A ‘surreal’ conclusion to emotional reunion

It was a fine late March day in 1971 and John Angus Macdonald, then eight years of age, was fishing from the rocks with his brother at Ramadale, close to his home in Swordale.
Alasdair and John Angus with the certificate awarded all these years ago.Alasdair and John Angus with the certificate awarded all these years ago.
Alasdair and John Angus with the certificate awarded all these years ago.

​Then John Angus took a step too far. He was in the sea and the tide carried him into a shingly cave. He didn’t have the strength to fight his way out and went under again and again. His brother, Murdo Dan who was a year older, ran for help.

By the grace of God, it was round the corner. Alasdair Macleod, then 18, takes up the story:

“An old bodach and I from Swordale were on the shore that day gathering razor fish as it was an exceptionally low Spring tide.

“That’s really what saved John Angus as there was a pebbly beach below the cliff which is only exposed at Spring tides. Otherwise we would not have been there and he would have drowned”. Alasdair plunged into the sea and rescued the boy.

For the two main players, the near tragedy led to different outcomes. John Angus went home and “got leathered by my mother”. In July of that year, Alasdair was presented with a Royal Humane Society certificate for “having gone to the rescue of a boy who was in imminent danger of drowning”.

A couple of years later, John Angus’s family moved away from Lewis, in the summer before he was due to go to Bayble School. His brush with death was rarely mentioned except in close family circles.

Alasdair rarely referred to the episode either and had never expected to hear about it again. After all, it happened 52 years ago. The certificate was buried firmly in a drawer.

Last month, there was a school reunion in Point. Former pupils of Bayble School and its feeder primaries who were around the 60 mark were given an open invitation to attend. John Angus’s daughters decided to buy him and their mother, Marion, a trip to Lewis for the reunion, as a 60th birthday present.

At the reunion, John Angus fell into conversation with Stewart Macleod, a Bayble “old boy”, well-known to many through Lewis Crofters. He asked if Stewart remembered the Ramadale incident. Stewart told him: “Of course I do. We talked about nothing else in school for weeks after”.

Once the subject was out in the open, John Angus asked Stewart if the man who saved him was still around.

“Very much so”, he was assured and Stewart contacted Alasdair in Swordale to ask if he would be willing to meet. Thus another kind of reunion was arranged for the following day.

“It was the first time I had seen John Angus since that day at Ramadale 52 years ago”, said Alasdair. “It was pretty emotional for me and I think for him too”. The two men got on well. After 52 years, there was much to talk about and Alasdair dug out the old Royal Humane Society certificate.

John Angus says: “It was certainly emotional. After we left Lewis, our family moved about a lot. When we left the island, we went first to Culbokie. Then I have been 45 years in Dornoch. The only contact with Lewis was really for funerals, in and out in a day. I had no idea what had become of Alasdair so it was great to find him in good shape”.

Another twist in the tale was to follow. One of John Angus and Marion’s daughters is married to a police dog-handler and they live in Inverness. Alasdair’s son Cailean used to be a police dog-handler before transferring to mountain rescue and lives in Inverness.

The exchange of a few more details confirmed what Marion told Alasdair next: “Our son-in-law taught your grandchildren to swim”.

While the poignancy of that discovery was sinking in, they also established that their daughter had taught Alasdair’s grandchildren in primary school at Balloch. “It is surreal” says John Angus. “We were so close and nobody knew the connection”.