Ali Beag MacLeod

2015 Profile for Am Bratach

Rhu Beag was where Ali Beag Macleod worked at the salmon fishing. On the north coast of the Còigach peninsula, the tiny rocky natural harbour is accessible only by boat from Altandhu or Achiltibuie, or on foot- a treacherous scramble through scrubby heather and down slippy hillsides. Looking out across a seven mile stretch of the North Atlantic, the lighthouse at Stoer is barely visible. Above the harbour lay a drystone salmon bothy. With simple bunk beds and an open fire, it’s from here Ali Beag and co would set off in to the glassy expanse, to haul nets teeming with glimmering Atlantic salmon. They’d then sail in with their haul to Badentarbat bay in Achiltibuie, converging with boats holding the catch from several other bothies dotted round the 20 mile coastline of the peninsula. Their gains ashore, a white flag would be raised on a flagpole, signalling Hector the mechanic’s father who would trundle round from Achnahaird on his Ferguson tractor to pull them up the beach.

Far away now from their distant ocean feeding grounds, the salmon would be packed in to wooden crates with the trademark Badentarbat Salmon Fisheries stamped on to the side. This hallmark of quality travelled all over Scotland and even further afield, the demand meaning that Còigach remained a bustling and industrious place. Ali Beag has lived his whole life in the village, and spent much of it working out of the salmon bothy at Rhu Beag. A Gàidhlig speaker, musician and font of knowledge of the area, he’s the definition of a fixture, one which has seen it change over the years.  

As a young man of 17, Ali Beag had been working at the salmon fishing for two years. Now, sitting in his living room in Achnahaird, the wooden walls lined with model boats made by his own hand, his youth is still apparent, although hidden under a full head of white hair and a forehead furrowed by time. It’s present in the way these creases move as he laughs, recounting memories with a clarity of events that happened yesterday, not sixty years ago.

1957 was a particularly prosperous year for the salmon fishing in Achiltibuie, and with his wage packet burning a hole in his pocket, he spied an accordion in the window of the music shop in Inverness. He tells me: “It was a new 3 row Honher Echo. They were good boxes. It was £96, which in 1957 was thousands and thousands of pounds... It was a lot of money”. By the end of the summer, he was able to buy the accordion and had just enough left over to buy a record player and some Jimmy Shand records. It drove his father wild, complaining to his neighbours “Oh he said, it’s Jimmy Shand for breakfast, Jimmy Shand for dinner and Jimmy Shand for tea". It wasn’t just Ali’s father who was bemused by his love of the accordion. Jim Muir, another recipient of the generous salmon wage had spent a similar amount of money buying a house. Shocked, he quizzed Ali as to why on earth he hadn’t made a similar purchase instead of an accordion. "Ah, but Jim" he responded sagely, “you can’t play a house”.

Soon, he was being asked to play for cèilidh dances in the Còigach village hall. "It used to be those damn records that they used in the hall, but myself and a fellow in the village, Roddy - a piano accordion player - started playing for dances."Roddy, he was a bit of a hasher but didn’t care. His idea was you could start off the dance with the right tune then you could play anything you wanted after that and nobody would notice!” Eventually, Ali Beag managed to get together with the recently appointed village schoolmaster and piper Al Fraser and some other local musicians, to form the Còigach cèilidh band, who for many years would provide the soundtrack to local dances, weddings, and parties.

In recent years, Ali’s musical endeavours have taken him far beyond the stage in the Còigach community hall. From festivals in Ireland, where he’s played with the likes of Nuala Kennedy and Alasdair White, to releasing a number of CDs with his mandolin and bouzouki playing cousin Kevin Macleod. I was surprised to tune in to BBC Alba the other day to see Ali Beag playing alongside Julie Fowlis, Duncan MacGillivray and a host of other familiar faces. This was by no means his only brush with the silver screen. He appears in BAFTA winning director John Maclean’s film Slow West, where with eyes shining and coarse vocals, he sings in Gàidhlig a song written in the area some two hundred years ago. His performance was so convincing that one of the actors turned around to Kevin Macleod (who also appeared in the film) and remarked: “He’s a great actor” - the only response Kevin could give was: “He’s not acting!”

At one point (certainly before I was born), the language sung and spoken throughout the village would’ve been Gàidhlig. And in this small corner of the world, Ali tells me, the Gàidhlig was unique. “Every village had its on dialect, you could tell where people were from by how they spoke it. Gairloch and Assynt, they were completely different things. Còigach had a completely different Gàidhlig too”. At the time, English was barely heard: “My father never spoke any English to me unless there was somebody who didn’t have Gàidhlig. If you spoke English, they’d be asking:" “What the hell are you on?” The only place it was necessary to speak English, even in Ali’s younger years was in school. "We didn’t get it in the school though, they were against it in the school. Although our teacher was from Skye and had plenty of Gàidhlig, still it was English only". 

Eventually, as happened all over Scotland, Gàidhlig began to be replaced by English. With there being little need for the language, parents stopped teaching it to their children. Despondently, Ali sighed “There’s only Christine Wesley, myself and Old Simon with Gàidhlig in the village now. They’re the only ones who speak it the Còigach way”. He quizzed me: “Do you have Gàidhlig? I know there’s a lot of young folks now who do”. I don’t even though it was the first language of Old Simon- my grandfather. I remark upon the ever increasing number of opportunities for young people to learn the language, and how some now are two or three generations below the last to have spoken Gàidhlig before English. Ali pauses at this before continuing: “The Gàidhlig they’re taught is not the Gàidhlig I’ve spoken, full of words I’ve never heard before!"

The bothy at Rhu Beag is roofless and windowless, the wooden boats pulled up the beach and slowly returning to the earth, the nets long gone and the fishboxes dismantled and hung as objets d’arte on the walls of Còigach’s self catering holiday homes. Indeed the village where Ali grew up and the village I grew up in are very different places. His house in Achnahaird is a three mile drive from my parents’, mostly over a flat plain, dominated by hillwalkers’ favourites: Stac Pollaidh, Suliven and Ben Mor Còigach. The road cuts arrow straight through the landscape, surrounded on each side by the ridges of long grown over peat banks. In 1960, when Ali was the age I am now, this landscape was a different sight: “Between here and Altandhu, there were stacks of peats on both sides of the road, everybody cut them. There was no coal”. As I remember it, the coal arrived every two weeks on the back of a lorry, delivered by a big (slightly scary for an eight year old) man covered in coal dust. For Ali, coal arrived on a steamship and was considered a luxury. Day to day living happened locally: "Everybody had a dog and a cow, or two dogs and two cows and sheep. You only needed that, a barrel of herring and a field of potatoes.. That was all you needed. Now", he sighs, "if you can’t get to Tesco every second day you’re dead!”