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Sir Iain Noble 1935 – 2010

Tribute by Allan Campbell

When Iain Andrew Noble, the proprietor of Fearann Eilean Iarmain, passed away on Christmas Day morning Scotland and Gaelic lost a champion.  Much will be written and said of Iain, and he earned acclaim. As the (Gaelic) proverb says,’a good story should be told twice’!

Although he was born in Germany and received his first education in China and the Argentine, and although he finished his education in England, Iain was fiercely proud of his Scottish identity. Iain’s friends and business acquaintances will well remember how thrawn he could be once he had fixed on an idea. It was that characteristic of determination which led to his succeeding with so many of the challenges he tackled, and to the significant legacy he has left.

It was when Iain was a guest lecturer on a National Trust for Scotland North Atlantic cruise on the SS Uganda that he first visited Torshaven and the Faroe Islands, and he established lasting friendships among politicians and business leaders there. Iain was totally captivated by the Faroese community’s pride in its language and culture and in the evident linkage between the cultural awareness and the economic growth of  the Faroe Islands.  As a result of the Faroese example Iain became totally convinced that cultural self-esteem was critical to economic development, and for Iain such self esteem started with Gaelic.

Iain often spoke of the series of chance events which led to his establishing in Sleat. His sights were set on Harris as he considered plans to move to the Gaidhealtachd to implement and develop his language and business philosophy. He called in Sleat on the way, but his car became stuck in snow on the Tarscavaig road and he was obliged to stay over a weekend. This enabled a closer look at what was being offered for sale by the Macdonald Estate and he submitted a bid to the auction which was to take place shortly afterwards. Iain did not expect his bid to secure anything significant; but it did and so began the history of Fearann Eilean Iarmain!

Not all of Iain’s new business ideas succeeded. Reviving fishing from Eilean Iarmain was one plan which failed, and it was a sad day when the trawler Maighdean Bhàn left. It was also a sad day when the knitwear factory Muileann Beag a Chrotail closed. But when Iain reminisced about these events he was rightly proud of the important contribution this employment made to the local economy while it lasted. For example, Muileann Beag supported over twenty families for almost two decades.

But many ideas did root successfully and Iain recruited like minded people to help implement and grow his ideas. For example it is over 30 years since he and I launched Tè Bheag whisky, and this is also the 25th anniversary of Club Gnìomhachas nan Gàidheal (The Gaelic Businessmen’s Club) which has raised many thousands for Gaelic charities.

Iain was always planning new initiatives but he preferred that other people drove them forward. There are many in business, and other, sectors who did not share Iain’s philosophy, but this Sleat community with the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig at its core is testament to the wisdom of his vision. Iain’s legacy is undoubtedly much wider than this but he motivated many of us to take a new pride in our language and we are deeply indebted to him for that. It was pleasing to hear the College Chairman Roddy John MacLeod say on radio that every student who passes through this college is a descendant of Iain Noble.

Iain was a hard worker but he also enjoyed having fun and he could be a most entertaining raconteur and was himself the subject of many amusing anecdotes! When he first arrived here and was diligently improving his Gaelic, Iain wished to immerse himself in the culture as well as the language. He tried to spend as many evenings as possible in the bar (Am Pràban) at Hotel Eilean Iarmain practising his Gaelic with the regular local clientele. He was passionately interested in traditional customs and pastimes, and while he enjoyed these conversations in the bar he also understood that he was being fed pretty tall stories at times! Iain heard a lot in the bar about poaching escapades and he took a notion to experience this salmon fishing (!) for himself some evening. Two local worthies agreed to take him out and a date was agreed. As they couldn’™t venture out until late the three enjoyed a dram and some food and they set off in Iain’s boat after midnight. They got some fish and when they returned to the Hotel by four in the morning Iain was highly excited!  As his companions relaxed and sipped some more of his whisky in the hotel kitchen while Iain prepared sandwiches and coffee, he suddenly asked,’Whose water were we poaching?’’Your own!’ came the reply.

In Debretts People of Today Iain listed his favourite recreation (in Gaelic) as’enjoying conversation and music with good friends’, and it was good to hear from Lucilla that he was in such good spirits the day before his death. We have a large gathering of Iain’s friends and acquaintances here today, and while we will have good music and conversation we will also all be very aware of the lasting void in our midst. But despite our sorrow we will also share fond memories of the man who came to this Island as a stranger but who has left a Gaelic legacy on which we now have a duty to build in his honour. The late proprietor of Fearann Eilean Iarmain.

Rest in Paradise Iain. We will miss you.

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