Few have combined the two with such consistency as Norman Alasdair MacDonald/Tom Ally/Dokus who is about to retire as Chairman of Comhairle nan Eilean and, after 25 years, will not run again on the board .
A quarter of a century is a long time by any measure, but Tom Ally’s community orientation, particularly in his native Uig, goes back much further. For decades before he got an elected role, he made things happen in a fragile community facing the challenges of a declining population.
While other parts of the island have moved to communal ownership, most of Uig is still part of that half of Lewis still burdened by private ownership. Yet the paradox is that Uig has as many community-led initiatives as anywhere else, for which Tom Ally has played a central role.
Yet, he says, it would be a very different place if, for the past few decades, the land had also belonged to the community. “There’s not much you can do,” he says, “without the basic resource of land.”
The only time Tom Ally lived away from Uig was for a short time after leaving school. He grew up in Valtos in a large family, the ‘Tochies’. An obituary for his mother, the famous Mairi Hearadh, recently appeared in the Gazette.
At this time, Uig children were sent to a home in Stornoway throughout their secondary education. It’s an experience that Tom Ally remembers from the Gibson Inn with no fondness. “It was awful,” he says. “I was bullied and beaten for some time in the hostel. The only year I got peace was the last one when the bullies responsible were gone.”
No wonder that later in life one of his ambitions was to see the hostel system eliminated once and for all, both by keeping the children in their own communities and by improving communications at across the islands to allow daily travel.
As soon as he left school, his mother led him to a trailer where a guidance counselor, known as Bodach May, was staying and told him to get her son a job. The decision made on his behalf was that he should join the civil service and he was sent to London for interviews, with his uncle, Finlay Maclennan of Scarp, who was a senior police officer.
After a few abortive interviews, Tom Ally decided that public service was not for him and asked if there was any manual labor available. Finlay drove him to building sites in Croydon and the result was that at 17 he spent a year working as a miner steel repairman.
He returned home on vacation and vividly remembers getting off the ferry and deciding, “I’m never going back.” His belongings were brought in from London which “in a strange way I found quite claustrophobic compared to here”. The great and wide world could wait when the hills of Uig called.
Tom Ally then spent three years as an apprentice bricklayer with MM Afrin and Co. before finding work closer to home under the job creation scheme, building a jetty at Mealista for crofters take their sheep to the island. Fastening of steel, masonry, construction of piers…. in his early twenties he was well equipped in practical life skills.
At that time he was also running a youth club in Uig where there were very few opportunities for entertainment and the only community facility was a small wooden hall next to the school. At that time, one of the first “comers” to Uig was Mick Bolton who was a council roads engineer and died at a tragically young age. Mick brought with him a disco sound system that became the envy of all the Lewises. For Uig teenagers, the youth club was a game-changer.
In 1980, with EU money to strengthen outlying communities, Comhairle nan Eilean appointed a number of young people and community workers to the islands and Tom Ally got the job in Uig and Bernera. He remembers all he owes to the council officers involved in this program – Finlay Macleod, John Murray, Donald John Macleod – who understood its importance and created great flexibility in it.
He says: “We had a lot of leeway compared to other places. The best part is that we were based in our own communities and that makes a huge difference. It’s very different now. We were very lucky to have these guys supporting us, across the full spectrum of what we were able to deliver.”
At the same time, they obtained diplomas in youth and community work from Northern College, Aberdeen, which they took in blocks of six weeks. Having concluded that the course was largely a waste of time, they persuaded the college that a better route would be to visit other people’s communities and learn from them, in order to apply the lessons more generally. It was, quite literally, a change of course that made the experience worthwhile.
Tom Ally has no doubt that his role in Youth and Community Work, which recently expanded across the Westside of Lewis, was “by far the best job I’ve ever had – it was simply awesome”. It was a bonus that the Valtos Outdoor Center – now demolished – was in its own patch and provided a fantastic facility for youngsters from all over the islands and beyond.
After 17 years, he went from working for the Comhairle to becoming a member. For employment purposes, he held positions in Gaelic development, first with Comunn na Gaidhlig, then as training co-ordinator for the National Gaelic Arts Agency. In 2004, he became Community Development Manager at Western Isles Enterprise.
Throughout this time, Tom Ally had been intensively involved in projects for the betterment of the Uig community. A huge undertaking throughout the 1990s was to raise funds for a proper community center and when this was achieved it was at a very high level, creating a first class community asset in a location which had previously almost no such amenities. Since then, there have been countless events, installations and classes that otherwise simply could not have taken place.
The same year he was elected to the Comhairle he also joined the fire service and when the community center was extended a new fire station was incorporated into the building. He had supported the same approach in Bernera and the idea of facility sharing, rather than building stand-alone fire stations in rural communities, was adopted more widely by the Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service as a means of maintaining this vital service.
It was his great collaborator in many community ventures in Uig, Calum ‘Ruadh’ Morrison, who encouraged him to stand for office when incumbent member John Campbell died in 1997. “To a large extent” , he says, “the council work was an extension of what I had been doing anyway in the community, trying to solve the same kind of problems and getting the same kind of phone calls at ten o’clock at night” .
He remembers saying this to a councilor in Stornoway who said he was very surprised to learn that a constituent had telephoned him at ten o’clock at night. “There’s a big difference between being a city councillor,” says Tom Ally, “and covering a large area like Uig and Bernera where you know everyone and are expected to be available to help with solve any problem”.
However, in addition to purely local dimensions, he proved to be an astute and effective politician with close ties to early Holyrood administrations. One of his proudest accomplishments was as chairman of Sgoiltean Ura, which established five new schools through a one-time funding arrangement that avoided the long-term debt associated with public-private funding. There was even enough left over to help fund new construction in Paible.
The MSP at the time, Alasdair Morrison, recalls: “Basically it was the biggest school transformation in the islands since the Education Act 1872. The whole thing was very skilfully managed by Tom Ally who had a great way of convincing the Edinburgh officials to submit and make them want to help with the delivery”.
Among the many other initiatives at Uig for which Tom Ally provided leadership and confidence was the takeover of the local store when Calum Ruadh and his wife Mairead decided to retire in 2003, after providing excellent service against winds and tides for many years. Once again, the links forged over the years proved to be crucial.
He says: “Uig would have been completely drunk without a store. I knew Tor Justad in Shetland who had also been involved in community work and had very close ties to the Cooperative. Thanks to him, we were able to establish a link with the Coop that continues today. It was largely thanks to the support we got from the cooperative that a community buyout was possible”. The boutique is now winning national awards of excellence.
It seems unlikely that Tom Ally will be inactive in retirement. He still sees community land ownership as a goal. Two years ago, Uig and Hamnaway Estate was sold by an absentee syndicate to the individual who already owns neighboring Morsgail and the sports rights (but not the land) in North Harris – a vast private empire.
Tom Ally says: “I now have some hope that Ian Scarr-Hall (the owner) would do the same sort of deal for Uig as he did in North Harris – he keeps the house and the sporting rights while the community has the ability to use the land to provide housing and create jobs”.
As for the local government, he believes that the three island authorities must continue to work together for a better agreement. “The funding we receive from the Scottish Government keeps decreasing. This was the hardest part. We, the Orkneys and the Shetlands have been the worst treated ourselves, and that is an argument that must be won.