Roadside funerals and the confusing areas between obvious extremes

A safe or dangerous walk? It depends on behaviour and responsibility. Pic Whitewave, Skye


I attended my first ‘drive by’ funeral last Saturday.

Betty Campbell used to run the Ferry Inn in Uig when I first came to Skye. You didn’t see her very often, but they say she knew exactly what was going on in her bar, which could be lively and inertia-inducing.

When Anne and I were young and fun to be with, we could lose a whole weekend after only intending a quick one on a Friday night.

Betty also did the school dinners, and one of my friends commented that as a child, he remembered her dressing well even in the canteen, and how she was always very glamourous when “dishing up the Angel Delight”.

We parked the Ducati opposite the old Police Station in Uig and waited with others at a distance for the hearse to roll by.

The funeral director acknowledged our nods and bowed heads with a knowing look and slow wave. It was all very appropriate and as poignant as it was short.

Ina Beaton’s drive by was at Kilmalaug, and we stood in a passing place on the road to the graveyard.

I heard that the family found it very moving to see so many people stood in drives, gateways and road ends showing their respects…

By the time this piece is online, we will have been to Charlie Mackinnon’s.

I remember 10 years ago, giving him and my father in law Calum Martin, their pensions on the last day we ran the Linicro Post Office at Whitewave…

On a happier note, last weekend was my enforced run in aid of Skye Camanachd’s amazing Lands’ End to John O Groats challenge for the Skye Response Group.

We duly downloaded the Strava App which magically and frustratingly enables a phone to log physical effort, reducing sweat and toil to a red line on a map and some statistics that only athletes and enthusiasts understand.

As I detest running, I may have suggested that my son take all our phones in his pocket on his mountain bike, but was told in no uncertain terms that this would be cheating, and not entering into the spirit of a challenge.

Rubha Huinis is one of my favourite places in the world, so we used the challenge as an excuse to drive the short distance and make the run a change from our daily walk through the common grazing.

If I have been there once, I have been there a hundred times with school groups. youth groups, corporate adults and tourists. It never fails to inspire.

As well as its incredible outlook, it is a fabulous place for spotting cetaceans, which can often be seen from the cliff tops, although the most spectacular experience I had was while kayaking round the point.

On this occasion, a minke whale surfaced several times a few feet to our right, as a pod of tiny porpoises were rising to our left.

Each huge long leviathanic exhalation, would be interspersed with a series of short staccato breaths from the porpoises…

One visit, during winter, walking with a mixed corporate and young person’s group from Columba 1400, saw us arrive at the Coastguard’s lookout, as the sun was beginning to set way to the south west, while at the same time and same height, a full moon was rising way over to the north east.

As the sun sank, the moon rose, as if they were in balance and Rubha Huinis was the fulcrum of a massive celestial seesaw, and the centre of our universe.

When I am at the cliff top with a group, I am always a little nervous.

It is indeed a three hundred foot drop which would be a very sudden death if you fell off.

When I warn people, I will often use humour, and suggest that while the fall would kill them, I would be subsequently buried with paperwork. Or that if they fell off it would spoil my favourite place for me, as I would have difficulty revisiting it without remembering their tragic demise…

In truth, I have to use judgement.

If a group is lively and boisterous then I may be very authoritarian – “DO NOT GO PAST THIS POINT” and on occasion, I won’t take a group there.

American students can be the worst: “Don’t worry John, I go hiking in Colorado” as one insists on standing just a bit too close for my comfort…

Then there was the group from the inner-city homeless charity, one of whom looked at me and asked “does it ever make you want to jump?”

My job when leading a group in the outdoors includes a continual and dynamic risk management, most of which is not so much the outdoor environment, but really people’s response to it.

Weather forecasts, decisions about routes, navigation and technical knowledge are all quite easy. What is crucial, is judging a group that you don’t know and working out how they will cope, and how they may react to the environment and activity.

There is a thing called perceived risk which is different to real risk, and comes about through a lack of understanding or knowledge.

Often people think things are dangerous, when they are not. Conversely, complacency and familiarity can mask real risk, and people will court dangers knowingly, but unwittingly.

I was given the example of fiddling with a mobile phone while driving. Because it is familiar, we forget how dangerous it is.

Risk assessments are based on an easy formula. How likely is it to happen, and what is the outcome?

If it is really probable, and the outcome is death, then don’t do it. If it is really unlikely and the consequence is, well inconsequential, then on you go.

Of course life, adventure activity and viral infection all exists in the grey confusing area in between the obvious extremes.

As a route map to easing lockdown is announced, we have to play our part in reducing risk, but more importantly we have to take responsibility in managing risk, to ourselves, and more importantly to others.

The risk might be minimal of spreading Covid in the Co-op, but if the consequence to the person behind us in the queue is significant, because they are vulnerable, then we should help minimise the risk, by wearing a mask.

And if the person in front of us is young and healthy, remember, they might have a vulnerable parent at home.

We have to act as if we are all vulnerable. The decisions we make in this lockdown transition, will have to be mindful of others and the bigger picture.

Nicola Sturgeon said the route map is “not written in stone”.

It’s correct to be flexible and dynamic. It is as if society is one of my groups walking to Rubha Huinis –  behaviour and responsibility will dictate whether we can enjoy a picnic on the clifftop, or if the risk of falling off will still be too great.