By Angus MacPhail of Skipinnish
Here’s a health to the fishermen who plough the lonely sea
And battle with the ocean where it’s in their blood to be.
Dear the fruitful bounty of the blind and savage foam.
They’re the last of the hunters, and they’re proudly sailing home.
The sea is beautiful, powerful, heartless, enchanting, cruel and kind in equal measure. On the evening of June 24 this year it dealt a devastating blow to the west coast of Scotland when it took the life of well-known Mallaig fisherman, musician and renowned character and gentleman, Lachie Robertson. I wrote about my friend, Lachie, in August 2019 in an article for the Oban Times to mark his 60th birthday. It is a very strange feeling to put pen to paper again about this legendary man in such a tragically different context. Here are the opening paragraphs from that piece:
“For nearly four years now, I have been shooting away my weekly articles to the Oban Times and as regular readers will know, the subject matters hold certain common themes. Among the foremost-featured areas have been music, boats, fishing, anniversaries and birthdays, providential coincidence, Highland hospitality, the Mòd, music festivals, Gaelic language and culture, good ceilidhs and well-known characters of the west coast. This week’s offering covers a man who encapsulates all of the above.
I have known Lachie Robertson from Mallaig for 20 years, and many a good escapade we have had together. This Thursday, Lachie will turn 60, as too – if my memory serves me correctly – will his Danish-built fishing boat, Reul a’ Chuain (Star of the Sea). As this paper will be published on that very day, I thought it fitting to celebrate the aligning of dates and stars and write about this very well-known west coast character, piper, fisherman and expert host and ceilidh maker!”
The contrast in the emotion felt in writing his obituary compared to that happy article two years ago to celebrate his birthday is vast and the change of circumstance is difficult to comprehend.
Lachie had a positive effect on the lives of many people and was as widely liked and revered a human being as one could ever meet. Known for both his hard work as a fisherman and a fulfilling social, musical and home life, he was someone whose company was always sought out and always enjoyed.
For Lachie, there was an open door, a welcome and a bed in houses across the country, the islands and across many walks of life. Likewise, his own door was always open to welcome others.
Lachie’s early years were spent in the Scottish Borders with primary school days at Canonbie and then secondary at Langholm Academy. Most holidays were spent in Elgol on the isle of Skye where his father was from. His natural attributes and abilities were evident during his school years and as well as being the athletics champion, he was also selected as the school’s Head Boy.
From knowing Lachie, and from hearing of his earlier years, it is clear that he would have excelled in whatever area of work-life he chose to follow, but it was the call of the sea that would give Lachie his life-long vocation. After leaving school he took what was to be a temporary holiday job working on the Olive Branch, fishing out of Mallaig with Jock Summers. Fishing and the enchantment of the sea gripped him and after some time working on other boats including the Solon with Alex ‘Baitch’ MacDonald, and getting his skipper’s ticket, Lachie had his first boat, the Elizabeth Anne built brand new. The Danish built Nighean Donn, and his last boat Reul a’ Chuain were to follow. Lachie also spent a few years running sea trips on the fast, rigid inflatable, Brightwater. My uncle and I bought Brightwater from him before he went back to fishing full time and the night Lachie delivered her down to Oban for us was the setting for a great night of drams and celebration.
Between fishing and running the Brightwater, Lachie also studied for and obtained a degree in Gaelic from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.
It is difficult to convey fully just how special a human being was Lachie, and various attempts at writing this obituary, I have felt were just not hitting the right resonance and giving a true picture of the man he was. With that in mind, I have reverted to verse to try to create a more vivid picture of this unique and wonderful man.
Some walk the earth and have little effect, and pass like a ship in the night
But some have the gift of love to collect, and the beam of a magical light.
From a Cardinal Buoy guiding all who came near, from the North, East, South and from West
Came Lachie’s bright beam telling, “Deep water here”, of friendship from one of the best.
A hard-working man whose world was the sea, of long days and nights at the wheel
Of shoot, tow and haul and born to be, a skipper of strength and of steel;
Steaming for home at the end of the trip, and the peace of being tied at the pier
The landing ashore, and hose down the ship, and mending and sorting the gear.
Then the Lachie most knew, Lachie ashore, a man of family and home –
Warmth and love to the depth of his core when not fishing the merciless foam
Or a pint with the boys and a toast to the sea, some drams and a verse of a song
And the wondering lust for a tune and spree, in a blink the session was on!
To Mòds he would travel on the pull of the tide, festivals, parties or fèis.
His passion for music he spread far and wide, as the nights moved into the days.
His pipes striking up and hitting the notes of richness and wonder of life
He played them on piers, at parties, or boats, and blessed many a husband and wife!
His nature was kind and always to give, and always the good he would see.
With a wonderful mind, he knew how to live, his company easy and free.
He emitted a warmth of goodness and trust, of decency, mischief and fun
And tomorrow could wait till next week if it must, if the tunes they welcomed the sun.
His magic would spread to all who he’d know, and the better for knowing him we are
Like his own Reul a’ Chuain eternal the glow, of the gift of Lachie’s bright star.
Now he’s moved on but his spirit’s not gone, he’ll be here long into the years
And with laughter and song and tunes all night long, here’s to Lachie with joy in our tears.
The night Lachie was lost, I was sitting in the Heathbank Hotel in Northbay, Barra, with my friend and partner in fishing, Donald Uileam MacLeod (Copper Top). Word had reached Donald that there had been an incident on Reul a’ Chuain and that Lachie had been in the water. A short while later the dreadful news came that, as Donald put it at the time, “He didn’t make it.” The shock we felt that night would have been felt far and wide as the news spread.
The sea is a callous and dangerous place and fishing its rich bounty comes too often at the ultimate cost. That someone as fit, able, experienced and careful as Lachie can be taken in the blink of an eye is a cruel reminder of the toll the sea takes on those who work upon it.
Lachie is survived by his daughters Kenna and Rachael and their mother Niki, his partner Fiona, his brother Donald and his sister Catriona.