An appreciation by DAVID ROSS, Highland Correspondent, and the poet's son-in-law

IT IS only a few short weeks since my father-in-law Sorley (Sam) Maclean discovered that he was very ill indeed. There was no certainty how long there might be, although he appeared optimistic. But it was difficult to tell as his greatest concern was to spare others as much as he could. He was suffering, but he didn't like to be a nuisance.

It is hard to remember that just a month ago, on his 85th birthday, he was in his usual place on the touchline in Portree, watching Skye Camanachd's convincing 4-0 win over local rivals Kinlochshiel. His 16-year-old grandson came on as a substitute and, according to the West Highland Free Press, announced his arrival by lashing a fierce 30-yard drive inches over the crossbar.

Although very proud, it had been a matter of great concern to him that his namesake might have been promoted to Skye's first team too early in his playing career. The consultant treating him in Inverness was quite bemused to learn that, given his own condition, this was the one question which was keeping Sam awake at night.

The episode allowed, as he intended, the family to laugh at/with him, and he enjoyed nothing more. Few spent very long in his company without laughter. That was true even last weekend with him at the fireside.

But his concern for others was real. His sisters tell how it was the same even when they were young in Raasay. He was always worrying about them. He has been worrying about an ever growing number since.

A man utterly untainted by any snobbery, his interest in people was genuine. This whether it was a philosopher discussing the work of Immanuel Kant, or a neighbour on the subject of his potatoes or, far more likely, his genealogy. His old friend George Davie could almost have had Sam in mind, rather than the Scottish system of higher education, when he coined the title of ``The Democratic Intellect''. His socialism was natural, emotional.

Others, many others, are greater authorities on his poetry, its importance to the Gaelic renaissance, its international status. But you needed no expertise to know the man who wrote it had been forged by remorseless forces of history: the human deserts of the Highlands and Islands; the road to Belsen.

He would have been proud to die fighting Fascism. Very real ties prevented that being in Spain; he was sending most of his teacher's salary home to Raasay. But he tried to volunteer in September 1939. His employers, Edinburgh Corporation, however, proved difficult; he was conscripted later. Wounded three times in the North African campaign, it was amazing that he ever walked again and he carried bits of metal in his legs ever after.

He saw great courage there, the Englishman in Egypt - ``A poor little chap with chubby cheeks and knees grinding each other, pimply unattractive face - garment of the bravest spirit.'' But unlike others he managed to see courage, far away from the battlefield, in ordinary people making the best of their everyday lives.

He had faith in the human spirit, a product of the generosity of his own, but sometimes it was hard for him. He felt the sacrifice of the Russian people in the fight against Hitler, but was saddened now to see so many of them liberated into starvation. He could not begin to understand the Balkan capacity to hate. He would question the poet's purpose.

The achievement of Attlee's post-war government, however, stayed with him, and along with so many of that wartime generation he worked hard to build on it, to institutionalise social justice - in his case in education. It was a point of pride with him that years before comprehensive education came in, he would present almost any pupil at Plockton High School for SCE examinations, where other heads might be too concerned by the effect on percentage pass rates. For all that he had little or no time for educational theories which disdained hard work.

It is hard yet to take in that he will no longer be there in the big green chair in front of the fire, dishing out drams as he took those present from Archie of Argyll's dislocated shoulder at the Battle of Inverlochy to Alamein. Or with eyes twinkling telling of the antics of the people of Portree or Braes or Raasay, his people, sharing in their humour. He could make the Portree of 70 years ago sound more exciting than New York.

Sam has left a great emptiness for those closest to him, but somehow his memory will help us fill it. For this writer, it was just a privilege to have known him.