Late in the summer of last year, around ten weeks before his own death, the fisherman Alasdair Macleod was visiting the island of Lismore and stopped in to pay his respects to the son of a farmer who had passed away. Over a dram, they reminisced, honouring the old man’s life in whisky and memory. “We keep these people with us,” Macleod later wrote on his popular blog, Applecrosslife, “by telling and retelling their stories.”
These words are an attempt to do the same for Macleod himself. It is not possible to restore him to life, or to those who love and mourn him, but his story can be told, or at least some meaningful part of it, so that we may get some idea of the man he was – an extraordinary ordinary man – and why his passing matters.
Let’s start at the end. On November 20, 2017, Macleod went fishing as usual on the Varuna – a 25-foot creel boat painted buttercup yellow and bracken green, which he had named after the Hindu god of the sea and rain (“We’ve got plenty of both,” he would laugh when asked to explain). Macleod kept the Varuna at a mooring close to his home on the Applecross peninsula. He fished the Inner Sound, between the mainland and Raasay, as had his father and grandfather before him. He knew the waters intimately, loved them in all their moods. That morning they were flat calm. It was not long after nine when he untied the boat and headed out. He did not return.
That afternoon, around 2.30pm, Alison Macleod was on her way home with the dogs, Dougal and Eilidh. She had spent the morning dealing with problems at the community-owned filling station and was returning past Milton Loch when a man stopped her and said, “That’s Ali’s boat on the rocks, and he’s not in it.” Eleven words to end one life; eleven to change another forever.
Realising the seriousness of her husband not being in the boat, alive to the implications of that absence, she hurried on towards home. Reaching a high point on the road, she found local coastguard volunteers looking out over the water to the boat. The Varuna had run aground on Saint Island, a small dark low-lying strip not far off shore, visible from the Macleod house. “That’s Ali’s boat, isn’t it?” Alison asked, knowing fine that it was. The lifeboat from Kyle of Lochalsh arrived; one of the crew got into the Varuna and confirmed, by radio, that it was empty. Alison went home for a while, then to see her son Kenny, who lives two miles away, before they returned to the house together. “And then we didn’t hear anything until it got dark and one of the coastguards and a policeman arrived with a missing person’s form, which is the first thing you fill in,” she says now. “They’d done all the searching they could at that time, and would carry on in daylight hours. We knew by then he was dead. There was lots of folk saying, ‘Oh, there’s a glimmer of hope!’ But I thought, ‘No, there’s not. Stop it.’”
Macleod’s body was discovered almost three weeks later, on the morning of December 9, on the shore at Staffin Bay, in the north-east of Skye, by a member of the public out walking. The tide, that eternal bier, is thought to have carried him approximately 30 miles north-west. He was identified from his dental records, and the cause of death recorded as “drowned while creel fishing”. He was 57.
I met him once. It was in the August of 2016. I was working on a story about the North Coast 500. While recognising the importance of tourism to the Highland economy, the Macleods, Alison especially, had concerns about the impact of the phenomenally popular driving route on local infrastructure. The roads were taking a battering, and where was the money for maintenance and repairs?
Ali had said to look for him in the Applecross Inn, where he worked, part-time, doing front-of-house. It’d be busy, but he’d make the time. He led the way through to a back room. Through the window, I could see a Corvette Stingway, rowanberry red, in the car park. The whole idea of speeding through the northernmost part of Scotland, ticking towns and villages off a list, was anathema to the Macleods’ way of looking at the world, and it didn’t sit well with how Ali felt about Applecross in particular.
“The old name for Applecross is a’ Chomraich and it means ‘the sanctuary’,” he told me. “It goes back to medieval times. The monastery up on the head of the bay used to have the a six-mile ring of stones. If anyone wanted to escape a blood feud, if they got inside the ring they were protected.”
What was true then, he felt, still held now. “It’s one of these special places, like Iona, where people just find peace from the crazy world out there. This is a bubble. You can have solitude.”
Applecross became an important Christian centre from 673 AD when the Irish monk Maelrubha landed on Saint Island. The word “Applecross” is often used incorrectly to refer to the settlement of Shore Street, where the Inn can be found, but is in fact the name for the whole peninsula. Part of Wester Ross, it has a population of just over 200 in 65,000 acres, mostly living in crofting townships strung along the coast. It is a pleasure to pass along the single-track road and chant their litany: Camusteel, Camusterrach, Culduie. Across the Inner Sound is the island of Raasay, and beyond that, the mountains of Skye. It is a landscape and seascape so dramatic as to be unphotographable. You can go there and look, you can’t take it away, but some splinter may lodge in your heart.
Macleod’s immersion in this beauty, a sort of daily baptism, was part of what made him who he was. Perhaps uniquely in Scotland, he brought to diners’ tables shellfish he himself had brought up from the depths: “Those langoustines you’re eating? I caught those.” Macleod was a great advocate of sustainable fishing, a founder member of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, and certain practices were important to him. Whenever he caught so-called “berried prawns” – those females bearing eggs – he would put them back in the water so that the animals would continue to reproduce. This moral choice meant that he was unable to make a viable living as a full-time fisherman. Macleod was also fiercely opposed to trawling and dredging, which he knew could leave the bottom of the sea like a desert. “The best fishermen,” he wrote on his blog, “are not the ones catching the most, or earning the top dollar, but those that can leave for the next generation.”
He fished alone. A lot of creel fishermen do. Often that’s economics; not being able to afford a crewman’s wage. But Macleod had other reasons. He enjoyed the solitude; in fact, needed it. Being out there on the water, his body working hard but mechanically, his mind was free. It was a form of meditation, and a way of feeling at one with nature, not above it or separate: the cormorant that would follow the boat and take food from his hand; the mermaid’s purses and cuttlefish eggs that came up on his creels, indicating the changing seasons; he and they were all part of the same dance.
On the day we met, he had already been out that morning. “I was tailing squat lobsters when I looked up and I was surrounded by dolphins,” he told me. “A pod of about twenty or thirty. Lots of young ones. They played around the boat for a wee while and then headed off. It’s a word that’s used too much, but it was ‘awesome’ in the true sense.”
He smiled at the memory. “I don’t call it work. I do stuff and people give me money for it.”
Until 1975, when the coast road north was built, the only way in and out of Applecross was the Bealach na Bà, Gaelic for “pass of the cattle”, a twelve-mile single-track through the mountains. On a regular day it is the most exhilarating and perhaps even frightening driving experience in Britain, the closest thing the country has to those steep hairpin bends through the Swiss Alps. On a day when people were gathering to celebrate the life – and grieve the loss – of Alasdair Macleod, it felt like a much more sombre passage: a coffin road.
“It’s not a funeral,” Alison Macleod insisted. A private cremation in Inverness would take place the following day, but the ceremony in Applecross was intended as an occasion of story and laughter. The tone was set by the dress code: guests at the Clachan Church were being invited to wear wooly jumpers and kilts in tribute to Ali’s dress sense.
The Macleod home, on the day before, felt cosy and calm. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, Hyacinths flowering in the window. Views over the Inner Sound. A stopped clock, an Auden touch, showed quarter past seven. Alison and her son Ruairidh, who is 27 and a medical student, sat together on a couch. The Macleods had four boys – Kenny, Calum, Ruairidh and Niall – now all grown men with lives away from Applecross. “You are the bow and they are the arrows,” Ali had written of his sons, “and you fire them off into the world.”
Alison Macleod, originally from Kirkcubrightshire, is a development officer for the Applecross Community Company, formed ten years ago to help sustain and strengthen life on the peninsula. Applecross is, Alison said, a “fragile community”: there are only ten pupils in the primary school; some 40 per cent of the population is over 60 years old; young people move away for jobs and homes and lifestyles that they cannot find locally.
She and Ali were the driving force behind the setting up of various initiatives intended to make Applecross a more attractive place to stay and thrive, not just visit and admire. The filling station is community-owned and run by volunteers, as are the public toilets. There is community broadband, AppleNet. A hydro-electric scheme, powered by the Allt Breugach burn, generates income for the community.
Such projects take enormous emotional and physical effort to instigate and maintain. It is estimated that Ali spent around 40 hours a month doing voluntary work. Pushing for change in a small place, where everybody knows each other and everything is personal, can lead to bad feeling. There was a difficult period in 2012 during a campaign for locals to become members of the Applecross Trust, the charity which owns much of the land on the peninsula. The Macleods believed this could result in land being made available for affordable housing, and lead to job creation. However, it caused division within the community and much personal angst. “I am fighting for the place where I live,” Ali wrote, later, on his blog.
He was “hefted” to Applecross, Alison told me. The verb is more commonly used of sheep, describing the way they keep to the hill where they were born, but it gets at his animalistic sense of belonging. He had grown up in Kyle of Lochalsh, but his father was from Applecross, and Ali spent holidays on the peninsula, on his grandparents’ croft. It was, for him, a place of freedom. Life in Kyle had been characterised by the scriptures and strictures of the Free Presbyterian Church; he wasn’t allowed to listen to music, or celebrate Christmas; on Sundays, he was permitted to read only religious texts. Applecross respected the Sabbath, and his grandparents were churchgoers, but there wasn’t quite the same severity in their home.
Ali, as an adult, abandoned the faith of his childhood. He needed to believe in something, and wove together a personal spirituality based on strands of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the writings of the Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran. But he felt no disdain for the Protestant culture in which he had grown up. He did not, for instance, fish on a Sunday. This was done out of respect for those in Applecross, especially the Gaelic-speaking older folk, who held the Lord’s Day sacred, but also because he believed the idea of resting the fishing grounds was a good one as it would help fish stocks. This was an example of the confluence of his beliefs: Bible black meets eco green.
“Although he was a very modern, free-thinking, forward-looking person, I think many of his personal attributes, and many of the ways in which he tried to live were very typical of the generations that had passed,” Pat Tyrrell, a close friend of Ali, would later tell me. “He cared for this place and wanted to preserve the way of life here, which didn’t mean harking back to the past. He knew you had to adapt to changes, and look at ways to meet the future.”
This idea of being respectful and tender towards the traditions and culture of a place, while also seeing the necessity of moving it forwards in radical ways seems to be expressed rather well by the two elements in which Ali lived and worked: the unchanging shape of the land, symbolised most powerfully by the Cuillin peaks, and the ceaseless beat of the sea. Stillness and movement were all around him, and within him, and were the two forces which governed his world view.
Alison and Ali had met at Edinburgh University, where they were both studying history. She was engaged to someone else, but that came to an end, and to her surprise she found herself, just a few months before her finals, in this new relationship. In 1983, on graduation, they married and moved to Applecross. The house on the family croft was under a demolition order, and the move was supposed to only be temporary, “but,” she recalled, “we squeezed more and more children and a big hairy dog into it”. They picked whelks to make money, saving to buy a fishing boat.
“He had a spiritual connection with the sea and would suffer if he spent too long ashore,” Ruairidh explained. “In winter, when it’s blowing a hoolie down from the north, he might not be able to go out for a couple of weeks at a time, and he’d really start to suffer mentally because of that.”
This feeling Ali had for the water seems to have given some comfort to his family since his passing. “I am sure he would have preferred to die peacefully as an old man in his bed, but he would probably not have thought the death he did have was so very awful,” Alison believes.
What about the fact that it was almost three weeks before he was found? “Lots of people told us we must be very relieved, but no, it didn’t make much difference,” she replied. “He was very much at home at sea, so we didn’t feel it would have been a terrible end never to be found.”
At this, Ruairidh nodded. “He’d have been quite happy down there. I was saying to my brother, there’s a certain poetry in him being eaten by prawns.”
It is not clear what happened to cause his death. He appears to have finished fishing for the day and to have been heading back home. The Macleods believe there must have been some sort of accident – a trip on deck, an overbalancing while cleaning the gunwale – which caused him to fall overboard. In the cold water, in heavy clothing, with the boat on autopilot heading away from him, he would likely not have lasted long.
It was striking how serene Alison and Ruairidh seemed as they explained this, as if they had already found a way to make their peace with what had happened. I mentioned this a week or so later, in an email, by which time Ali’s ashes had been scattered on the Inner Sound – where he had fished, where he was lost, where he found meaning.
“I don’t find it easy to explain how I am,” Alison answered. “I feel a bit dead inside. And very tired, tired right down to the centre of my being. But determined that I will carry on living and make good use of all the love, skills, knowledge and determination I have in me; most likely not in Applecross long term, though. Ali loved it, I don’t so much.”
On the day of Alasdair Macleod’s celebration, the cloud had lifted, revealing the hills across Applecross Bay painted with snow. The tide was out, the strand wet and glossy. A single heron stood atop its own reflection.
There must have been more than 300 people gathered for the service. Andy Cussell, an old friend – and Ali’s crewman for several years – had driven through the night from his home in Cambridgeshire; there was a circularity to this, an embrace returned, Ali and Alison having done the same, in reverse, following the sudden death of Andy’s wife Sue in 1999.
Others who had come along knew Ali only slightly, mainly through his online musings. The Applecrosslife blog gave a glimpse of a way of life which, though it wasn’t paradise, could sometimes appear seductively so. Peter MacLean, a retired police officer from Inverness, said: “We could do with a few more Ali Macleods and the world would be a better place.”
The family had asked if people could please walk to the church as parking was limited. A pragmatic thought, but there was something about the act of procession around the curve of the bay that felt appropriately solemn and lent itself to reminiscence.
“You meet the world here,” Ali had told me. Applecross, though by most measures remote and isolated, is also something of an international hub. He loved that the Inn, a destination restaurant, drew visitors from dozens of different countries each year. Human connection and conversation nourished him in a different way to the solitude of the sea. He was a craic addict. Constantly talking with people whose eyes and bellies were full of the wonders of Applecross kept his own appetite for those things sharp. Walking into the Inn on the previous day, the smells of food and drink and the laughter of diners had seemed jarring, even obscene, a feast at the death. But as Judith Fish, the Inn’s owner, acknowledged, “He would absolutely have wanted that. You do have to carry on.”
The Clachan Church, which dates from the early 19th century, sits daintily at the foot of Beinn a’ Chlachain. The arched windows let in a pearly Vermeer light, illuminating bare stone walls and white rafters. It was standing-room only. A folk band played in one corner, and the beat of feet on the wooden floor caused the candles to flicker in time.
Here was as happy an occasion as a sad occasion can be. Jokes, stories, songs. A life dealt out like a good hand of cards. We sang Caledonia and there were tears at that. Ruairidh, in kilt and wild jumper, ascended the pulpit; with his red hair and beard, he is the very image of his father.
“When I first heard the news about my dad, I cried the entire night thinking about what I’d lost and how I’d lost it,” he said. “But as time passed, I was surprised to discover how much of him still remained. I’ve walked with him every day for the last six weeks.”
The thing he remembered best, he said, was his smile.
On Saturday January 13, the Macleod family set off into the Inner Sound in the Grace Anne, the boat of a local fisherman. They went just a few minutes north-west of Saint Island, where Maelrubha came ashore and the Varuna ran aground. It was a calm grey morning. They saw oystercatchers, herring gulls, seals. Kenny Macleod, the eldest son, scattered his father’s remains from the stern. Here he had fished, here he was lost, here he found meaning, and here he now returned.
“We’ve put his ashes back in the sea,” Alison said, “because we think he’s at home there.”