Shinty and soldiering for Shiel’s Alasdair

BY LISA FALCONER
lisa.falconer@whfp.co.uk

A MacRae playing shinty for Kinlochshiel is not uncommon, to say the least, but Alasdair ‘Sandy’ MacRae managed to fit in games for not only the club’s forerunner Kintail and Glenshiel, but also for Lochalsh,  Lochcarron and Plockton.

Indeed, Alasdair’s playing career straddled not only the formation of Kinlochshiel but also the club’s Sutherland Cup success in 1962.

He recalls: “I played shinty for a long time. The first time I played I was in goals, then I played out, wing centre or wing back — it didn’t matter which side. I played for Kintail and Glenshiel, Lochalsh when there was no team in Kintail, and Lochcarron. I played for them when it was the Skye Games week and Lochcarron couldn’t raise a team so Ian ‘Dubh’ Fraser and myself played for them in the exhibition match and we won. They (Skye) weren’t pleased!”

While he was in school he was also signed up for a spell with Plockton, which had a six-a-side squad, thanks to an enthusiastic teacher. “When I was at Balmacara School Kenny Gollan was shinty mad and when he found out I was quite good he got me playing for Plockton — we won the cup!”

In 1958 it was decided to amalgamate two existing clubs — Kintail and Glenshiel, and Lochalsh — into Kinlochshiel, as Alasdair explained: “Some of the Lochalsh boys played for Kintail and Glenshiel – Noel Gordon and two or three others – and we started winning some matches. Donnie Gordon and Hector MacRae and someone else played for Lochcarron but wanted to come into Kintail and Glenshiel so we had a big meeting and didn’t think it was right that Lochalsh wasn’t in the name, so that was how Kinlochshiel was created. When we played it was in the winter — we played in weather you wouldn’t look at today — and played at Kirkton. Before that we had a topper of a pitch at Leinassie. I don’t know why they let it go. It was perfect, dead flat.”

Four years after Kinlochshiel was formed the club made the final of the Sutherland Cup, facing Kyles Athletic in Fort William. “I think it was 5-4 we won,” Alasdair says. “We were leading well to begin with and then they started coming up after us. It was pretty hard to keep them at bay in the end but we made it. There was a good celebration after!”

ALASDAIR WAS BORN on the family croft in Allt na Chruinn in June 1931, the sixth of 10 children. In typical west-coast fashion Alasdair was not his given name, but rather one he picked up along the way — together with ‘Sandy’ — after his father.

“He was Alexander, same as me. I used to get called Sandy sometimes, others called me Alex. I was born Alexander then it became Alasdair, and then ‘Darkie’!”

As a child Alasdair attended Shiel School at a time when, in sharp contrast to today’s falling rolls, the school was over-subscribed with 25 pupils. This meant some children from the Inch na Croe area were sent to Inverinate School.

After this he went to the newly-opened Balmacara School in 1947 – following a stint helping on his aunt’s croft in Glenelg – but his school days were something he “suffered” rather than enjoyed.
There was however, some fun to be had with soldiers operating a checkpoint at Shiel during the war years.

He explains: “There was a barrier across the road here, just across the bridge. The soldiers used to count us going to school but coming back we would cross the river further up and go over the hill, so they couldn’t count us going home. They used to get wild at us! ‘And where were you last night?’, they’d ask!”

“It was a protected area here due to the base in Kyle and you had to show your ID card every time you came through. We had our gas masks we had to take to school too, in wee boxes hanging round your neck. We practised with them, making sure they fitted right and that.

“The old hall at Kintail was full of soldiers — it acted as barracks for them — while where the new hall is there was a hut built which acted as a cookhouse and small barrack room. The head officer stayed in a bungalow above it while other soldiers where billeted out. An awful lot came in at the end of the war – when Victory in Europe was announced they were up here training to go to Japan.”

At the end of his school days he was called up for national service with the Seaforths. He spent 16 weeks at Fort George in basic training before departing from Liverpool for the Far East. His initial destination was Hong Kong. However, while at sea it was decided he, along with five others, were to be dropped off in Singapore instead to serve in Malaya. “The ones I did training with went to Hong Kong and were the first British soldiers into Korea when it started up,” he recalls.

For Alasdair the four-week voyage was quite enjoyable, having been selected to work in the galley.
“I must have been in the right place at the right time because just after we had left Liverpool the sergeant in charge said to me and another couple of blokes to go to the galley, where we were put to work at nights. We were put into the mental ward of the ship so we could sleep during the day and work during the night. Every second night you worked till 12 then were off till 4pm. Then somebody went off their head on the boat and we were shifted right to the back, to the isolation ward! We were there for the rest of the trip to Singapore.

“All we did was work in the cookhouse. Every morning we went into the bakery, which was right in the nose of the ship. There were troughs of dough right along the walls – there were over 2,000 people on the boat going out – which had to be worked and prepared. It was all by steam, there was no fires as such, and it went round these big bins they used to cook in. Even potatoes were cooked by steam — they were put in trays in big tower things and steamed.”

The ship docked in February, and so Alasdair started an 18-month tour of Malaya.
He said: “It wasn’t really a conflict I was involved in, it was ambushes all the time. You were going out on patrols and they would ambush you but never stay, fire a few shots and vanish. It was a very nervous situation to be in. It was all right to begin with then you realised the danger you were in and it got more stressful. It was warm, though!”

AFTER HIS NATIONAL SERVICE was completed he returned to Kintail, initially working with the county roads department for six weeks.

At this time heavy snow saw the Cluanie road blocked for three weeks, putting the small covering we receive today – and the chaos it causes – into perspective. “There was a grocer in Fort Augustus, Leslie’s, who used to come around every week. This is when rationing was still on the go, and you more or less had a standing order which they would deliver. When the road was shut they sent it by train to Kyle and then by boat up here.

“The road over from Tomdoun to Cluanie was blocked for six weeks — there were drifts that were 15 feet deep.”

After that a spell working at the dam in Cluanie followed, before stints with the forestry and Simon Campbell at Shiel. Alasdair worked for Campbell for several years, before going back onto the roads with Kings and RJ Macleod. He then moved to working in the quarries at Inverinate and Achnagart, becoming assistant manager at the latter, before joining the workforce at Kishorn.

After that he returned to Shiel, working as a stockman with Ian Campbell until he was made redundant when he was 64. “I took that as the time to retire as you couldn’t get work anywhere then — too near 65,” he says.

It was while he was working for Simon Campbell that he moved to Shiel Bridge, having married his late wife Ruby – who was also from Allt na Chruinn – in 1958.

“We knew each other all our lives. She had the post office here at Shiel Bridge, her granny, Mrs Bridges, having run it before her. Ruby was down in Suffolk, she was a land girl down there, and when Mrs Bridges died they sent for Ruby to take over the post office. It was a good-going thing then as the telephone exchange was in the post office. They worked that from 9am to 7pm — she had to be there for that.”

The couple raised three daughters, Bridget, Julie and Alexandra. Alexandra is known as Toto, from the Swahili word for a baby, Mtoto — a nickname she was given by a relation of Ruby’s who lived in South Africa.
When I ask him about any stories he may have from working with the Campbells all those years, he chuckles and says: “Well, none I could be telling!”