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Bob Harris

Poet and activist who co-founded the Eigg Trust

Poet and activist who co-founded the Eigg Trust

Born: March 1, 1923; Died: January 5, 2014

Bob Harris, who has died aged 90, was an artist, poet, sheep farmer and activist. Together with two friends, he formed the Eigg Trust, which bought the island in 1997. He considered the trust to be his most important achievement.

He grew up in Greenlaw Drive and later Corsebar Drive in Paisley and attended Glasgow High School in the late 1930s. During his early days, he developed a passion for crofting, a love of the countryside and an interest in the literary and visual arts.

He wanted to study painting but was put off by the insecurity of the profession and was placed in a bank by his well meaning parents. He stayed for two years but hated it so much that he escaped one evening through a back window and ran away to the farming communities of Argyll which would continue to hold his passion for the rest of his life.

At 16, he joined the Home Guard and the Paisley branch of the recently emerging Scottish National Party and remained committed to the ideals of independence and civic responsibility. He was drafted into the army and served in signals operations and decoding morse.

He also took part in the North African Campaign in Libya and Egypt before serving in Italy, where he was involved in the Monte Cassino confrontation.

During his time in Italy, he fell in love with the country and for some time was stationed outside Florence and took every opportunity to see the opera, sculpture and painting.

The war changed his life and he found value and substance in people with whom he was thrown into company and otherwise might never have met. He believed everyone had something of importance to appreciate and you had to learn to acknowledge it.

The world was also changing rapidly and he knew he had to be part of it. At the end of the war, he took a course for servicemen at agricultural college in Glasgow.

He then acquired much practical experience in farms up and down the west coast of Scotland but as much as possible in his beloved Argyll.

He worked at a hotel in Iona for two years where his poetry had a chance to grow. He met his first wife and they moved to take over the then mixed farm in Lochwinnoch where they had six children.

He was both loner and sociable. He had great respect for the individual but was independent and self sufficient - he lived in the farm bothy for 20 years without running water or electricity and he thought of these as the happiest days of his life. It was only when he became chairman of Lochwinnoch Community Council that he was forced to have a telephone.

Through the community council, he attempted to foster an appreciation of the Scottish vernacular in architecture and to retain as much local history and character as possible.

He enabled the council to be linked with the Scottish Civic Trust but ran into much opposition and disillusionment as the march of demolition, English proportions, poor quality design, plastic windows and what he termed the vulgarian took over.

His minutes as minute secretary were famous as he wrote up in great detail the village ongoings in order that someone in 100 years would be able to do a PhD on the workings of a small village in mid 20th century.

Although brought up in the protestant faith, early in his life he took instruction in Catholicism but declined from joining and then became involved with Buddhist thinking and consequently vegetarianism. However, the fascination of the Celts never left him and he spent his 89th birthday enjoying five hours downstairs in the New Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

He was active in CND and the peace movement and worked to have weapons of mass destruction removed from Scotland. He was a key activist at demonstrations and at one lay down in George Square in Glasgow with a brown paper bag over his face. He was also a member of Servas, and hosted visitors from all over the world who came to exchange work and ideas relating to the peace movement.

For many people, his quiet charisma was a touchstone that they instinctively respected. He also contributed on a regular basis to Oxfam which he supported since its inception in 1949.

The youthful dream of a crofting community future crystalised into a new context when, together with two friends, they formed the Eigg Trust. He considered the trust to be the most important thing he had ever done.

Until the last few years, he was physically and intellectually fit and active. He worked as a sheep farmer until he was 78 and then continued until he was 84 designing and making stained glass windows which are in both sacred and secular public places.

In his early sixties, he began a scheme of tree planting on his farm. At the time, he said it was silly to start at that stage of his life but as was predicted, the trees are now mature and he formed a typical west coast garden in its lee.

After suffering a heart attack and two strokes, he designed and laid out a new pattern to his garden - gently lifting and carrying each stone one by one to make the new paths and not to strain his heart as it recovered. He recently presided over the start of the new garden of which he enjoyed watching the beginnings last summer.

He was intolerant of the trite and for most of his life he refused to have television. Although in earlier years, he was a great follower of the Cosmo Cinema and later The Glasgow Film Theatre, believing film to be one of the great art forms.

After taking seriously ill in 2005, he married a second time; an old friend of many years. Being deprived now of his reading ability due to stroke, he adapted by turning his interests to his now famous collection of DVD documentaries mainly involving politics, economics, history, religion and travel.

He also began learning Italian from CDs and a picture dictionary. These sustained him through many nights as his physical disabilities prevented personal participation. Although a wheelchair user, he still managed holidays in his beloved Argyll.

Even in the later stages of physical disablement, he never succumbed to the dependency culture of old age. He quietly lived his own life taking only the physical help he required. His intellect never dulled except for pharmaceutically induced temporary effects.

He remained uncomplaining and accepted his lot with the equanimity born of years of meditation and maturity. He continued to be a gentle, kind friend and companion until the end.

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