THE community of Coldbackie lost a real character when the last remaining native crofter passed away on 19th December, 2011, at the grand old age of 90 and it is to the words in the hymn "Will Your Anchor Hold" that we said farewell to Johnny Macleod on 22nd December, 2011, at his funeral service in Tongue Church.
Johnny was born in the little community of Slettel about two miles along a rough hill track beyond Scullomie, one of six children of Christopher and Christina, and for most of his life had a strong association with the sea as a fisherman and a sailor.
There was no school in Slettel, so in 1927 the family moved to a little croft in Scullomie so that the children could attend school in Rhitongue — a walk of about three miles each way — and no matter how severe the weather was, and we all know it can be pretty wild along the north coast, they seldom failed to reach it on time.
Such hardship, and working on the croft and helping his father on his lobster boat moored in the Scullomie pier, taught Johnny to tackle whatever problem he was confronted with.
Only a few years ago when, in jest, I told him he was no longer fit to be cutting peats he replied that old soldiers never die, they simply fade away! This was his attitude well into his eighties when he still loved to attend to his croft and sheep and go out in a boat to fish for lobsters.
Having been born on the sea edge it was no surprise that at the age of 19, in 1940, he joined the Royal Navy shortly after the outbreak of the second World War and experienced war around our shores, out in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean, serving on destroyers and minesweepers.
He had an excellent memory and it was delightful to listen to some of his experiences when he would quote the names of his fellow sailors and the many ports he visited as if it was yesterday.
I recall a story he told me about a port call his ship made in Morocco when their cook "a Grimbsy fellow" discovered a market for tea, a much sought after commodity in Morocco, in exchange for cigarettes and dates. The tea was lowered down in a big tin to the locals who hovered around the ship in their boats and in turn they sent up the cigarettes.
This went on for several days until the cook used up all the tea he could get hold of. To be able to continue his lucrative trade he resolved to empty all the used tea leaves and dry them before putting them in the tin and covering them over with a sprinkling of good tea leaves on top.
The locals, happy with their tin of good tea, headed back to shore but within the hour they were back around the ship shouting that they were coming aboard "to cut Johnny’s throat". Johnny was the name Moroccans used for all British sailors and although our Johnny had nothing to do with the scam, he was quite concerned that, if they did get on board, with his name he might have to take the rap! He made sure that every hose on the ship was ready to repel them!
After the surrender at the end of the war, he was engaged in escorting German submarines from around the North Atlantic into Loch Eriboll and I remember going to see them lying helpless in the loch before they were escorted to Londonderry in Northern Ireland prior to being scrapped.
After his demob, and a short spell in the Merchant Navy, he returned to Scullomie and, along with one of his brothers, he played football for Tongue, while two other brothers played for Skerray.
They were all good footballers and for the rest of his life Johnny was a keen follower of the game.
In 1947 he married Hughina Mackay from Borgie who also served in the war in the WRAF and in 1948 they had a son, Alister, who now lives with his wife Margaret in Brora.
They in turn gave Johnny two grandsons, Steven and Martin.
Ina and Johnny, and the young Alister, lived in the Cruden houses in Loyal Terrace, Tongue, before moving to the croft in Coldbackie where Johnny and Ina completed 54 years of happy married life, before Ina died in 2001.
Work in the post-war years was scarce so Johnny was forced to move away and joined the Aberdeen Civil Engineering firm of William Tawse, working for them for 20 years as an excavator and drag-line operator, not an easily acquired skill but one at which he became very accomplished.
He worked on several of the large Hydro Electric schemes and in the Western Isles on
the missile defence ranges being built there and also on the causeway linking Benbecula to South Uist.
He eventually returned home and finished his working days as a machine operator with the local authority.
Johnny Macleod was a popular member of our community as his well attended funeral showed. The funeral service in St Andrews Church, Tongue, was conducted by the Rev Stewart Goudie and afterwards Johnny’s family invited relatives and friends to the Ben Loyal Hotel for refreshments.
Johnny had an infectious enthusiasm for life and for the Highlands and his birth place and we will miss him