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The Highland Line: celebrating Gordy Fyfe, the man who gave spin doctors a good name

Things will be different at Highland Council from the end of the month when Gordon (Gordy) Fyfe retires from the post of Public Relations Manager, after the best part of 25 years as the media man for the authority and its local government predecessor.

He is not somebody who fits the image of a modern press relations executive. It is hard to imagine anyone further removed from a spin doctor. Indeed the very term (thought to have been used first in print in October 1984 in an editorial in the New York Times following a televised debate between US presidential candidates Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale) hadn't even crossed the Atlantic when he moved to the council.

That was in March 1990. His route there was perhaps a little surprising. Indeed he must be one of very few applicants for any job who was successfully appointed while spending their time standing on a picket line as a striking union member.

He had joined the Inverness Courier from Inverness Royal Academy at 17, working as a reporter for owner/editor the legendary Miss Evelyn Barron.

Gordy moved on to the Inverness Office of the Press and Journal and became the paper's North News Editor in 1989. But in September of that year, he was involved in a major industrial dispute and was one of 130 reporters to be sacked for going on strike in defence of retaining trade union recognition at the paper.

For years, he had been the best informed reporter on council affairs around, and most saw him as a natural choice to become Highland Regional Council's first press and information officer. And so it was that after six months on the picket line, he went to work for his new public sector employee.

It wasn't without agonising about leaving his colleagues behind in their time of trouble, displaying a fundamental decency not always associated with his profession - and not for the first or last time.

It is interesting to recall, as he often does, that at that time the council was overshadowed in publicity terms by the far smaller Highlands and Islands Development Board (which was to become Highlands and Islands Enterprise). The latter already had an effective press office operation which allowed HIDB to punch miles above their weight in terms of positive news.

The council, for example, had invested heavily in providing access to the £4m Nevis Range gondola at Aonach Mor near Fort William and it was Gordy's first major task to promote its investment in the project.

His job was also as the crucial publicity co-ordinator in the council's various campaigns. They were prominent in recent Highland history, and his career provides a useful synopsis.

There was the ultimately successful fight to prevent the nuclear waste agency Nirex from establishing a nuclear waste dump at Dounreay. The council saw beyond the potential jobs windfall at a time when the closure of the fast breeder reactor programme had already been announced, heralding the closure of the Caithness nuclear plant.

During that time, the council also attracted national attention by successfully leading the campaign to save the London to Fort William sleeper service. British Rail had proposed the cut to save £2.5m a year in preparation for the then Conservative government privatising the railways.

But it emerged that there were three stretches of track in and around Glasgow which were used only by the West Highland sleeper. If the sleeper was axed, it would effectively mean line closures, which legally required lengthy closure procedures under the Railways Act of 1993. British Rail managers introduced late-night "ghost trains" to run along the three stretches so that technically they were still in use.

Highland Regional Council took British Rail first to the Court of Session and then to the appeal court to expose this sophistry. Lord Kirkwood and then Lord Hope ordered BR to keep running the sleeper. It still runs today.

But the campaign closest to Gordy's heart was backing the islanders of Eigg in their historic community buyout. This was after decades of decay under private ownership when most didn't even have security of tenure, but had to put up with leaking roofs and failing generators.

The German artist Maruma had bought the island from Keith Schellenberg for £1.6m, only to immediately take out loans at punitive rates of interest against it. Eigg was being used as a pawn in some game of international land speculation.

Yet when Eigg came back on the market, the Heritage Lottery Fund refused to assist the buyout if the local people were to control the island. Apparently, the islanders were not to be trusted to look after their own future.

To get round that, Simon Fraser, the Stornoway solicitor who was the trusted navigator for most of the headline community buyouts from Assynt in 1993 onwards, came up with the idea of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust.

It would be a company limited by guarantee with a membership of three organisations: the island residents' association, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Highland Council, with four, two and two directors respectively and an independent chairman.

They took ownership in June 1997, and the remarkable transformation of the island began. Gordy kept in touch with the islanders and managed to return for the first, second, fifth and tenth anniversaries of the buyout, along with others in the media who think they may have been there as well.

He remains in close contact with the likes of Eigg's estimable trust secretary Maggie Fyffe (no relation, one 'f' too many).

Gordy rightly remains proud of the council's role in the Eigg campaign, as he is of the project to build new slipways on all the Small Isles, heralding their first car ferry service. A real difference being made to those living in some of the most fragile communities in the land.

He was the perfect fit for all these campaigns, and they appealed to his obvious commitment to public service. A calming and trusted voice, even when things got difficult for the council on other fronts. He will be missed as he cycles off towards the sunset, or more likely Culcabock golf club.

Of course it all could have been so very different if a bad leg break had not prematurely ended a very promising football career with Inverness Caledonian, according to those who saw him play.

He may have mentioned it as well.

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