Scotsman Obituaries: Ronnie Campbell, Highland crofter and passionate Gael

Ronnie Campbell, crofter. Born: 24 July 1931. Died: 10 January 2022, aged 90

Ronnie at Cille Choirill church, overlooking Glen Spean

The death of “Ronnie the Crofter” aged 90 marks the end of an era for a traditional way of life in the Highlands. He was born in Bohuntin, Glen Roy and worked his croft until aged 88. He was a passionate Gael and the last speaker of the traditional vernacular Gaelic in the Braes of Lochaber. The famous glacial Parallel Roads of Victorian Geology were Ronnie’s natural habitat with sheep, cattle and deer. He continued the centuries old oral tradition of storytelling, music and local history throughout his life.

He was a pluralist who became the focal point for the expatriate diaspora whose families had left the Braes of Lochaber for the New World in Canada, America and Australia following the Highland Clearances. He had an amazing clarity of recall which combined with a sense of humour and fun made him an entertaining storyteller and companion. He was a good dancer and traditional singer which made him popular at traditional ceilidhs in Roy Bridge village hall, but also in Cape Breton and Australia.

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He was born less than 200 years after the Battle of Culloden and inherited the folk memory of the subsequent sufferings of the indigenous population of his glen. He was brought up in a time when there were many more people in the glen, where locals would spontaneously gather for a ceilidh to tell stories of the past, argue about their genealogy, discuss politics, gossip about the glen, make music and sing. Much of this disappeared with TV, but Ronnie had been interviewed on TV talking about the Glen. Ronnie could take visitors exploring their roots to the remains of stone houses to give life to their family histories and clearance from their land. The reformation never reached the Braes of Lochaber and the Clan MacDonald of Keppoch had backed Bonnie Prince Charlie in his bid to restore the Jacobite Stewart heir to the throne in London before his defeat at Culloden in 1746.

The values instilled in his upbringing, which emphasized a demand for social justice and an obligation to support the vulnerable and marginalized fuelled his forays into politics. He was passionate opponent of what he saw as the continued exploitation of the Highlands and its people by greedy, powerful and wealthy interests and the government agencies which enabled them. He became well known as a crofting activist and land reform enthusiast, who served a term as chair of the Crofters Union. To further these aims he even stood as a candidate in both the Westminster and Holyrood elections at the remarkable age of 85.

Sadly, neither institution was graced with his dress code of a woolly hat and downturned wellies covered in cow dung, to make his points eloquently on behalf of his Crofting Party

Ronald Joseph Campbell was born on the croft in Bohuntin in 1931. He was the second eldest of eight siblings and could trace his lineage back 500 years. His mother was a MacDonald from the tenant farm beside Old Inverlochy Castle in Fort William, which had been built in 1280 and was the site of famous battles. His father’s singing had been recorded by the School of Scottish Studies and Ronnie inherited that skill.

His father was a Campbell in Glen Roy, full of MacDonalds. Campbells and MacDonalds had traditionally been a difficult mix since the Massacre of Glen Coe in 1692, so Ronnie searched for an explanation for Campbells in a MacDonald Glen. His Dalmally Campbell ancestor had been invited to be the piper for the Keppoch MacDonald. In those days Pipers and Poets were important in the clan system and they could transfer teams like a modern footballer.

He was a child during World War 2 and his education did not go beyond Roy Bridge Primary and Fort William High School. However, he was a very intelligent man who became wise through nature and the Highland oral tradition. The outdoor life made him extremely fit for 9 decades. He played badminton and was fine hill runner, but his real sporting passion was Shinty. His lifetime love of this traditional Highland game spanned the entire period of the modern game. He was brave, fast, wily and agile with an innate tactical awareness to read a game. He was captain of the Lochaber Camanachd team which won the Sutherland Cup in 1965 and every other junior honour over a three-year campaign. He was a great motivator in later years for the second team delighted to pass on his skills to the developing young players.

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In agricultural circles he ran the sheep stock club and was a champion shearer. He was very proud of being one of the last men to drive a flock of sheep back to Lochaber from Badenoch in the traditional manner in 1949 and was interviewed by Roy Bridge primary school aged 82 on the video channel with absolute clarity. He delighted in passing on his crofting skills to younger people. At the age of 86 he was passionate about his new bull Euphrates from Aberdeenshire and his potential blood line via his son Tigres. Ronnie had observed that Euphrates ate bracken which is normally toxic to cows. Bracken is the invasive species which harbours ticks and Ronnie could see a great future in this blood line to reduce Louping Ill in sheep and improving croft land naturally.

Ronnie was a devout adherent to the ancient Catholic faith of the Brae Lochaber Glens. Two uncles had been archbishops of Glasgow and his MacDonald grandmother was a close relation to Saint Mary MacKillop the first Australian Saint. Ronnie became a great resource for those who flocked to the area to trace her origins and he travelled to Australia and Rome to take part in the Canonization ceremonies where he presented the Pope with a Highland crook (Cromag).

He also played a key role in the preservation of the ancient Cille Choirrill church which stands on a hill overlooking Glen Spean, and where he is now buried.

Ronnie never married but explained in his quiet West Highland lilt, “Those who were desirable, were not available, and those who were available, were not desirable”

His 11-year-old nephew Corin came to Bohuntin into the care of his aunts when his mother died, and his father Angus was widowed. Ronnie aged 67 knew instinctively that the croft would be a healing and distracting environment in such tragic circumstance and took him to the hill to learn about nature and stories.

His non-judgmental view of his fellow humans, down on their fortunes, helped many people locally in kind and deed. He lived his faith practically and had no interest in possessions or position.

Sadly, his final years on the croft caused him heartache when he came up against modern bureaucracy. He was not very good at filling in animal tracing forms and his sheep and beasts became unsaleable. Young professionals, with no experience of crofting, came with clip boards to judge him. He had nursed sheep through Louping Ill and identified significant blood lines in cattle and sheep over 70 years, but the “Department knows best”.

His last year was in a nursing home during Covid. However, his final hours were marked by a Gaelic song and the Last Rites at his bedside from Fr Danny, in the company of his sisters Sally and Ishbel, and his godson, Kenny.

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