Norman Johnson looks back on an eventful life and varied career as he turns 90
Iain Stephen Morrison
Piper, dancer, soldier, police officer, district clerk, social worker, blaster, councillor and property developer…all hats worn at some time or another in the life of Norman Johnson. Could it be that a varied career and an aversion to retirement is the key to a long life and good health? Listening to him talk about his own story, Norman, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday and remains almost as active as ever, would appear to confirm the theory.
Born at Elsie Ingles Hospital in Edinburgh on 26th October 1931, Norman is the eldest child of Peter and Maggie Johnson. His father was a merchant seaman from Muckle Roe, Shetland, while his mother hailed from North Uist. Norman was raised in Leith with his brother, Donald, and sister, Rena.
“I was brought up in Leith but we used to go on holiday every summer to North Uist. We were on the island when the war started in 1939 and my father, who was at sea, sent a telegram to us suggesting we stayed where we were in Middlequarter. We lived in my grandfather’s house, which was empty, and, after the summer break, started attending Dunskellar School,” recalled Norman.
It was something of a culture shock swapping the family home on North Junction Street for Middlequarter, not least as the language of the community was Gaelic.
“We did not speak Gaelic at the time but everyone else did at school and the teachers spoke to us in Gaelic. I remember going to school this day and telling one of the boys that I was going to start talking in Gaelic. I started to speak Gaelic, for the first time ever, and another boy heard me, let the others know and they all started to laugh. It really affected me and I never spoke another word of Gaelic until I was 18.”
Like many families at the time, the war brought tragedy as Norman, then aged nine, lost his father when the ship he was sailing on, SS Abbotsford, was torpedoed and sank in the North Sea in March 1940. Later on, while the conflict still raged but looked to favour the Allies, Maggie Johnson and her three children returned to their home in Leith.
“I went back at my old school, Leith Academy, but this day a woman who lived above us came to speak with my mother and told her about a notice in a newspaper, advertising bursaries for boys who had lost their father to attend George Heriot’s School. I applied and was successful,” explained Norman.
It was there he started a lifelong association with the bagpipes.
“George Heriot’s School had a pipe band, with an instructor who had been in the Boer War. I joined the band, bought a chanter and book, and that was the beginning for me and the pipes.”
Norman left school in 1948 and took up his first job as a clerk with DT Russell and Baird, grain and flour importers based in Leith.
He was then called up for National Service at which time he joined and was appointed piper for The Black Watch. Norman was posted to Fort George to undergo infantry training for three months and, while there, the Highland Brigade, made up of all six Highland regiments, established their training centre for pipers and Highland dancers with eager participation from Norman. He was posted to the Queen’s Barracks, Perth in 1951.
When his National Service came to an end in 1952, Norman successfully applied to become a constable, piper and Highland dancer with Edinburgh City Police. During his years with the Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band they won the World Championship. He later transferred to the CID unit and remained with the police until 1962, at which time he had achieved the rank of Detective Constable.
It was during this time, while on the beat in the centre of Edinburgh, that Norman would encounter the woman that became his wife of 65 years and counting, Margaret.
“I was often on point duty in the middle of the city and one day at Shandwick Place this young woman on a bicycle, who looked nice, came along the road and I decided to make her stop. I didn’t speak to her and eventually waved her on. I was looking out for her the next day and again stopped her but never said a word. I was on patrol a few weeks later when I saw her coming towards me with a small dog on a lead. I decided to say something and, as she approached, turned and said “I wish you would take me for a walk some day!’.
“We started talking and I told her that the police pipe band was going to be doing a charity show for three weeks at the Usher Hall and that I could get her a complimentary ticket if she would like to go and see me on stage. I told her where she would find me on duty in a few days so that I could give her the ticket. I passed her the ticket, she came along to the show and met me at the back door afterwards. We took the bus together to where she lived and that was how we got to know each other,” recalled Norman.
Norman and Margaret married in 1956 and settled in their new home on Marchmont Road in Edinburgh. Eldest son Ewen was born in 1958 with Niall following soon after in 1959. However, feeling an irresistible desire to return to North Uist, the family relocated in 1962 when Norman was appointed North Uist District Council Clerk for Inverness County Council. Alasdair, Helen and Mairead, the youngest of Norman and Margaret’s five children, were born after they moved to North Uist.
He started to train as a social worker in 1971, enrolling as a mature student at Moray House College in Edinburgh. Norman took up the role of social worker for the newly formed Comhairle nan Eilean Siar but was granted early retirement at just 50 years old in 1982.
However, it was not to be a ‘retirement’ as most would imagine, with Norman settling into a new career as a rock driller and blaster, working for his brother, Donnie. He came home each day black from head to toe, his family recall, creating the occasional trail of oily footprints on the carpet of family home the Old Court House in Lochmaddy.
During his time as District Council Clerk for Inverness County Council, Norman had a hand in discussions that led to the formation of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. He would later balance his work blasting rock with the role of councillor, serving two terms, over a decade, as an elected member of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Norman would later embark on another venture, in the role of property developer, when he acquired the derelict Sponish House. Lord MacDonald of Sleat built the three-storey house for his factor in 1803. It fulfilled numerous purposes over the years, with the one time sporting lodge later converted into a seaweed processing facility for Alginate Industries. However, the property was destroyed in a fire in 1990 and remained a shell until Norman purchased it in 1998. He has toiled on the renovation of Sponish House in the years since, working with builders, and was even on the roof fixing tiles while in his 70s. Now four apartments have been created within Sponish House.
Piping remains a passion until this day and, up until two years ago, Norman was a fixture at annual memorial services at the local war memorials on Remembrance Sunday.
Now at the age of 90, a milestone marked with his wife, five children, nine grandchildren and extended family last month, Norman says he has no intention of slowing down too much.
“I feel good and can still move around and even play the pipes. I do not feel old. I am grateful for that and the fact myself and Margaret have five children and nine grandchildren who are all fit and well. I am not sitting beside the fire for too long, still back and forth to Sponish House and that keeps me going. I am fortunate, looking back at most of what has happened in my life, and now we are where we are,” concluded Norman.
Candlemaking, crofting and being a mum is all in a day’s work for Mairi MacDonald.
Growing up and living on the islands is something that is extremely important to Mairi MacDonald.
Mairi (33) grew up on South Uist but now lives with her husband and children on North Uist.
She takes on three different roles in her day-to-day life, not least managing her own business, Caim Candles.
Being a mum to Sean (13) and Megan (9) is number one priority every day. During the pandemic, mum also meant teacher. Like many across the nation at the outset of the pandemic, Mairi was furloughed from her job at Lochmaddy Shop.
“I was furloughed as the schools closed and someone had to be at home with the kids,” explained Mairi.
“I really enjoyed being off and with the kids and, although some of the home schooling was a struggle, we got through it in the end.”
Mairi is also a committed crofter, running a flock of Blackface sheep with her husband, Ryan.
“We are trying to buy more pedigree sheep so we can try to build a bit of a name and sell better stock.
Between providing round the clock care for their sheep and ambitious plans to build a reputation for top stock, it would seem there was little time left for anything else for Mairi.
“I suffer from fibromyalgia so it’s hard to be on my feet all day in a job but I wanted to do something just for myself.”
Something for herself has turned into a TikTok sensation, an old hobby reignited and a successful local business. Caim Candles was born from lockdown frustration but has expanded into a career for a mum stuck in routine.
“I started pottering about testing, making little samples and once I figured it all out I started to make the website. Nobody knew I was doing this, not even my dad. I was working really hard behind the scenes to get it ready to launch and I just thought ‘I’m going to do this’.”
Going from strength to strength, the original idea was to focus on local but, as the business is booming, the next steps to go international have already been taken.
“I launched just before Christmas and do you know, I just can’t believe how well it’s going,” said Mairi.
“I can’t believe the amount of people supporting the business and I’ve actually had to open up to international sales because it keeps growing.”
Candles provide a calming presence, which explains the soothing nature of the business name.
‘Caim’, which means ‘sanctuary’ in Gaelic, was the perfect choice for Mairi.
The candle factory just happens to be the kitchen in the family home. Picture the boxes of wax, the oils and the smells. It’s a busy home of four but the MacDonalds make it work for their mum.
Everything is produced in the humble kitchen on North Uist.
“I do it all myself. I make the candles, testing, labelling the packaging, everything is made here in my kitchen on my own. When I’m not out lambing, I’m making candles and melts during the day, and then at night once dinner is done and my kids are sorted, I’m doing labels and stickers.”
Caim Candles now manufactures a wide range of scents, with the best-sellers coming from the ‘Signature Uibhist Range’.
“I just can’t believe the local support as well,” continued Mairi.
“I didn’t know if people from here would want to buy the Uist products but it really has just taken off.”
Peat, whisky and heather are on the list of fragrances that invoke the landscape and environment of Uist.
“I was thinking about what scents would work as part of a Uist range and someone in the Co-op mentioned that they had bought a candle that smelt of grass and my brain jumped to baling time!
It’s such a recognisable smell that reminds you of a particular time of the year. The ideas just started to roll from there, for example, seaweed, and I wasn’t even sure about that one, but it’s one of my best sellers.”
Following the recent passing of her mother, Shona, Mairi will soon be launching a charity scent in her memory.
“My mum passed away in December and I have decided to make a charity candle called ‘Purple Rain’ with proceeds going to a multiple sclerosis charity in memory of my mum. I bought the scent straight away without even thinking about how it smelt as my mum loved Prince. I made her one up and she loved it so now any product that sells in that scent, a percentage of the cost will be donated in memory of my mum.”
There is a bright future for Mairi, her family and Caim Candles with a move to more eco friendly products, plans to upsize the workshop and move out of the family kitchen, this local businesswoman is doing everything right in order to succeed.
“I’ve spent so many years stressing about childcare and juggling my jobs. I felt real guilt trying to make it all work. I always put my kids first but I still felt guilty. I love now saying I’m my own boss. I’m self-employed and I can be here for my kids, husband and the sheep. I am so proud of myself. I still don’t think I’m over how well it’s going and I don’t think I ever will. I am so grateful. I have worked hard and it’s a huge accomplishment.”
New local Citizens Advice Bureau manager Lynda MacLean discusses her work and life at home on North Uist
Having been born on the islands, growing up and now living in Claddach Baleshare, Lynda MacLean was recently been appointed Operations Manager for the Citizens Advice Bureau in the Western Isles.
Lynda, 31, has been serving the local community for more than five years working with CAB. Her work stretches across the Outer Hebrides and is the “job of a lifetime” says Lynda.
“I noticed that this job came up, took it on and was offered the position. It’s so rewarding to be helping so many people in the community.”
Like so many, Lynda’s day-to-day work life changed when the pandemic hit. New problems were emerging for people. With bigger hoops for her team to jump through in order to provide the guidance and advice the community needed, adaptation was key.
“No day is the same. You’ve no idea what’s going to come through the door in a day. Obviously things have changed now due to the pandemic, people can’t just come into the offices to get help or advice. But we’re there on the phones or email and even Zoom. We’re adapting and making it work.”
Lynda explained the importance of her role in the community: “We are a worthwhile service. People have come back and told us that we have helped their lives. I don’t know what some people would do without this service. So many people fall through the cracks and we’re there to prevent that as much as possible.”
What is important to Lynda is her job and community, her family and where she comes from. Her responsibilities lie with her son Angus, 7, stepping in as teacher as well as mum for most of this past year.
“Lockdown hasn’t hit us too badly,” reflected Lynda. “I’ve been able to spend it with Angus and we homeschool and work from home. It’s been a bit difficult but we got over it. He loves being at home with his Papa too, helping him outside and in the garden. It’s been a nice time. My husband, Tommy, and my mum are posties and they’ve not stopped working, so a lot didn’t have to change for us.”
Her home is situated just a stone’s throw away from where she grew up with her mum, Tina, and dad, Angus. Lynda and Tommy live in a new-build with character, similar to her grandparents’ cottage.
“I love living here and wouldn’t ever want to live anywhere else. I think it’s the best place to live, the remoteness and rural aspect of it is something I like a lot. Especially during lockdown, I couldn’t imagine having been stuck in a big city. The life for children here is second to none as they have freedom to be outside and learn.”
As someone who has decided to stay on the islands and raise a family with her husband, Lynda wants to encourage more young people to do the same.
“Young people should look more into life on the islands. I never expected to get this job at the CAB and never thought I’d reach this level. You just have to take a look and see what’s out there for you. Sometimes you have to start at the bottom and work your way up, and that’s okay.”
Times and attitudes towards work are changing, working from home and remote working has enabled people to enjoy where they are from: “I hope that the way things are now, it’ll give an opportunity to the islands. There will be more jobs available here and I hope that young people see the benefits of living where they’re from.”