in work projects, yet relaxed and entertaining when off duty.

He had been born to a relatively wealthy family in the outer Hebrides, in Harris. The family farmed several small islands, mostly sheep and cattle, but from an early age Simon, or Sheem as his Gaelic abbreviation would have it, made it plain that he was more interested in the arts.

Schooling at Inverness was followed by a degree in Celtic studies at Aberdeen, after which he joined the BBC in Glasgow, working primarily as a news broadcaster and journalist under the late Fred MacAulay

However, his chief focus was always the Gaelic arts and after a period studying acting in Bristol he was to return to the Gaelic homelands to be involved in so many projects that he would later laughingly admit he was sometimes surprised to see himself suddenly appearing in a Gaelic film or video when it would be aired on television years later.

Soon, he seemed to be part of virtually every new initiative, with directors and producers keen to include a man who was talented and reliable and, as one commentator put it, his contribution became an important milestone on every journey in the revival.

He was everywhere. Films, videos, lecturing, story-telling, theatre, singing, writing plays, visiting schools.

A left-winger, he was a keen supporter of socialist playwright John MacGrath and was to tour Russia with MacGrath's 7:84 theatre company for many years, providing, with his close friend Dolina Maclellan, a strong Gaelic flavour to the company.

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Once home, he was to become involved with the initiatives to bring Gaelic into schools and for nine years travelled the length and breadth of the Highlands promoting drama, on more than one occasion putting on plays in school playgrounds.

Although part of the new movement in Gaelic working with the theatre and films, he was also respected among the old school and could be found as a quietly thoughtful adjudicator at various Mod festivals, where, owning no kilt, he would sport immaculate Harris tweed suits, carrying himself like the traditional, highly dignified Highland gentleman that he was.

Hours later, working in an open neck shirt with the modernists, he might be backing initiatives to launch a national theatre for the Gaels or fronting a six-part Gaelic series on his fascination with French wines.

He had a particular fondness for education and was enthusiastic about the Feisean movement in which Highland children will meet for short residential courses under the tutelage of renowned singers, actors, dancers and musicians.

In the evenings he would loosen up, particularly with close friends, and had a reputation for telling, with a wink, amazing stories that would both captivate and inspire.

Perhaps inevitably he became involved in the multi-million pound Gaelic College at Sal mor Ostaig in southern Skye, where he became a senior tutor. One of its chief instigators, Sir Iain Noble, was one of the many who visited him in hospital during his last days, an indication of the breadth of support this radical Gael had throughout the whole of the Highland community.

Iain Noble is known for once having observed that although the prognosis for Gaelic is bad, one should never visit an ill friend who has been told that his condition is terminal and not encourage him to fight to the end. And so it should be with Gaelic.

Simon Mackenzie lived his life according to that creed, struggling feverishly against all odds to save the culture he loved with an all-consuming passion. One of his favourite songs tells of a sailor watching the outer isles go by and thinking of the land of his boyhood and how much he loved it

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He is survived by his long-term partner, Charlie Curran, and his father, sister and two brothers.