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John Anderson of Hillcrest Farm, Auchengallon died on 14th July 2019, aged 86 at Arran War Memorial Hospital.
The cottage hospital was where John was born on 6th February 1933, weighing just over 3 pounds. His survival in those days might have been nothing short of miraculous and was, no doubt, down to the enormous skill of the medical team led by Dr James Buchanan, who in a small rural maternity unit had few of the modern resources we take for granted today. John, being John, kept one of his tiny baby socks to prove it.
Along with older brother Campbell, John was raised in Pirnmill, where his parents Johnny and Nessie ran the shop, tea room and garage at the heart of the Anderson Empire and John was very proud of his Pirnmill upbringing. Perhaps due to his fight to survive at birth, he had an enormous love of life and that extra spark that made him such a character was evident even from an early age. By all accounts he was quite a handful. He relished the freedom to run wild ferreting rabbits, fishing and as he said, sometimes reluctantly working in his father’s shop during the wartime years, as well as repairing bicycle punctures for the visitors. When pressed into such service, devilment was never far away from proceedings, like the time he climbed up on the roof of the tea room and lowered a fish on the end of his fishing line in through the skylight, causing his poor mother to faint when the shock of a wet fish dropping down the back of her dress came as very unexpected and no doubt very unwelcome surprise.
After schooling at Pirnmill school and then Lamlash, John had no intention of going into the family business. Instead he had an ambition, held from his earliest days, of being a farmer. And so, at 14 he got a job working with the Hendries at Catacol Farm, where he learned to plough with horses, shaw neeps and stook corn. He then went to work at Cleeves farm at Dalry in Ayrshire and after a spell there worked at Monkridge Farm in Otterburn, Northumberland. Being an island lad, he missed the sound of the sea, but he enjoyed his time there, finding the Northumbrian folk to be warm and welcoming and made lifelong friends with the Murray family.
Eventually the draw of Arran pulled him home and he considered himself a truly fortunate man to be able to secure and expand the tenancy at Hillcrest, Auchengallon, overlooking Machrie Bay. Once secured John wasn’t going to give it up and in time that would involve some disputes with Dougarie Estate, not least in his famous victory after a hard-won battle involving a convening of the Land Court. In total, John spent over 50 years farming his land and for a significant part of that time with his soul mate in life Jean.
John met Jean Taylor when he was working at Catacol and she had been holidaying at Craigard with her family. John’s trusty BSA motorbike ensured that no matter where he worked, he was able to keep in touch during their years of long-distance courting. They married in 1956 and expanded the Anderson clan with the births of Rhona, Iain and Audrey.
Life at Hillcrest was busy and hectic; as well as dairying, then rearing the usual cows and sheep, John also variously kept pigs, goats, dogs, cats, ducks, hens, guinea fowl and Jacob sheep. Hillcrest was also a place of much fun and laughter. John never lost his own childlike sense of joy de vivre and was forever playing tricks on his offspring … ‘Hunt the Gouk’ being an annual favourite.
Following the old farming traditions, John and neighbouring farmers would help each other in collective activities such as gathering sheep from Ben Nuis, clipping ewes in July, harvesting crops and sharing equipment.
Hillcrest was also a welcoming place when every summer, half the farmhouse was rented out to summer visitors, many of whom returned year after year, becoming firm friends of the family. Many a visitor’s summer holiday was made memorable as they enjoyed the craic stacking hay bales or learning how to roll fleeces.
To accommodate holiday-letting, the Anderson family spent the summer months living in a collection of ‘quaint’ huts resembling a shanty town out the back. Hillcrest also welcomed the extended Anderson and Taylor families every summer.
Although summertime was a particularly busy time on the farm, John made time for his favourite hobby of sea angling, taking every opportunity to go out in his rowing boat to ‘catch a haddie’, or maybe a lobster from his creels. The fact he couldn’t swim didn’t deter him and many of those summer visitors enjoyed trips out in the boat with much hilarity at midnight frying fish and chips back in the Hillcrest kitchen.
John was never more content than when he was at home at Hillcrest, particularly when surrounded by family and friends. In more recent times he delighted in visits from his grandchildren and was proud of their achievements in life.
John’s trips off the island were few and far between; typically to buy Hereford cattle in Wales or to sell store lambs at Biggar market. Only one family holiday in the 1960s is remembered: to the far-flung metropolis of Tarbert, Loch Fyne, where John got the family up at 5a.m. to watch the fishing boats unload their catch on the quayside and another day he dragged everyone off to visit the Auchendrain Museum of Farming Life!
On Arran, John willingly gave what precious spare free time he had to be a member of the Arran Mountain Rescue Team. He said being part of the team gave him more than he gave, but with his own hill craft honed over a lifetime of herding sheep on Ben Nuis, he would have been a great asset when it came to helping people in difficulties on the hills he knew as well as the back of his hand. I am also sure having John in the ranks always ensured morale was kept upbeat, even in adversity and challenging situations inevitably faced over the years of countless rescues.
John enjoyed his moment of fame appearing in the television dramatisation of the Goatfell Murder and joked that unlike many of his fellow team members, it needed little makeup to transform him into a 19th century character! Resourceful, hardy and resilient John was never in need of rescuing himself, not even during the big snowfall of Easter 2013. Concerned members of the Mountain Rescue Team reached John snowed-in for several days at Hillcrest, only to be met with an offer of food for themselves and a point-blank refusal to leave home.
Life at home however, was at times tough. After her death in 1994, John missed Jean terribly and in many ways soldiering on farming despite bad knees was his way of coping. He also spent a great deal of time developing photographs from his father’s glass plate negatives, which give a wonderful and invaluable insight into life and events at Pirnmill in bygone times. John also took part in the wonderful heritage project instigated by Maureen Farquarson at Arran High School, willingly recounting to primary aged youngsters his knowledge of life on Arran. The fabulous book produced ‘Isle of Arran Heritage’ is there for posterity. In it are some of John’s photographic collection, but more importantly there is a wonderful photograph of John in it, underneath the caption reads: John Anderson with three of his ‘scholars’. The intensity with which a smiling John recounting his Pirnmill memories holding his young audience spellbound, says it all.
Besides history John always had a great interest in wildlife and nature as he tramped the hills gathering his blackface sheep from Banyerley and Ben Nuis. A pair of binoculars was always kept in the glove compartment of the car, although not just to view wildlife, but any passing boat on the Kilbrannan Sound and indeed the goings-on of his neighbours in Machrie. Not much escaped his eagle eye from his vantage point eyre on top of the Auchengallon Hill. An environmentalist way before the term was invented, John advocated and instilled in his offspring the need to preserve and protect the world’s resources. That must have rubbed off on his nephew, Kevin Anderson who is now a Professor in Climate Change. And for sure John liked a good debate on environmental issues or indeed religious issues.
Latterly, due to failing health, John had his own struggles, but was determined to remain at Hillcrest. He was enormously grateful to the many friends who continued to visit, especially after he was no longer fit to get out in the car, keeping him abreast of community life and also those further afield who continued to keep in regular touch via letters and phone calls.
John finally agreed to go into Montrose House in January where he came to terms with life in his lovely wee room and he was appreciative of the care and enjoyed visits from so many friends. His days ended where they had begun, in the gentle care of Arran War Memorial Hospital.
86 years of a full, happy and fulfilling life were granted to this gregarious character, John Anderson, whose love of life touched and enriched so many. One of Arran’s real characters, John will be sadly missed.
Contributed by the Anderson family, with thanks to Rev Angus Adamson
John Anderson as he will best be remembered. NO_B35obit01
John pictured at his beloved Hillcrest Farm. NO_B35obit02