Few have combined the two with such consistency as Norman Alasdair MacDonald/Tom Ally/Dokus who is about to retire as convener of Comhairle nan Eilean and, after 25 years, will not stand for re-election to the council.
A quarter century is a long stint by any standard but Tom Ally’s community focus, particularly in his native Uig, goes back far further. For decades before he had an elected role, he made things happen in a fragile community faced with the challenges of a declining population.
While other parts of the island moved on to community ownership, most of Uig remains part of that half of Lewis still burdened with private landlordism. Yet the paradox is that Uig has as many community-led initiatives as anywhere, to all of which Tom Ally has been central.
Still, he says, it would be a very different place if over the past few decades, the land had also been under community ownership. “There is only so much you can do,” he says, “without the basic resource of land”.
Tom Ally’s only time living away from Uig was a short period after leaving school. He grew up in Valtos in a big family, the ‘Tochies”. An obituary for his mother, the renowned Mairi Hearadh, appeared recently in the Gazette.
In these days, Uig children were sent off to hostel in Stornoway throughout their secondary schooling. It is an experience that Tom Ally remembers the Gibson Hostel with no fondness at all. “It was horrendous,” he says. “I was bullied and beaten for some time in the hostel. The only year I got peace was my last one, when the bullies responsible had gone”.
Small wonder that in later life it was one of his ambitions to see the hostel system disposed of once and for all, both by retaining children in their own communities and improving communications throughout the islands to allow daily travel.
As soon as he left school, his mother marched him down to a caravan where a careers adviser, known as Bodach May, was staying and told him to find her son a job. The decision taken on his behalf was that he should join the civil service and he was dispatched to London for interviews, staying with his uncle, Finlay Maclennan from Scarp, who was a senior police officer.
After a couple of abortive interviews, Tom Ally decided the civil service was not for him and asked if there was any manual work available. Finlay drove him round building sites in Croydon and the result was that, aged 17, he spent a year working as an under-age steelfixer.
He went home on holiday and has a very clear memory of stepping off the ferry and deciding: “I am never going back”. His belongings were forwarded from London which “in a weird way, I found quite claustrophobic compared to here”. The big, wide world could wait when the Uig hills beckoned.
Tom Ally then spent three years as an apprentice bricklayer with M.M. Afrin and Co. before finding work closer to home on the Job Creation Programme, constructing a jetty at Mealista for the crofters to take their sheep over to the island. Steelfixing, bricklaying, jetty-building …. by his early 20s, he was well equipped in life’s practical skills.
By then he was also running a youth club in Uig where there was very little provision for entertainment and the only community facility was a small wooden hall beside the school. At that time, one of the first “incomers” to Uig was Mick Bolton who was a council roads engineer and died at a tragically young age. Mick brought with him a disco sound system that became the envy of all Lewis. For Uig’s teenagers, the youth club was a game-changer.
In 1980, with EU money to strengthen peripheral communities, Comhairle nan Eilean appointed a number of youth and community workers throughout the islands and Tom Ally got the job in Uig and Bernera. He recalls how much he owes to the council officers involved in this programme - Finlay Macleod, John Murray, Donald John Macleod – who realised its significance and created a great deal of flexibility within it.
He says: “We had a lot of leeway compared to other places. The best of it was that we were based in our own communities and that makes a huge difference. It is very different now. We were very fortunate to have these guys supporting us, right across the spectrum of what we were able to deliver”.
At the same time, they acquired Diplomas in Youth and Community Work from Northern College in Aberdeen which they attended in six week blocks. Having concluded that the course was largely a waste of time, they persuaded the college a better route would be to visit each others’ communities and learn from them, in order to apply lessons more generally. It was, quite literally, a change of course which made the experience worthwhile.
Tom Ally has no doubt that his role in Youth and Community Work, which latterly extended to the whole of the Westside of Lewis, was “by far the best job I ever had – it was just brilliant”. It was a bonus that the Valtos Outdoor Centre – now demolished – was within his own patch and provided a fantastic facility for young people from all over the islands and beyond.
After 17 years, he moved from working for the Comhairle to becoming a member of it. For employment purposes, he took roles in Gaelic development, first with Comunn na Gaidhlig and then as training co-ordinator for the National Gaelic Arts Agency. In 2004, he became head of community development at Western Isles Enterprise.
All this time, Tom Ally had been intensively involved in projects for the betterment of the Uig community. A huge undertaking throughout the 1990s was to raise funds for a proper Community Centre and when this was achieved it was to a very high standard, creating a first-class community asset in a place which previously had almost no such amenity. Since then, there have been countless events, facilities and classes which otherwise simply could not have happened.
In the same year he was elected to the Comhairle, he also joined the Fire Service and when the community centre was extended, a new fire station was incorporated into the building. He had supported the same approach in Bernera and the idea of facility-sharing, rather than building free-standing fire stations in rural communities, was embraced more widely by the Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service as a way of maintaining that vital service.
It was his great collaborator in many of the community ventures in Uig, Calum ‘Ruadh’ Morrison, who encouraged him to stand for election when the sitting member, John Campbell, died in 1997. “To a large extent,” he says, “council work was an extension of what I had been doing anyway in the community, trying to solve the same kind of problems and getting the same kind of phone calls at ten o’clock at night”.
He remembers saying this to a Stornoway councillor who expressed great surprise to learn that any constituent phoned him at ten o’clock at night. “There is a big difference between being a councillor in the town,” says Tom Ally, “and covering a huge area like Uig and Bernera where you know everyone and there is an expectation you will be available to help solve any problem”.
However, in addition to purely local dimensions, he proved an astute and effective politician with close links to the early administrations at Holyrood. One of his proudest achievements was as chair of Sgoiltean Ura which delivered five new schools through a unique funding arrangement that avoided long-term debt associated with the public-private finance. There was even enough left over to help fund a new build at Paible.
The MSP at the time, Alasdair Morrison, recalls: “Basically it was the biggest transformation of the schools estate in the islands since the 1872 Education Act. The whole thing was very ably steered by Tom Ally who had a great way of talking officials in Edinburgh into submission and making them want to help in the delivery”.
Among the many other initiatives in Uig for which Tom Ally provided leadership and confidence was the buy-out of the local shop when Calum Ruadh and his wife Mairead decided to retire in 2003, having provided a great service against the odds for many years. Once again, connections built up over the years proved crucial.
He says: “Uig would have been absolutely stuffed without a shop. I knew Tor Justad in Shetland who had also been involved in community work and had very close ties with the Co-operative. Through him, we were able to establish a link with the Co-op that continues to this day. It was largely due to the support we got from the Co-op that a community buy-out was possible”. The shop now wins national awards for excellence.
It seems unlikely that Tom Ally will be idle in retirement. He still sees community land ownership as an objective. Two years ago Uig and Hamnaway Estate was sold by an absentee syndicate to the individual who already owns neighbouring Morsgail and sporting rights (though not the land) in North Harris – a vast private empire.
Tom Ally says: “I now have some hope that Ian Scarr-Hall (the landlord) would do the same kind of deal for Uig as in North Harris – he keeps the house and sporting rights while the community has the opportunity to use the land to provide housing and create jobs”.
As for local government, he believes the three island authorities must continue to work together for a better deal. “The funding we get from the Scottish Government just keeps diminishing. That has been the most challenging part. Ourselves, Orkney and Shetland have been the worst treated, and that is an argument which has to be won.”