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      Uist and Benbecula News

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A community came together to celebrate the life of a good man and a wonderful headteacher on Wednesday 7 February, as mourners met at Benbecula Church of Scotland for the funeral of Alasdair MacGillivray, who has passed away at the age of 80.

In a service led by Rev Adrian Varwell, Alasdair’s life was described as ‘dedicated to the education of generations’ as his son Seoras and former colleague Mary Clare Ferguson painted a picture of a beloved headteacher, father, husband, brother and friend.

Alasdair, as he was always known, was born Alexander John MacGillivray in October 1943 to Donald, a commercial traveller, and his wife Effie, a teacher. He, his brother Robert and sister Chrissie spent their childhood in Muir of Aird in Benbecula, where many families still lived in the old blackhouses.

From childhood he was a keen fisherman – his son Seoras recounted misadventures including getting stuck in bogs as he pursued his passion and later generations recall being taken out on fishing expeditions when their turn came.

Alasdair attended Torlum and then Balivanich old school and went for secondary school to Daliburgh, where he lodged during the week.

Later he went to Inverness Royal Academy, where he excelled academically, and to Aberdeen University, where he studied to MA level, obtained his Certificate of Education from Aberdeen College, played shinty and was a member of the Celtic Society.

It was while at Aberdeen that a student called Annie was introduced to him, and they were married a few years later, celebrating their 55th anniversary just a few weeks before he passed away.

Son Seoras said Alasdair was absolutely devoted to Annie, as he was to all of his family, showing his love through gifts and parcels, rather than through words, and always being there with acts of kindness and generosity.

His parcels, in fact, became almost legendary. He attributed his skill with brown paper and string to his father’s mail order business. Music teacher Catherine Eunson captured his technique for posterity with YouTube videos in English and Gaelic (

In his professional life he began a career as a teacher at Knock public school in Lewis in 1971, returning to Benbecula to become headmaster of Balivanich School in 1975.

Speaking to the large gathering who came to honour his memory, former colleague Mary Clare Ferguson, now senior education officer for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, recounted how he and his wife became her mentors and friends, after she followed Alasdair into the headship at Balivanich.

She said: “Throughout his life Alasdair strived to ensure equality and opportunity for all the pupils he saw. The school had a support room for pupils with severe and complex needs and Alasdair, a man who was ahead of his time, valued inclusion and worked to ensure that the pupils were able to access the same experiences as their peers.”

The central position of Balivanich allowed him to develop other inclusive services based at the school, including a family room where families could come and meet other professionals, who would give them support in a homely and nurturing environment.

Mary Clare Ferguson also spoke of how Alasdair encouraged teachers from other schools to borrow resources and come into the school to meet up.

His networks in the community were wide-ranging, and he used them for the benefit of colleagues and pupils.

Members of the different denominations were encouraged to come in for the fortnightly assemblies which were such a part of school life, and he also wrote to businesses in the community putting forward ideas for projects, with discreet requests for financial support which were seldom refused.

Mary Clare said: “He was an exceptional leader who looked for experiences and opportunities for everyone. In a staff team who were mostly women, he was a good listener and a very patient man.”

Among his numerous enthusiasms, besides fishing Alasdair loved nature and the environment, encouraging staff to take pupils to the beach on fine Friday afternoons. He also suggested that both staff and pupils should support the RSPB and to spend lunchtimes rambling the shore looking for birds.

He shared his interest in creative arts with active learning experiences and he had a love of literature which led to authors’ visits to the school and to book clubs.

Local businesses responded to his appeals, supporting technology for the school and, said Mary Clare: “He inspired us all and motivated staff and pupils to improve their IT skills, really bringing learning to life.”

After his retirement in 2004 he dedicated more time to his garden, his family and to the church, which had been his mainstay throughout his life. He was and elder, session clerk and treasurer for many years.

Seoras said: “He had a faith that was verbally quiet, but loud in actions. He wasn’t famous, or a celebrity, but did what God had given to him each day faithfully, whether at work or home.”

Following his passing, he was remembered by many sending messages of condolence, who described him as ‘a fine Christian gentleman who served his community and church faithfully over many years,’ as a lovely gentleman, a good man and a much-respected headteacher.

Until the end of his life he maintained contact with pupils and colleagues who had been on the receiving end of his unwavering dedication and passion for instilling learning.

Late last year he accepted an invitation to switch on the Christmas lights for Balivanich school. Mary Clare Ferguson said: “It was a special moment for many of us and, today, we know that his light will continue to shine.”

Alasdair MacGillivray was interred at Nunton Cemetery and a collection was taken for Macmillan Nurses.

He is greatly mourned by his wife of 55 years, Annie, brother Robert and sister Chrissie, son Seoras, daughter-in-law Sarah, grandchildren Ceit, Seonag and Alasdair and by a very wide circle of relations, colleagues and former pupils.

The pictures show Alasdair with his wife Annie at the lighting up of the Balivanich School Christmas tree in December (Balivanich School), on the croft with Seoras and at home (family pictures).