Ronnie Campbell, Lochaber Camanachd, 1931-2022

During a particularly sad period when shinty has lost a number of its older characters Lochaber is for the second time in a very short period mourning the loss of another of its shinty legends.

Ronnie Campbell passed away in Moss Park Care Home, Caol on Monday 10th Jan at the ripe old age of 90. We offer our sincere condolences to Ronnie’s sisters Sally, Ishbel,  Catriona and the family.

Among many other achievements in a long and colourful life, he will be remembered as a fine shinty player and Lochaber stalwart. He enjoyed a long playing career and supported the club to the end of his days.  His final years were blighted by the onset of dementia, but he remained fit and actively working, well into his eighties.

He was born in Bohuntin, Glen Roy in 1931 into an old stock Brae Lochaber family steeped in the traditions and culture of the area. His pedigree was formidable with a Glassich Campbell father, a Slìochd an Taighe MacDonald mother, and MacMartin Cameron and Bohuntin Mackintosh grandmothers all of whom could trace their lineage in the Braes back for at least 500 years.

He was a passionate Gael with an enduring love of all things traditional and Highland. Ronnie was  the last man who could still speak the old vernacular Gaelic of the Braes He had a fine singing voice and would give Highland songs in Gaelic or English at the drop of a hat. He had an amazing clarity of recall which combined with a sense of humour and fun  made him an extremely entertaining storyteller and companion. He was a good dancer too and enjoyed to the full the ceilidhs, dances and functions in the days when there was a vibrant social life in the Roy Bridge area.

Although a very intelligent man, Ronnie had only a brief flirtation with secondary education in Fort William before the call of the hills became too strong  and he headed back to the Glen to work at the shepherding, crofting and the ghillieing he loved. The outdoor life made him extremely fit, He played badminton and was a fine hill runner, but his real sporting passion remained the shinty.

His lifetime love of shinty spanned the entire period of the modern game. He could show you the remote corrie where his grand uncle John Mackintosh had cut a branch of black birch to make his caman for the 1896 Camanachd cup final and he was a delighted spectator when the recently formed  Lochaber Ladies won their first ever Valerie Fraser Cup in 2016.

His shinty career began at Roy Bridge school where it was the only game played at breaks, on the way home, and in the fields after school. His natural assets made him  ideally suited to the game, although small in stature he was brave, fast, tough, wily, agile, with a superb eye for the ball. He had a sharp mind and innate tactical awareness and ability to read a game.

Brae Lochaber were still the senior team of the area and shinty was just picking itself up after the second world war when Ronnie as a 15 year old was introduced into the team. He could recount in his later years with incredible accuracy and humour the amazing characters involved and the fun they had  in these days. Dodo ‘Parry’ MacDonald, Ronnie’s contemporary and fellow Bohuntin boy recalls playing shinty for the Braes in a similar vein in this wonderful recent interview.

(Ronnie in fact bought Dodo’s croft and house and lived there in Bohuntin  for the rest of his life)

Ronnie’s abilities soon caught the attention of the wider shinty world and he was given the honour of  joining the elite players representing his area in the district competitions.  He was also noticed by an ambitious Beauly committee who were building a team hoping to go on to sweep the boards. Ronnie and fellow Braes player the late Donnie MacDougall were headhunted and spent a season in the Green jerseys. Ronnie returned to the Braes without the promised silverware  but with the experience of playing against the very fine Caberfeidh and Lovat teams of the time, a fund of stories and load of new aquaintances and friends in the north.

Shinty was struggling in Lochaber again and the solution seemed to be to merge the ancient rivals Brae Lochaber and Spean Bridge into one team. This duly happened in 1958 and the white of the Braes was exchanged for the red and white hoops of Lochaber Camanachd playing at the new field at Spean

This led to the most rewarding period of Ronnies career when, at the age of 34,he became the elder statesman and captain of the superb young Lochaber Camanachd team that took the junior shinty world by storm in the mid sixties. Ronnie who was a great motivator with a never say die attitude  led them in a trophy laden three years  where they won every honour  available to them, vying with excellent Ballachulish and Boleskine teams for the trophies.

Despite the demands of work Ronnie continued to play when he could, helping with the establishment of the new Lochaber Camanachd second team in the late 1970s and still making the odd cameo appearance right into his fifties. A natural coach he loved passing on the tricks and skills of the game to the younger players.

He became an instantly recognisable face in the Lochaber support with his trademark woolly bonnet and turned down welly boots. He loved to introduce the many overseas visitors he showed around the area to the game. His  engaging and naturally extroverted personality made him  a great ambassador for the club and shinty. He was particularly enthusiastic about the links established by the Lochaber Club with  the hurlers  in the West of Ireland . He looked on this a renewal of an ancient Gaelic bond.

Aside from shinty Ronnie was well respected in agriculture circles, running the sheep stock club as well as his croft. He was a champion sheep shearer, and as in shinty, delighted in passing on the skills he had learnt to young crofters and shepherds . He was very proud of being one of the last men  to drive a  flock of sheep from Badenoch back to Lochaber in the traditional manner, as he was delighted to explain to the local schoolchildren.

Ronnie was a devoted adherent to the ancient faith of the Brae Lochaber glens, his grand-uncle had been Archbishop of Glasgow  at the turn of the century and his uncle had been the post war  Archbishop of Glasgow. His MacDonald grandmother was a close relation to Mother Mary Mackillop the first Australian Saint. Ronnie became a great resource for those who flocked to the area to trace her origins and he travelled to Australia and Rome to take part in the Canonisation ceremonies.

Ronnie accompanying the relic of St Mary MacKillop for the Canonisation in Rome October 17, 2010

He played a key role in the fund raising efforts which saved the ancient church of Cille Choirrill from destruction, raising money from sponsored walks and travelling to Cape Breton to promote the cause.

Ronnie loved to meet the descendants of those who had been forced from their homes by the cultural, economic and religious oppression which followed the break up of the clan system in the late 18th and 19th centuries. He was born less than 200 years after the Battle of Culloden and inherited the folk memory of the subsequent sufferings of the indigenous population. He could show the visitors the stones of the very houses their forebears had so tragically  left and the places held  dear in the exiles’ memories. He became an icon for so many of the Brae Lochaber diaspora in Atlantic  Canada and Australia and further afield providing a much appreciated living  link as a tradition bearer for their Gaelic past.

The values instilled in his  upbringing which emphasised  a demand  for social justice and an  obligation to support  the vulnerable and marginalised in society  fuelled his forays into politics. He was a passionate opponent of what he saw as the continued exploitation of the Highlands and its people by greedy, powerful and wealthy interests and the government agencies  which enabled them. He became well  known as a crofting activist and land reform enthusiast. To further these aims he even stood as a candidate in both the Westminster and Holyrood elections at the remarkable age of 85.

In  Lochaber and beyond  we are not only celebrating the life of a legendary shinty man and amazing  character  but also lamenting the loss of an irreplaceable oral tradition bearer and link to our old Highland way of life.