Farewell, my father
"Lord, let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled..." Nunc Dimittis from Luke 2.29
My father has just breathed his last in this world and has gone to glory in the next. Please allow me to share his story. As I am writing spontaneously I will omit things that others might consider significant and include what might seem trivial. Co-dhiù!
Donald Alexander was born on 23 January 1938, older son of Colin and Margaret. His brother, John Campbell, arrived six years later. The boys grew up in Edinburgh where their mother, from Islay, and father, from Australia, had settled. Grandpa was away for much of their formative years, on account fo the Second World War, while Granny was bedridden with asthma. So the boys were left to their own devices.
Fortunately for Dad, success came naturally, particularly in the athletic and academic realms. He ran in tries as winger for the Edinburgh Academy 1st XV and was crowned 'Victor Ludorum' on his final Sports Day, winning the 100m, 200m and Long Jump - a feat he repeated in the Army during national service. He served as an officer in the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, seeing action in Aden. His memories include morning PT on the ship, where the men were put through their paces on the deck while the young officers maintained their fitness under the tutelage of the Pipe Major, who taught them highland dancing!
Three happy years at Pembroke College Cambridge prepared him for his chosen career in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. His was a vintage crop, including the lads who went on to achieve fame as comedy trio The Goodies and the inventor of the Dolby System, whose family have been generous benefactors of the college since. The creative atmosphere nurtured Dad's enthusiasm for the stage, which he expressed through college drama group The Pembroke Players, with whom he toured during university vacations.
During training for the diplomatic service, his cohort received an informal address by an old salt who described the daily routine they could look forward to on overseas postings, which seemed to revolve around tennis courts and cocktail circuits. When fellow next to Dad remarked that didn't seem too onerous, the old boy barked back: "You'll find it cuts into the day!"
Midway through his first posting - to Burma - Dad met Mum on home leave in Edinburgh. The pressure of separation may have played its part but theirs was a whirlwind romance and, within 6 weeks, they were married and embarking on their new life together. I came along shortly after and was introduced to life in the exotic environs of the British Embassy, Rangoon. By the time my sister, Katrina, was born, we were on a "home posting", which meant living in London so Dad could commute into the Foreign Office every day. I think it was during this time that Dad served as Private Secretary to George Thomas, later Lord Tonypandy and Speaker of the House of Commons.
Our next overseas posting was to Canada, where my younger sister, Fiona, and brother, Alasdair, were born. Further spells in London and then Romania and Singapore had us ricocheting around the world, in what was an exciting if unstable life. Having requested "No more tropical postings, please" when the Grenada Crisis occasioned Dad's assignment to Finland to be switched to Barbados, Mum's patience was finally worn out and Dad gallantly agreed that it was time to hang up his plumed hat in favour of something more down-to-earth.
Long story short, they bought the vacated Church of Scotland manse at Dunvegan and re-established the family on the Isle of Skye, creating the elegant and hospitable home we all came to know and love as Kinlochfollart. My sisters, Katrina and Fiona, were both married from here and it became a cherished holiday resort for all 13 grandchildren. Perhaps the highlight was at Christmas 2013 when all 23 of the immediate family gathered, with pets, to celebrate Mum and Dad's 50th wedding anniversary and 75th birthdays.
The dream was rudely interrupted some ten years ago when Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Eventually his deterioration prompted their selling of Kinlochfollart and moving to Edinburgh, where there was more support. Happily Dad never manifested the more distressing character changes which often attend the condition. Indeed, if anything, as he diminished in one capacity other endearing qualities shone through.
Worthy of mention are my mother's constant love and companionship and the extraordinary support provided by my sister, Katrina, and her family. As the end loomed, it was great comfort that we all got to bid our farewells, including my brother Alasdair, who made it back from Finland in time to join Mum and Katrina at Dad's bedside.
I wrote the following poem as my personal tribute (translation follows):
‘ic Chailein mac an t-Seanaileir
ri linn Iain a’ Chùil Bhàin,
deicheamh ceann-cinnidh Chloinn ‘icLeòid,
tha sinn uile gad ionndrainn!
Ged a bha thu beag nad àirde
agus màlda nad mhiannan,
sheas thu gu h-àrd nar spèis
a’ cur mar fhiachaibh oirnn ar meas.
Nad òige, bu tu am fiadh:
clis, sgiobalta, uasal.
Srùth do thiodhlacan gu nàdarra,
torrach mar a’ chraobh ubhal.
Cho maireannach ’s a bha e luath,
bha d’ shuirghe le Ròs-Màiri seunta,
a’ tionndadh paidhreadh a thàinig o nèamh
gu dachaigh thalmhaidh làn gaoil.
Ged a fhritheil sibh banrigh is dùthaich,
còmhla agus air feadh an t-saoghail,
b’ e an rud bu mhotha a choilean sibh
ath-stèidheachadh ar teaghlach san Eilean.
Sruth fìon aosta na h-aoigheachd
bhon taigh aig Ceann Loch Follairt,
’s gun a bhith a’ dìochuimhneachadh
roinnean fialaidh aran na fàilte.
Thèid an reis air adhart,
tha an fhuil fhathast làidir,
agus tha thu nad òige a-rithist
mar a chunnaic mi lem shùilean fhìn…
… agus bha thu a’ coimhead eireachdail!
son of Colin
son of Donald
son of Donald
son of Colin, son of the General,
of the line of fair-haired John,
tenth chief of Clan MacLeod,
we all miss you!
Though you were small of stature
and modest in your appetites,
you stood tall in our estimation
commanding our respect.
In youth, you were a deer:
nimble, quick, noble.
Your gifts flowed naturally,
fruitful like the apple-tree
As enduring as it was fleeting,
your courting with Rosemary was enchanted
turning a match that was made in heaven
into an earthly home full of love.
Though you served queen and country,
together and around the world,
your greatest achievement was
re-establishing our family on the Island.
The fine wine of hospitality flowed
from the house at Kinlochfollart,
and not to be forgotten were
the generous helpings of the bread of hospitality.
The race continues,
the blood is still strong,
and you are young again
as I have seen with my own eyes…
… and you looked magnificent!
I should add a note of explanation to the final stanza... When Dad was rushed into hospital about a month ago, I had a dream. My mother and I were hurrying across the road in the centre of a city somewhere. Suddenly Dad was walking beside us. But not as I had known him. Rather, it must have been as he looked when he and Mum were courting. He was wearing chinos, a tropical shirt, open at the collar, and a candy-striped blazer. His dark hair was swept back and he flashed a smile. Then he was gone. Mum and I entered whatever place we had been making for. She had evidently not seen what I had and, as we took our seats, I wondered if she would notice the tears that I had filled my eyes.
I have no doubt that this was from the Lord, a glimpse of what is technically called "intrusion ethics" where, every now and then, a flash of eternity breaks into our linear world. It confirms what I regard as the greatest joy in my privileged life: that of witnessing my parents' growing faith in the Lord Jesus, who died our death that we might rise to new life in him forever. Enjoy your inheritance, Dad!