Iain Stewart – the great Uist referee who left the disputes on the pitch

The Uist and Barra select and St Mirren line up before the memorable game in 1987.The Uist and Barra select and St Mirren line up before the memorable game in 1987.
The Uist and Barra select and St Mirren line up before the memorable game in 1987.
The news of his passing when it arrived last Friday evening although not unexpected was nevertheless a poignant moment for all who knew former Uist referee, Iain Stewart.

During the 1980s and 90s, arguably the finest era in Uist and Barra football, Iain was the senior local referee and it was a role he took seriously, applying the rules to the letter of the law. Always immaculately turned out in his referee kit you immediately knew he was not an official to be trifled with.

We all had our run-ins with Iain over the years and like all referees he took more than his fair share of abuse from both players and supporters. If the barbs hurt him as they inevitably must have he rarely if ever let it show or affect him. I always admired him for that. He loved being a referee and for me Iain had that rare ability of being able to turn the other cheek and leave any disagreement on the pitch once the ninety minutes were over.

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You could have the mother and father of all ding dongs with him over a disputed penalty or offside but the next time you bumped into him he would be his customary, cheerful self as if nothing had ever happened. He was a better man for it and made him an even better referee in my opinion.

I would hazard a guess and say Iain’s proudest moment as a referee would be the 1987 challenge match between the Uist and Barra select side and St Mirren who had just won the Scottish Cup against that season’s UEFA Cup finalists, Dundee United. Iain was the referee at Lionacleit that day assisted by Donald MacDonald and Roddy McIntosh as the local select gave Alex Smith’s side the fright of their lives before narrowly losing 1-0.

Over thirty years later it’s still a game that regularly comes up in conversation and featured some of the best players ever to have graced Uist football including John ‘Percy’ MacPherson, ‘Jinky’ and ‘Owdy’ MacIsaac, Donald Steele, Seonaidh Beag MacLeod and Calum ‘Dolly’ MacDonald to name but a few of that side who more than held their own against the Scottish Cup holders.

A couple of years later the memory of that game helped me secure me my first football interview with Smith late one Friday evening while on a BBC course in Aberdeen. Set a challenge of securing an interview that could be broadcast the next morning I headed to Pittodrie and as luck would have it spotted Smith, by then in charge of Aberdeen as he was preparing to leave ahead of an important game at home to Rangers the next day.

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Explaining my mission I sugared the pill by reminding Alex of that game in 1987 and before too long he was escorting me back into his office to record his thoughts ahead of the big match.

Once that was done we spoke some more about St Mirren’s trip to Uist in the summer of 1987 when Smith revealed he was blown away by the quality of the local players – to the point where he considered following up his interest in one or two – the warmth and hospitality shown to them during their stay as well as complimenting the local officials for their handling of the match.

Not long ago I met Iain on a night out in Glasgow and reminded him of this conversation and his eyes lit up with pride at the thought of Smith remembering how he had officiated that match.

With retirement from his job as a BT engineer looming he was looking forward to travelling more and spending more time watching his beloved Celtic, dreams that were cruelly taken away from him before he could enjoy his autumn years.

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I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone who had the privilege of sharing a football pitch with Iain in extending my condolences to his partner Lorraine, son Ciaran and brother Roddy who lovingly cared for Iain in his final days. The final whistle may have blown for Iain but his memory will live on for a generation who will always remember him with fondness. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.