Published: 27/01/2017 17:00 - Updated: 27/01/2017 10:58

John Macdonald,Bettyhill and Brora

John Macdonald holding the book An Trusadh, which he wrote with Bob Chambers.
John Macdonald holding the book An Trusadh, which he wrote with Bob Chambers.

When John Macdonald arrived in Bettyhill in 1963 with his wife, Mary, and their two young children, Helen and Gordon, a great sea-change was in the offing in Scottish education.

It included the demise of the old 11-plus system, the raising of the school leaving age to 16 and the advent of comprehensive schools.

It quickly became apparent to John that the scheme for implementation devised by Sutherland County Council’s education committee, which involved centralisation of the main elements of this on the east coast, would lead to the decimation, if not the disappearance, of schools such as Farr Junior Secondary to which he had just been appointed as depute head. 

A man of John’s nature was not going to take that lying down and, with the support of the school’s four full time teachers, including the HT, Donald Macleod, he embarked on a determined campaign to secure four-year status for Farr together with the right to deliver education to SCE O Grade standard in Bettyhill. 

This was met with considerable resistance from the educational establishment but the notion galvanised the local community which, for the first time since 1900, was actually growing thanks to the employment opportunities on offer with UKAEA at Dounreay, the expansion of the Forestry Commission throughout the parishes of Farr and Tongue, and the Highland-wide operations of the Bettyhill based firm of J&GB Mackay. 

A local support group, chaired by George (Belzie) Mackay with the Church of Scotland minister, Andrew Howe, and the Free Church minister as secretary joined the fray and was eventually able to present to the council, together John’s fully reasoned case, a petition signed by virtually every parent and ratepayer in the two north coast parishes.

This, along with support from all four candidates in the 1966 election, tipped the balance in Bettyhill’s favour and the rest is, as they say, history.

On arrival at Farr, John did not launch in to the battle described above immediately but, having spent much of his youth at the lobsters, together with trolling for mackerel and saithe in the fertile waters of Loch Hamnaway, saw a way in which he could use his knowledge of small boats and carpentry to do something useful not just for his pupils but potentially for the wider community. 

In addition to ensuring that both girls and boys had access to technical education, something very rare in those days, he introduced a vocational course in boatbuilding for his 15-year-old pupils which would, he hoped, lead to the establishment of a small local industry. 

In so doing he won the support not only of the Scottish Education Department but of the Scottish Country Industries Development Board which initially provided finance, and the advice of a professional boatbuilder, for the project. 

Alas, the functions of the SCIDB were then taken over by the nascent HIDB which did not look quite as favourably on John’s venture and, although one wonderful rowing boat was produced by Farr pupils, the project went no further.

The abandonment of his idea did not go down well and the North West Council of Social Service wrote a letter of protest on its behalf.  They ran their missive past John who, ever one to call a spade a spade, pronounced it to be “not nearly vehement enough”.

In November 1973 John was appointed as head teacher at Brora High School, then a two year secondary with a primary department. 

There he made his presence felt where his passionate nature was quickly recognised among his HT colleagues both on the east coast and in the wider canvas provided by the Highland Head Teachers Association after the implementation of Regionalisation in 1975.

As in everywhere he went, he threw himself into community activities, being a founding member of the East Sutherland Canoe Club and the East Sutherland Sailing Club as well as chairing the East Sutherland Rotary Club and the Brighter Brora Committee. 

He spent a lot of time on committee work, both in his job and in his private life. On one occasion, when en route to Brora from Inverness after a meeting to which he had been accompanied by an equally loquacious – though much less vehement – colleague, the two found themselves stuck in a snow drift on the Struie where they remained much of the night. 

When this news reached the north coast it caused a fair degree of amusement in Farr High School as those who knew both individuals reflected on what long words, what convoluted sentences and what abstruse arguments would have reverberated inside the car as the storm howled round them. I asked John about it later and he said that the night passed quickly!

John’s own education had been, from today’s perspective, a rather peculiar amalgam.  He was born on June 14, 1929, at Mangersta in Lewis, second of the five children of Iain and Janet Macdonald (an older brother died within hours of birth) and brought up at Aird Bheag, a tiny crofting settlement on the shores of Loch Hamnaway.

Access to Aird Bheag could only be gained by sea or by a lengthy trek over hilly moorland so, aged six, John left home for the first time to stay with his grandparents and start his primary education at Mangersta. 

Two years later his sister Chrissie joined him there but, the following year, when their younger sister, Peggy, was four, the house at Aird Bheag was designated as a side school and a “pupil teacher”, aged 16, was despatched there to deliver the rudiments of education. 

This kind of arrangement was not uncommon at the time and, as the teacher was replaced by another one every year, it contained a bit of variety and worked amazingly well. 

John went back to Mangersta for his final year in primary and, on passing the 11-plus, or “quali” as it was known, took his father’s advice to move on to the Nicholson Institute in Stornoway. 

He felt the separation this entailed much more keenly than he had his years with his grandparents and the experience of hostel life certainly coloured his view of boarding school and influenced his thinking on that form of education, then widely practised in the Highlands and Islands, for the rest of his life.

Despite his unhappiness, he did well at the Institute and, in 1947, his next move was to the Teacher Training College Aberdeen where, after three years study, he gained a Diploma in Technical Education.

In the Granite City, he met Mary Mitchell from Fraserburgh, a student at the university, who became the love of his life and whom he married in 1955. 

Prior to his marriage he had undergone two years National Service in the Royal Army Education Corps from 1950-52 and was three years into his first teaching job at Prestonpans Lodge High School in East Lothian where the young couple made their first home. 

However, the pull of remoter places was strong for both of them and in 1956 they moved to Glencoe where John took up the post of sole technical teacher at Kinlochleven School, an establishment not unlike Farr and where he found further time to reflect on rural education. 

He retired from Brora High School in October 1990 but stayed on in Brora enjoying Mary’s company and continuing with his many community activities while keeping his house and grounds in immaculate condition. 

His garage, just like his various technical rooms, was a model of good organisation with a place for everything and everything firmly in its place. 

Sadly, Mary became unwell and, in 2008, the devoted couple moved to Inverness in order to be nearer to their children and to the medical services of the Highland capital. 

Mary passed away in 2012 and John missed her sorely but soldiered on and, in 2013, with the help of PhD student, Bob Chambers, produced An Trusadh, a 97 page monogram on crofting life in Aird Bheag. 

The closing years of his life were spent in sheltered housing but, in October 2106, the incipient dementia from which he suffered strengthened its relentless hold and he was transferred to the excellent care of Isobel Fraser’s residential home in Inverness where he died early on Christmas Day. 

Ever the wordsmith in English, John had an ambivalent attitude to Gaelic and did not pass it on to his children, even though he was every bit as proficient in it as he was in the Beurla. 

In his final hours his English failed him but he continued to communicate with his carers through the Gaelic so that his last words, like his first, were in his native tongue.

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