From 'Poor House' to the Gaelic heights

When Bill Innes received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gaelic media event in Glasgow, it was due recognition of his contribution to the language and culture – as a writer, translator, broadcaster and in multiple other roles.

By Brian Wilson
Friday, 18th February 2022, 8:32 am
Bill in the cockpit of the Trident 3 in the mid 1970s
Bill in the cockpit of the Trident 3 in the mid 1970s

It also marked an extraordinary journey in life from the traumatic circumstances of early childhood, through the privilege of education to a career in aviation that must have seemed a distant dream. Retirement from flying when he was 60 then allowed him to develop his most productive period in the Gaelic cause.

Bill was born in Kinlochleven. His father, from a croft in Aberdeenshire, became an engineer, worked on the Canadian railways and returned to become a foreman in the Kinlochleven aluminium smelter. He was 56 when Bill was born and died a few years later.

They lived by then in a cottage outside Glencoe and Bill’s mother was left in isolation with two small boys and a pension of ten shillings a week. She had a nervous breakdown but that condition won little recognition in the early 1940s. She was committed to Argyll’s mental institution in Lochgilphead while Bill and his brother were taken to the West Highland Rest in Oban, otherwise known as the Poor House.

They were the only children surrounded by older men but found kindness from island nurses.

One told Father John Morrison, then a priest in Oban and later renowned as ‘Father Rocket”, about the plight of these two Catholic boys. He spoke to a young woman called Mary Bowie from South Uist who was working in an Oban hotel. She in turn contacted her mother and it was agreed that the boys would be taken in by them, in Howbeg.

The elder Mary Bowie had raised eleven children in a house which had no electricity, sanitation or running water. By then, there was only one son, Peter, at home; the others had gone to war while he was exempted to carry on croft work.

Bill recalls: “Homers were the thing in those days, mainly from Glasgow” – boarded out children who were expected to help with croft work.

However, Bill found himself in a home “where they believed in education – an unbelievable stroke of luck. People today wouldn’t understand the level of poverty that existed but there was a great spirit in the community. Mary Bowie never left the island but she understood the power of education to change lives for others. What I was given was love”.

Mary’s husband died a year after he arrived but she ensured that when Bill passed the “eleven plus” he was able to go to Daliburgh school rather than being retained on the croft. It was only nine miles away but required him to lodge in Daliburgh as there were no means of transport.

At the end of second year, he was again encouraged to go on to Fort William Senior Secondary and recalls standing on Lochboisdale Pier in his first pair of long trousers going off on his own to an unknown world.

“The next two years were the most miserable in my life," he said. “There was a lot of bullying”.

But he got his Highers and made it to Glasgow University in 1951 at a time when only two per cent of school-leavers went into higher education.

Bill remains in no doubt that the willingness of the Bowie family to allow him to pursue his education was “the most generous gift of my life”.

When old Mary Bowie was asked what good it would do them that he was getting all that education, she replied: “It might do some good for somebody”.

He then owed much to David MacBrayne Limited whose trust gave island students priority in finding accommodation, Kelvin Lodge hall of residence.

There, he found himself among youngsters of all nationalities, creeds and colours, an experience which taught him to judge people by their worth and nothing else. “That stayed with me all my life. You learn to treat people as individuals”.

He says: “Another asset Glasgow University gave me was a love of debating. It was a big thing in Glasgow at that time. You were expected to justify your beliefs. I find that aspect of Scotland very sad now. We don’t debate. If you don’t agree, you’re dismissed as an idiot”,

Bill’s ambition at that time was to return to Howmore as head teacher in the little school.

However, he already harboured an interest in flying first prompted in childhood by the “sheer beauty and grace” of Spitfires flying low through Glencoe on training exercises. The post-war RAF had created reserve squadrons at major universities and Glasgow’s provided the opportunity to learn to fly, for free.

He says: “I was desperate to fly aeroplanes but I was hopelessly under-confident, competing with the crème de la crème from the Glasgow private schools for a place in the Squadron. But the RAF has always valued keenness and eventually I found I could fly”. He graduated in 1954 and started on a teacher training course but National Service took him back into flying.

The drudgery of National Service was transformed when he was included in a group of ex-University Air Squadron pilots who were sent to Canada for training and set sail on the Empress of Scotland in December 1955. “That was a wonderful year,” he recalls, “which converted me from a slightly below average pilot to top of the course”. It also did wonders for his self-confidence and taste for travel.

At that time, BEA and BOAC (later merged as British Airways) were desperate for pilots. Bill opted for BEA as he wanted to fly to the islands and this ambition was soon fulfilled. After training at Renfrew, he was soon flying the old Dakotas in all conditions. “If you can fly through the winter in Scotland,” he says, “you can fly anywhere in the world”. Bill loved flying to the islands and got to know all the airfield characters from these still pioneering days.

He has written about his aviation career in a book “Flight from the Croft” which was published just before the Covid pandemic and did not attract the attention it might otherwise have done. “I’d been working on it for 15 years,” he says, “and it’s not just for pilots”. In fact, it combines Bill’s personal story with his long and distinguished career in global aviation.

Most of that career – which spanned Dakotas to B767s - was with Britain’s flagship carrier but in 1986, post privatisation, he took redundancy in return for a payment “which gave me capital for the first time in my life”. He was not grounded for long however as he became part of a team that launched Air 2000, a charter airline that operated from 1987 to 2004 and a Canadian spin-off, Canada 3000, which went bust when North American aviation collapsed post-9/11. Bill had one more mission with Alitalia, “demonstrating that passengers could be carried at a profit – never a high priority for the airline!”

At 60, he was required to stop commercial flying but by that time, he already had another career in the making. Throughout the 1980s, he presented a classical music programme on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal and had been drawn into reporting for the TV current affairs programme, Prosbaig. Ever since, he has remained a familiar voice on Radio nan Gaidheal as well as featuring frequently on Gaelic television.

During his South Uist upbringing, he had assimilated Gaelic while becoming increasingly aware of the richness of the culture he had been cast down among. This was particularly accessible in Howbeg where he was surrounded by Gaelic poets, writers and tradition-bearers of the highest order – none more so than Donald John MacDonald. “He had been a. prisoner of war for five years and he was 14 years older than me, but there was an instant rapport”.

After Bill went off to Fort William and then Glasgow, they continued to correspond. “It obviously appealed to him,” says Bill, “to reflect on all the humble people and what they might have achieved, if given the opportunities that I had been”. Reciprocally, as the years went on, Bill made it his business to ensure that Donald John MacDonald was given the status he deserved as “not just a village bard or a Gaelic bard but a Scottish bard and poet of international standing”.

Bill says: “Dr John MacInnes described him as a genius and that is also my own view. Look what he did with Gray’s Elegy. Not only did he translate it into Gaelic but he managed to maintain Gray’s metre as well. When I asked him to translate an operatic aria into Gaelic, he had no familiarity with opera but created three different versions of Voi Che Sapete from the Marriage of Figaro. When I told him Mary Sandeman had sung his words to an audience of 5000 people in the Albert Hall, he found it difficult to accept his connection with such an event”.

He adds with conviction: "Having mastered the classical traditional metres, MacDonald's importance in the Gaelic canon is that he is the missing link between traditional verse and nua-bhardachd literary poetry"

Bill Innes’s promotion of poetry from the “village bards” has raised their status in academia. He believes one of the most important reasons for keeping Gaelic alive is “to maintain access to the musical, rhythmic sound which was crucial to the appeal of the wealth of traditional culture”

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His work as a translator, he says, is about increasing initial access to Gaelic culture and the literature it has bequeathed. Over the past 20 years, Bill has been responsible for six books but sees the new hard-back edition of “Chi Mī”, the translation of Donald John MacDonald’s poetry as his “legacy work”; a duty fulfilled.

More than 80 years after fate and human kindness took him to South Uist - literally from the Poor House - Bill Innes remains the living embodiment of what people of humble origins can achieve and contribute, if only they are given the chance. True then and true now.