IN 1949, the crofter, activist and land reformer Ronnie Campbell herded 500 sheep – with the help of two collies – from Newtonmore, near Aviemore, to Braeroy in Lochaber.

It took him two days.

“The next year the lorries started coming,” he said, reflecting on what is thought to have been Scotland’s last livestock drive. Mr Campbell died recently at the age of 90.

A beautifully written obituary, published by the Times this week, describes him as a man who “rejoiced in nature and the Highland oral tradition.”

It added: “He was brought up at a time when people would gather spontaneously for a ceilidh, to argue about their genealogy, discuss politics, make music and sing.”

READ MORE: Link road planned for one of Scotland's most congested towns

Born in Bohuntin, near Roy Bridge, he highlighted the challenges of the crofting industry, describes standing in two general elections and is thought to have been the last to speak the traditional vernacular Gaelic in the braes of Lochaber.

With every elderly death, the histories, traditions and dialects unique to rural communities are at risk of being lost forever.

No life is ordinary and a project in Mr Campbell’s birthplace was determined to ensure that the memories of the eldest generation are protected. 

A local man, Richard Sidgwick, asked older people in the area if he could interview them about their lives. The resulting stories were published in a community circular, The Braes, produced by Margaret Sargent, which have now been turned into a book.

For me, they are a joy to read as someone who grew up alongside the interviewees but actually knew very little about their lives.

Some have died since the book was published last year, which makes their stories all the more poignant.


“One of the great advantages of living in the rural and more remote parts of the country is that we tend to be known as individuals, rather than just as part of an anonymous crowd,” writes Mr Sidgwick in the book’s foreword.

“What I regard as ‘living history’ – the vast store of knowledge and experience locked away in the minds of the elderly – will, unless it is recorded for posterity, be lost when the time comes that they are not even a memory, only a name.”

The stories provide a fascinating and humbling snap-shot of the past and the “straightened, more simple circumstances” in which our parents or grandparents lived.

READ MORE: Stornoway Gaelic cafe should be welcomed so why aren't the locals more positive?

In the movie Philomena, which is based on a true story, former BBC correspondent Martin Sixmith (played by Steve Coogan) is disgruntled when he is asked to cover a story about a convent girl who was forced to give up her son for adoption.

He considers a “human interest”story beneath him but is forced to reconsider his own prejudices as the story progresses and he develops a friendship with Philomena and realises he is able to influence the outcome of their journey together.

As a journalist it’s very common to be asked about celebrity interviews as if they are a true measure of success but it’s the details of “ordinary” lives, like my own, that I remember.


Cathy MacColl recalls growing up without electricity and being washed at the well in the morning and then carried up to the croft house by her mother.

One of 11, the family, in common with many others during the Second World War, had two children boarded out to them who “became just like a brother and sister.”

She recalls how butter made by her mother was sold in the nearest town, Fort William, in exchange for goods and the main meal was potatoes and herring with oatcakes or scones.

“My first memories are of my mother cooking for us all on an open fire, with a swee or a swiggle and Dad made various grids or girdles that swung over for boiling a pot or toasting oatcakes.”

READ MORE: Is this Scotland's most scenic school?

She remembers giving whisky to a sickly hogg that looked sick because it was considered the cure for everything in those days, from a cold to toothache. The pig survived and was renamed after the water of life.

Mrs McColl is left handed and describes being forced to use her right hand in school. If the teacher caught her using her left, she received a sharp crack on the knuckles with a pointer stick.


“Eventually my hand was tied behind my back to the desk behind, so I had no alternative but to use my right hand,” she said.

My father, Joe, thought not a native, is included in the book. He moved from Mossblown in Ayrshire to the village of Spean Bridge in his 20s after meeting my mother and recalls the close-knit community of the miners’ rows.

“You could look north, south, east and west from our house and you would see huge pit bings and the wheels of the cages, which took the miners up and down,” he writes. 


His father Hugh's daily commute was a two-mile trip beneath the earth’s surface. It was common for miners to own pigeons, he says, reflecting that they may have provided a release after spending so much time underground. There would be races during the summer, with the “doos” sent as far away as Rennes in France.

Mary Toal describes the “proudest moment of her life” in 1980, when her son Joseph, now Bishop of Motherwell, was ordained.

Hatches, matches, despatches and other family milestones are recalled with joy and pride and there is a sense the reminiscence project was as memorable for the interviewees as the author. It would be lovely to think that the book is replicated in other Scottish villages, towns and cities.

With the luxury of technology I now have a treasured video on my phone of my mother making brose – an old Highland breakfast made with oatmeal, butter and salt that is referenced throughout the book.

Best eaten with a splash of cream, it was magically served on cold winter mornings when I was growing up without much thought for its creation.

Like most family recipes it is simple to make but impossible to recreate but I’ll keep trying. 

Down Memory Lane in the Braes of Lochaber is available online from The Highland Bookshop ( priced £10, with all proceeds donated to charitable causes.