Our Sleeping Giant
Updated: Sep 18
It was 1980. There were three ferries a week, fresh milk was rare, UHT milk was the norm and you could get fuel in any one of three places. Both hotels, The Lodge and The Scarinish, served frozen food for bar meals and one set 3-course meal for residents with a choice of take it or leave it. Lottie Dobson, the owner, cooked for the Lodge, random staff cooked for the Scarinish. The former had the edge; Lottie was most definitely the better cook, I think, with no disrespect to Scarinish cooks. Especially since I was one of them. I had barely boiled an egg before being told by Ian, the owner, that I was to be ‘cooking’ for residents. On my first evening shift I recall trying to force stiff custard off my ladle onto the plate, only to watch it fly across the kitchen and land on the wall, where it remained for the duration.
Breakfast was by far the best meal. Janice Monaghan did the Scarinish breakfasts and Tina MacArthur did the Lodge’s. There was nothing between them; both were excellent. Aside from those eateries, you had Audrey and Jack Carters’ and their dogs, and no-where else. The Glassery followed a few years later and is now occupied by Ceabhar.
From memory, the general shops were Browns in Balemartine, the Co-op in Scarinish, and MacLeods at Crossapol. Mona had a gift shop in Scarinish, as did The Glebe. There was a garage at Crossapol, and Harold was at the Camp. You got agricultural supplies from The Crofters at the pier, across from the Hydro shop (now Yellow Hare). There were four post offices dotted around the island.
Johnny N’onion and Willy MacPhee held court in The Scarinish when visitors appeared and other known characters of the time were The Twins, Tiree Kate, The Bosun, George Goudie and Jim Dubh, all for differing reasons. Higher up the social scale were The Dooley, Ernie and Dote, Hector Good, PC, and Doodan, to name but a few. Three churches held regular services; Heylipol, Kirkapol and Baugh. It was acceptable to hang washing on a Sunday, even then. The Bakery, owned by Gavin Carter, was always in demand,
Dances were at the then smaller village hall, now An Talla. Unlicensed, you went out periodically to someone’s car for a drink, followed by others. A bit like one may do now with smokers in a bar. The chaser was the lager or beer you took to dilute the taste of the straight vodka, whisky, Bacardi, or whatever other spirit you had to swallow straight from the bottle because there were no glasses or mixers. I tell you; you don’t know you’re living. Life was tough back then.
It was a time when we all thought we knew everyone on the island. It wasn’t true, of course, as much as we believe it to be; I found this out recently at Yellow Hare; so many families who have either been here or have holidayed for decades, quietly, unknown. It is certainly true that you knew who was on the approach by the sound of their vehicle. A certain whirr or purr or irregular clink of a wheel trim or exhaust; every vehicle had a unique sound.
It was commonplace then, as it is now, to be kept in your place. Never to get too big for your boots. It’s fine to do well, but no need to brag about it. Bragging has never been encouraged in Scotland. Perhaps it’s somehow connected to the deadly sin of vanity or the church’s call for humility. One must never be over confident – or, well, even confident. To declare yourself good at something, for example. That would be considered over-confidence in my parent’s day, to be shunned and slapped down. And the deeper you venture into The Hebrides, the more entrenched this is. Humility and modesty are common threads in the tapestry of prominence on Tiree. You will do well to do well without saying so.
Despite any hint of cynicism you may detect here, I am actually in awe of, and often saddened by, many great people whose greatness went undetected until they were gone and it was narrated at their funeral. Why must we wait until people are no longer with us to hear how incredible they truly were, of the contribution they made, and how highly they were thought of?
Most of us here will learn more about one such person in the coming weeks and months. A resident of Tiree for 60 years, he epitomised modesty and humility. And I knew him best during the times all of the things in the first part of this narrative were happening. By the time I came to Tiree he had been here for more than 15 years and wasn’t anyone special. Sure, he was ‘okay’, but that was it. We all knew him, and a little of his history, but there was nothing incredible about him. He had taught a bit at the school and then stopped. He lived alone. He played in the pipe band and also at ceilidhs. He was liked by those who knew him and left to himself by those who didn’t. Even those who knew him fairly well liked him in a sort of benign way, back then. He was mostly quiet, unassuming, sensible, clever. Never raucous, or contentious or loud or anything that would make him stand out from the crowd, he loved a ceilidh and would contentedly chat and joke all evening with those who mattered to him. He had some very close, lifelong friends.
What he was then, and what he became, and how he will be remembered, perfectly encapsulates the life of a humble man who became great without trying. He was my driving instructor for close to two years. We would go out in the evenings, to the old airport runway, now in ruins. And from there to the road. His patience and calm were perfect for the task. He taught many of us without charge. Bernie Smith and I passed our test on the same day in the same Ford van, and all for the price of a bottle of malt. To do that now would be to feel one was taking advantage, but it didn’t seem like that then. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
He taught children to play the accordion and was known for his patience and skill. He did this for years, quietly enthusing young musicians who grew to be good and went on to make their mark around the globe whilst he remained contentedly on Tiree, teaching the next batch.
He did it without fuss or fanfare, quietly and happily, and without seeking recognition – indeed, he frequently played down any notion that he may have contributed fundamentally towards an individual’s skill, when in truth many would not be where they are today without him. He is revered and respected by everyone who knew him and particularly by everyone who was taught by him. He is one of life’s giants who towers above us without lifting his head. Without uttering a word. Without playing a tune.
And that, folks, is how a humble man becomes great without trying, or meaning to, or wanting to. And why most of us have not got a hope in hell of following in his footsteps. His name was Gordon Connell, he died a week ago, and I didn’t know him as well as most but spent enough time in his company to chew the fat over a glass, and will remember him fondly forever more.