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Issue 58 - A Noble Legacy

Scotland Magazine Issue 58
August 2011

 

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A Noble Legacy

Roddy looks back at the influence of Sir Iain Noble.

Like everyone who knew him, I was greatly saddened last Christmas to hear of the death of my friend Sir Iain Noble of Ardkinglas and Eilean Iarmain. He was one of those romantic idealists who didn’t just sit around and talk about what he wanted to do with his life, he turned his dreams into a reality.

As one of the early participants in Scotland’s oil boom of the 1960s, his various merchant banking enterprises obviously made him wealthy enough to do so, but at the same time he was not averse to rattling a few cages with his marginally eccentric vision of Scotland. He enjoyed courting controversy with his usage of a Gaelic cheque book, the dual language signposts that he insisted be introduced throughout the Highlands, and his requirement that his Pràban na Linne Gaelic whiskies be unchilfiltered, thus retaining all of their original goodness.

It always amused me that somebody who was born in Shanghai and educated at Eton College in England, should be so passionate about Gaelic culture. Yet I cherish memories of Burns suppers held in his Edinburgh home more than 40 years ago where one of us, if not all of us, would be called upon to recite a verse or two from Sorley MacLean or Duncan Ban MacIntyre.

The achievement that he will be best remembered for therefore is Sabhal Mór Ostaig, the Gaelic language college which he helped to create on the island of Skye in 1972. The world’s only higher education institute to teach in Gaelic exclusively, it is now a member of the University of the Highlands and Islands and continues to play a critical role keeping the Gaelic language alive.

I was thinking about this when I opened up the Scottish Australian Heritage Council’s 2011 Souvenir programme and noticed that in the itinerary of events was the annual ceremony held at Rawson Park, Mosman, to honour the Scotland- Australian Cairn. Situated on the headland dividing Sydney Harbour from the Pacific Ocean, this iconic monument was gifted to Australia by the people of Scotland in 1988.

It commemorates Captain Arthur Phillip, the first British Governor of New South Wales, with 11 ships of the First Fleet in Australian in 1788.

Cairns were traditionally erected in the Highlands of Scotland in memory of great events, and it was Sir Iain’s suggestion that school children and Church of Scotland ministers be given the task of gathering stones from every Parish in Scotland, 1,750 in total. He established a working committee to raise the necessary funds to pay for it and on 8th April 1988, the cargo was despatched.

The cairn at Mosman was put together by Duncan Matheson, a skilled craftsman who travelled over especially from Wester Ross to complete the task. He himself died in 2010 at the age of 82, but it says a lot about the traditional Highland way of life that he was still living in the same croft in which he was born.

Some of the stones are engraved with their origins; most of them are richly coloured, reflecting the geological tapestry of Scotland.

Embedded in the summit is a whinstone originating from the hillside of Ulva, off the island of Mull, and birthplace of Lachlan Macquarie, who became the first Civil Governor of Australia in 1809. It is engraved with a Celtic Cross and Macquarie’s personal motto: An t’Arm breac dearg.

Standing on the circular rostrum, with the flags and banners of our two nations on all sides, it is impossible to be unaware of the common links that all of us share. Sir Iain understood this.

Every year since 1988, there has been a formal procession to the headland at Mosman led by the Cairn Wardens’ Piper, the bearer of the Mosman Claymore, the Principal Warden of the Cairn (the Mayor of Mosman), two banner bearers, and the Australian Scottish Heritage Council’s guest from Scotland whose duty it is to convey to the people of Scotland that the Cairn, a people to people gift, is being cherished and well maintained.

In 2011, this task was undertaken by Alexander Brodie of Brodie, 27th Chief of Clan Brodie.

In 2002, the same honour fell to me, and that is yet another reason why I shall always be immensely grateful for having known Sir Iain Noble.