“Ma shuidheas mi chan èirich mi - If I sit, I won’t get back up.”
This was Donella Bartlett’s most common refrain, invariably uttered at the end of the day when most others would be in repose but she felt there was still some work to be done. It stands also for her life - spent striving on behalf of others, whether the family and friends she held so dear or the wider community she helped in her career as a civil servant.
Born in Brue as the second youngest of the six Paterson sisters, or clann-nighean Iain Thòsaidh, Donella’s childhood was shaped by qualities which would come to define her. Her father John Paterson had the typical mid-century Lewisman’s assortment of careers - sailor, weaver, shopkeep - but is perhaps best remembered on Lewis for his time as a county councillor and his championing of the Harris tweed industry. Donella’s mother Mary Paterson née Finlayson (Màiri Choinnich) was a self-sacrificing, loving matriarch whose influence can be traced through her daughters and the many grandchildren who fondly remember her as Granny Brù. It was in memory of her mother’s brother Dòmhnall Ailean, who fell fighting in France in December 1914, that Donella was named.
Raised on the croft that had been in the family since the 1860s, Donella’s youth was marked by her love of learning and academic achievement. Her sisters remember her as always having her head in a book and this natural intellect would see her named as Dux of Barvas School. Her children remark that they’ve never encountered anyone else who had their mother’s focused ability to finish any novel in one sitting - the only thing that could stop her doing so was her inability, as a Hebridean woman of a certain vintage, to in good conscience accept such unbridled leisure.
Completing her school studies in The Nicolson Institute, Donella, to her parents’ great pride, became the first of her family to enrol at university when she went to Glasgow to study political economy. She would eventually decide this career path wasn’t for her and chose to leave her degree and ultimately pursue a career in the civil service. In doing so she demonstrated the resilience and independence of will which would distinguish her.
Suffering the tragedy of being widowed in her 20s, Donella moved to London. There she developed a lifelong love of the city and continued to build her career in the civil service - becoming a CEO in the Department of Employment. She was also an active participant in London’s Highland social scene as a member of the Highland Society of London. It was at the society’s annual Thames Riverboat Dance in 1982 that she met a young Englishman of Hebridean descent called Michael Bartlett. Within six weeks they were engaged, and within 51 they were married.
Michael and Donella built their first home together in Catford, south London, where they welcomed their first two children Calum Iain and Màiri Alice before moving to Creetown, Kirkcudbrightshire where their final child Niall was born. When Donella’s father passed in 1990, she and Michael returned to Lewis to raise their family in her childhood home in Brue. In the ensuing 32 years they built a loving house and raised three children of whom she was always incredibly proud. Like her parents before her, Donella and Michael created a home life whose influence was felt beyond the family and shaped the many friends they and their children prized so highly.
Among her work in the community, Donella was active in Comann nam Pàrant and contributed to the early development of Gaelic medium education on Lewis. Her oldest child Calum Iain was among the first Gaelic medium intake in Donella’s former school, Barvas Primary, and Màiri Alice and Niall followed soon after. Through the efforts of Donella and her fellow parents, they and their generation benefited from the Gaelic education of which she and her peers had been deprived.
With the children starting school, Donella resumed her civil service career in Stornoway, most notably working for Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Business Gateway. She was passionately invested in the economic prosperity of the islands and many local businesses are indebted to her for the help and guidance she provided.
A spokesman at Business gateway said Donella joined the Comhairle’s Business Gateway team when the service was created in 2009, bringing with her a wealth of valuable and relevant experience.
“During her time with Business Gateway, Donella worked closely with a range of businesses in different economic sectors across the Outer Hebrides. Whether supporting a business to grow or advising a young entrepreneur starting a new venture, she always went the extra mile. Her approach and decision-making was always well-considered and spot-on.”
He said Donella was with the Business Gateway team for just over six years and was very much loved and respected by her colleagues. “She was truly missed upon her retirement in 2015 and our thoughts are very much with the whole family at this sad time.”
More than anything else Donella was selflessly devoted to family. Beyond Michael and the children, her five sisters Màiri, Kennag, Nan, Nora and Chirsty Ann were the lodestars of her life and she felt their happiness as keenly as her own. This was a love which they and their families reciprocated in turn – from ceann a staigh Bhrù to New Zealand, Auntie Donella is a much loved, much missed figure within the extended Paterson family. The passing of Nora in 2007 and Kennag in 2016 were losses she felt greatly.
Faced with her diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease in March this year, Donella revealed the same steady stoicism and grace which characterised her life.
Donella Bartlett was born on January 16 1950 and passed away on September 12, 2022. She is survived by her husband Michael, and her children Calum Iain, Màiri Alice and Niall.
The funeral will be in Barvas Church of Scotland at 2pm tomorrow (Friday 16 September)