Donald “Dixie” MacLean, 1931-2021

Donald “Dixie” MacLean, whose entrepreneurship and commitment to his workforce saved the Lewis seaweed industry at a crucial point in its history has died just short of his 90th birthday and 60th wedding anniversary.

By Brian Wilson
Friday, 29th October 2021, 11:53 am
Updated Friday, 29th October 2021, 1:15 pm

Donald “Dixie” MacLean, 1931-2021

Donald “Dixie” MacLean, whose entrepreneurship and commitment to his workforce saved the Lewis seaweed industry at a crucial point in its history has died just short of his 90th birthday and 60th wedding anniversary.

Born in Ranish on November 4th 1931, one of six children, Dixie was successively a merchant seaman, an aircraft engineer, a crofter and a pioneering fish farmer. However, it was his role in the seaweed industry that created both an opportunity and a daunting responsibility.

Sign up to our daily Stornoway Gazette Today newsletter

This challenge arose in 1981 under curious circumstances. Alginate Industries Ltd, which had operated three drying plants in the Western Isles for 30 years, was sold to the Californian company, Kelco. The acquisition was cleared by the UK’s competition authorities but their French counterparts made it conditional on Kelco divesting one of their Western Isles facilities, to avoid creating a monopoly.

The Keose plant, where Dixie was manager, was put up for sale and, with no obvious buyers in the field, the only option for keeping it open it lay in forming a co-operative, headed by Dixie who was acutely aware of what closure would mean for the local employees and cutters. He became immersed in complex negotiations which also involved securing support from the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

Kelco were supportive and supplies of the dried seaweed continued to be transported to their processing plants at Barcaldine and Girvan. However, Dixie and his five colleagues in the co-op knew this was a fragile arrangement and immediately looked for ways to diversify the business.

The workshop which maintained the seaweed equipment also became a local garage. A mussel farm was created and Dixie became a director of Loch Erisort Fish, one of the brave, early efforts to keep salmon farming in local hands. Eventually, the factory was sold on but the co-operative had achieved its objective of securing the industry’s survival.

Martin MacLeod, now managing director of Hebridean Seaweed, who entered the industry at Keose, said: “They ran the business successfully and had a good team of hand harvesters cutting for them in many lochs throughout Lewis and Harris. The factory would typically run 24 hours a day up until Saturday night and then start again Monday morning.

“It wasn’t unusual that the passing places on the road into Keose would have seaweed stored in them as the yard was full which was an unusual sight and showed how the local community accepted and supported the factory. Most of the young people in the village worked for it at some stage.

“Keose Co-op under Dixie’s leadership was instrumental in the survival and success of the local seaweed industry. They pioneered harvesting access to the coast and set the foundations for seaweed from the Hebrides being viewed as a top quality product.

“Personally, he was a great teacher to me and we got on very well. He knew back to front the issues involved in harvesting and processing seaweed and the markets that we would sell to. He was always trying to raise awareness of the industry, had great contacts throughout it and was very well respected”.

Martin added: “He was a very accomplished engineer and kept the factory running throughout difficult times. The seaweed industry would not be where it is on the island today if not for the foresight and determination to succeed of Dixie and those who worked for him. While all the other processing plants throughout the Islands failed, Keose continued to innovate, found new markets, new ways to process, new products to market and for that we will always be indebted to him”.

Martin says that “the first ever liquid seaweed I saw was made by Dixie. It was very primitive production – Joe Black’s dairy cans and I think at one stage it was an oar we were using to mix it”. However, Dixie had understood the potential it opened up for new fertiliser markets and the same mix now sells around the world from Stornoway.

After leaving school, Dixie sailed first in the Merchant Navy, mainly to Australia and New Zealand, before joining Ferranti in Edinburgh to train as an engineer. This took him to college in Chester before working for the Air Ministry, servicing jet aircraft. Glasgow was his next stop, working for the engineering firm of John Dalglish and Sons. He met and married Mattie Shepherd, whose family connections are with Uist.

They moved to Lewis in the early 1970s and Dixie worked thereafter for Alginate Industries Ltd, latterly as manager, winning the Queen’s Award for Industry. The Keose co-operative kept the industry alive and Dixie retired when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1996. He recovered well and led an active life, not least as a very committed grazings clerk initiating many improvements.

He was a loyal follower of Lochs Football Club’s fortunes and the club posted: “Dixie” played for Lochs in the late 1940s alongside other young men from the village including “Atch”, “Bobby Floraidh”, and Rob “Dymon” and was one of the last contacts with that era”.

When his footballing days came to an end, he became a devoted golfer and a very popular presence within Stornoway Golf Club. Martin MacLeod recalls:

“Nothing would stop him going for his Friday afternoon fourball. This was mandatory throughout the time he played golf. The bay in front of the factory has many golf balls in it where we used to see who could hit it furthest and at well over 60 years of age he could give it a good whack”. Dixie had an array of trophies to show for his golfing prowess including the Western Isles Open handicap in 1982, and less seriously, ‘The Bodach Cup’ in 2000.

A man of sharp wit and intelligence, often referred to in tributes as ‘a true gentleman’, Dixie is survived by Mattie, two daughters, a son and two grandchildren, Alexia and Donald. Dixie’s talents for practical skills were passed on to his children. Iain works with NHS IT in Glasgow; Sandie in cyber security in Edinburgh and Anne on therapeutic art and design projects in Guernsey.

The funeral service was conducted at Lochs Free Church last Thursday when the community turned out in force to pay its last respects.