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Remembering Sir Iain Noble, and an undeniable legacy

‘He always described himself as being at his happiest when he was creating something new, developing a new business idea, or promoting some fresh endeavour.’ Just one of the personal memories which Skyeman Allan Campbell gave as part of the inaugural Sir Iain Noble Memorial Lecture held at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig last night (21.3.12).

People gathered at the Gaelic college in Sleat this week to listen to the lecture organised by Sabhal Mòr and Urras an Eilein (the Island Trust), two organisations which were very close to the heart of Sir Iain, who died on Christmas day 2010. Mr Campbell gave a personal and honest appraisal of the businessman and landlord who had a significant impact on the south of Skye and on the Gaelic language, and of a man who, through his forthright opinions and unswerving belief in his own vision, courted controversy at times. Iain Noble was convinced that a vibrant community language and culture was key to economic and social regeneration.

In his lecture Mr Campbell said:’Iain demonstrated the significance of the confidence that a community derives from self-esteem, and what can be achieved through that confidence. That is not to say that this philosophy was unique to Iain Noble ‘ in the 70s the Highlands and Islands Development Board for example, and Highland Council, were very aware of the importance of strong, confident communities in progressing social, economic and cultural development.  But Iain Noble was an example of someone with the opportunity, the capability, and the desire to test that philosophy in practice. As a businessman he frequently demonstrated his boldness and belief that no real progress could be made without taking risks, and consequently he was willing to face failure.

‘As I have already mentioned, some of his ventures did fail’ but these business initiatives created employment while they lasted, and the community learned much from them including new self-esteem and confidence. In my opinion Iain contributed significantly to the status of Gaelic today, and to the community confidence which is evident in Skye and further afield.’

Mr Campbell then spoke of his own experience working for, and with, Sir Iain over the years, and he admitted that the merchant banker and landowner’s strong and deeply-held views on certain subjects left him open to criticism from some quarters.’When Iain arrived in south Skye as a young, rich, new landlord, his welcome was rather circumspect!  Who could blame the community whose experience gave little cause to look for much from any landlord, old or new! Over and above this Iain Noble wanted to learn Gaelic, a language which people certainly valued but which had never earned them a penny.  This had to be the ultimate proof that the estate would be just a plaything. I’™m sure it didn’™t help matters that one of Iain’s pet phrases in both Gaelic and English was’a bit of
fun’! The people of Sleat felt concerned with survival, not fun!’

Mr Campbell outlined several of Sir Iain’s business ventures as owner of Fearann Eilean Iarmain, the name he gave to the estate he bought in Sleat in 1972. He also pointed to Sabhal Mòr as one of the best examples of what could be achieved when these ventures did succeed:’There are some in the business world, and in other sectors, who remain sceptical about Iain’s philosophy but this community with Sabhal Mòr at its core proves the validity of his vision.’

The college, established in 1973, is now part of the University of the Highlands and Islands and offers courses in various subjects at under- and post-graduate level all through the medium of Gaelic.

Professor Boyd Robertson, Principal of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig commented:’Sabhal Mòr is a vital part of Iain Noble’s’˜legacy that cannot be gainsaid’ of which Allan Campbell spoke. Allan worked closely with Sir Iain in his early years in Skye and provided a fascinating insight into Iain’s philosophy, way of thinking and stratagems. Sir Iain provided a fillip to the self-confidence of the Gaels and increased their regard for their language through his various endeavours in Sleat.’

Sir Iain was very much involved in the work of Urras an Eilein during his life, a trust he helped to establish in order to promote cultural and educational projects with a particular connection to Gaelic and or the Isle of Skye.

Murdo Beaton, project co-ordinator for Urras an Eilein, said:’Allan’s lecture was interesting, eloquent and a fitting tribute to an unusual man. We would like to express our gratitude, not only to Allan, but also to everyone who helped to make the evening a success and we look forward to the next lecture one year from now.’  

Pictured at the inaugural Sir Iain Noble Memorial Lecture are Lucilla Noble, piper Dr Angus MacDonald, singer Christine Primrose, Calum Graham of Urras an Eilein, Allan Campbell who delivered the lecture, Urras an Eilein chair Murdo Beaton and John Norman MacLeod and Boyd Robertson of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

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