Our final exchanges were pretty low-key that Saturday afternoon in November 1996.

I had gone up to the bedroom to tell him the half-time football scores. One of the Old Firm must have been getting beaten by a wee team. That always amused him. He asked “Any news from the shinty yet?” There wasn’t, and I left him to sleep. A few hours later Sam (as Sorley MacLean was always known) went into a coma and was taken by ambulance to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, where he later died.

But earlier in the day he had us laughing as normal at our home on the Black Isle, where he had come to recuperate from treatment. He had been complaining about feeling the bed damp (either because he had spilled a drink or he was so hot – we can’t remember) and to underline the point declared, “It is so wet in here it’s like the Pontine Marshes near Rome before Mussolini drained them.”

This was a frequent element of his sense of humour, to associate the epic and exotic with the ordinary and commonplace. The immersion heater in the house in Braes on Skye was always known as “The Renaissance”; a friend from North Uist had the face of “the Christ on the south portal of Chartres cathedral”, but Don Quixote was recalled when referring to one particularly lugubrious islander known always as “the Knight of the Rueful Countenance”. Meanwhile, on hearing that I had given a complete wreck of a car to my uncle for use on his croft on Iona, he declared, “How fitting that the càr mòr buidhe [‘big yellow car’ as it was always known to his first grandson] goes to lie with the kings of Scotland.”

There was nothing Sam liked more than to make his family laugh. Eyes twinkling, he would happily bear the brunt of familial ridicule, the younger his tormentor the better. That never changed to the end, even when he became very ill. His cancer seemed to be more of a nuisance to him than anything else. When he was asked by his consultant at Raigmore whether he was managing to sleep at night, he admitted there was something keeping him awake – not his own impending mortality, but the fact Skye Camanachd had promoted a grandson to the first team at not much more than 16. As honorary vice-president of the club, he thought this far too early for senior shinty.

To this day numerous conversations among his six grandchildren still begin with, “Do you remember when Seanair [grandfather] …” and a narrative is recited of Sam having done or said something plain daft, or of his normal eccentric behaviour.

There were the many reinforcements to the garden shed he christened his “flying buttresses” as homage to the Gothic cathedrals he loved so much. Or the psychological warfare he waged daily against the dogs that ran out from the different crofts to bite the car’s tyres. Initially he merely pointed “the finger of scorn” directly at them. But he always planned to escalate his attack by arming himself with a powerful water pistol.

The list was long, so it is with a smile he is remembered by those who knew him best. But of course a century after his birth it is for his poetic achievement the world knows him, and which others are far better qualified to assess. It certainly wasn’t something on which he expected me to opine. It went unsaid, but was always clear that he would have found it excruciatingly embarrassing to have had me trying to write about him at all. The only time that was breached was at his death 15 years ago. But as The Herald’s Highland Correspondent, I shamelessly exploited his extraordinary mind. Google hadn’t been invented, so for years I just phoned Sam.

However, far more was learned with dram in hand, sitting in front of the roaring fires which were his specialism in Braes. Sam loved company and many sat with him in front of that fire: family and neighbours, crofters and scholars, all warmly welcomed by Sam and his wife Renee. Seamus Heaney was there; the late Arnold Kemp, former editor of The Herald, more than once. Professor Wang from Beijing, who had been sent to the rice fields in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, was closely questioned on the history of Sino-Soviet relations. Sam always remembered his unexpected humour on the subject of the Chinese leadership. Chow En-lai had been the father of his people but Mao Tse-tung had been the epoch-maker. However, the latter had made some mistakes, “for example, the Cultural Revolution, which supported the old adage about not letting your wife interfere with your business”.

When we were by ourselves no subject seemed off-limits, from the personal to the political: the Land League, Gaelic, the Spanish Civil War, his war service in north Africa. But it was when he talked of his despair in the 1930s and how he came to believe the Red Army was all that stood in the way of the whole of Europe succumbing to fascism, that you really began to understand the forces that had forged him. So it was no surprise that he had utter disdain for the treatment meted out to Anthony Blunt, when uncovered as a spy in 1979, by certain newspapers which had themselves helped create the very climate in which many feared Britain could join the war on the wrong side.

He had seen early the evils of fascism and told how he suspected the political journey on which Oswald Mosely had embarked when he left the Independent Labour Party to found his New Party in 1931, a year before he established the British Union of Fascists. He had gone to demonstrate when Mosley spoke in Edinburgh about the New Party, and again went when he came back as BUF leader. He loved to recall how he had stood up and shouted at Mosley but, when the BUF brownshirts started running towards him, he was saved by a huge man called Boag Thompson – if memory serves, an Irish-American who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. “Boag got to his feet and he roared!” Sam would recall with delight, this having been sufficient to repel Mosley’s finest.

He said once, only once, that if things had been different he might have tried to go into politics, but didn’t say which party. He believed in Scottish independence but always paid tribute to the British Labour movement and the post-war Attlee government for their achievements improving the lot of so many.

Sam became a member of the breakaway Scottish Labour Party. He had volunteered to join when, as a student, I was helping set up an Edinburgh branch of the SLP, which was to contain poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, journalist and writer Neal Ascherson, political philosopher Tom Nairn and the future Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd. Sam died before New Labour came to power and the only observation I can remember him making was that he found it impossible to know what Tony Blair’s beliefs were.

He took great pride in saying that when headmaster he had made Plockton High a comprehensive school long before any others in Scotland; that he would present any child for O-grades or Highers unless they had learning difficulties. But if he was ahead of his time on exam presentation, he had no time for new-fangled educational thinking which understated the need for sheer hard work. Befitting a man who had read the three volumes of Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution before he was 12 (he said he had run out of books to read on Raasay), he couldn’t really understand students who didn’t embrace what had been to him the sheer joy of scholarship – this writer included.

Sam wasn’t religious but was interested in religion and any idea that he hated ministers was nonsense. He resented criticism of Highland Presbyterianism by those who knew little. But he doubted whether anyone could remain sane and genuinely believe in the prospect of an eternity of physical and mental torture, which the Free Presbyterian Church (the Seceders) of his Raasay childhood held out for the bulk of humanity.

He accepted there might well be a connection between his Presbyterian heritage and his attraction to communism in the 1930s. As he once wrote to CM Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), “A renegade Seceder makes quite a good Marxist …”

For all his internationalism, though, it was the world of the Gael that held him. He would pore over maps of Skye and Raasay, even though he must have known every square inch. He would interrogate the people of Braes for the Gaelic names for every hillock and stream, and how it would have delighted him that a grandson was to write his final honours university thesis on that very subject.

An integral part of every holiday was for me to go with him to visit an old man called Uilleam Choinnich, a MacDonald who was a great authority on the oral tradition of the Battle of the Braes in 1882. That was when the people of Braes stood up to Lord Macdonald and the forces of law and order when they were being deprived of common grazings on Ben Lee. Many of Sam’s maternal forbears had lived in Braes and it was a matter of some pride to him he had been asked by the community to write, in Gaelic and English, an inscription on a cairn to mark the centenary of the event – “Near this cairn on 19 April 1882 ended the battle fought by the people of Braes on behalf of the crofters of Gaeldom.”

Three years before Sam died, the family suffered the most hellish of blows when Sam and Renee’s middle daughter, Catriona, died at 41. A wonderful Gaelic singer, she lived nearby with her family. Sam didn’t talk about his pain at her loss, but had obviously resolved he would be there for Catriona’s three boys. And so he was. He never left them. On his 85th birthday, a month before he died, he was on the touchline in Portree watching them play shinty; probably with his back to the pitch discussing genealogy with Portree stalwart John the Caley. That was another thing he tended to do.