of the late Rev. Calum Matheson
We are grateful to Roy Sloan of Brynsiencyn Anglesey for sharing his memories of his time in London with the late Calum Matheson.
In November 1963, when I was eighteen years old, I left my home in Anglesey, North Wales and moved to London to start my first job. I had joined the Civil Service as a (very junior) civil servant in the now-defunct Ministry of Aviation. I lived in a hostel in Notting Hill Gate - an area of London not quite as fashionable then as it is nowadays.
The hostel was named Bowden Court and was home to about 150 or so men. We were a motley bunch, ranging from elderly residents in their seventies to youngsters like myself, just starting out on their careers. There were plenty of oddballs to be found in the hostel: strange, eccentric characters and social misfits – men who seemed to have nothing, no roots, no home, no family, just a room in a somewhat cheerless hostel.
Besides the weirdos, Bowden Court also had a sizeable gay community, but they were very discreet. They had to be. At that time, engaging in homosexual activity was a criminal offence (it wasn’t decriminalised until 1967). Anyone caught and prosecuted could end up in prison.
Though some of the older residents had been at Bowden Court for years (decades in some cases) the movement of people into and out of the hostel was constant. Not a week seemed to go by without someone leaving and their place being taken by someone else. Seeing new faces was one of the unchanging features of hostel life.
One such new arrival in February 1965 was a dark-haired Scottish youth by the name of George MacDonald, who hailed from the Isle of Lewis. George was one of my roommates and we quickly became firm friends. Like me, he had joined the civil service and was working for the Ministry of Agriculture.
Two months later, at Easter, a second Lewis man took up residence at Bowden Court – Calum Matheson. A youngster like George, he also had left his native land to begin a civil service career in London. He was a jolly, outgoing and extrovert type. I formed a friendship with him as I had done with George. Indeed, I had little choice. Calum insisted on making friends with everybody, whoever they were. His capacity for socialising was inexhaustible. If there was a party or social gathering of any kind, you could be sure he was there. He seemed to take to the Notting Hill Gate social scene like a duck to water.
Through my friendship with him and George MacDonald I came to know something of the Gaelic language and culture. I learnt about many aspects of Hebridean life such as the cutting of peats etc. and I listened to records of such singers as Calum Kennedy and Joan MacKenzie.
This was fascinating, especially when I had a Celtic background myself, in that my first language was Welsh and I also came from an island rural community. I admit, however, that there is a considerable difference between Anglesey and Lewis. Whilst the distance from Lewis across The Minch to the mainland is measured in miles, the water channel that separates Anglesey from the tir mawr (mainland) is, at its narrowest point, only a few hundred yards in width.
This is the Menai Strait. Spanning that gap is one of the most graceful of bridges to be seen in Britain – the Menai Suspension Bridge. Further along the Strait we also have the Britannia Bridge providing both a rail and road link.
In December 1965 I lost one of my two Caledonian companions when George MacDonald left London and returned to Scotland to take up a civil service post in Inverness. Thus, with George’s departure, Bowden Court’s Celtic trio became a duo – Calum and myself. It wasn’t long before George’s place was taken by a newcomer. As I have already mentioned, new faces were a constant feature of living in Bowden Court.
Amongst the ‘intake’ during the early part of 1966 was a man with a strong mission, though none of us were aware of this when we first met him. He was English, in his mid-thirties, with dark hair and glasses. There was a studious, scholarly air about him and he was clearly a man of high intelligence. Always smartly dressed, more often than not wearing a blue blazer and grey flannels, he was gentle and extremely polite in manner. He was particularly well spoken and his careful, measured delivery was indicative of his intellect.
But what was he and how had he found his way to Bowden Court? I discovered that he was a missionary and had just returned ‘from darkest Africa’, as he said, where he had been attempting to convert the natives to Christianity.
It was clear that beneath his cool, intellectual exterior, a fire burned. The man had an evangelical zeal to spread the Christian gospel wherever he went – and that included Bowden Court – a Godless place if ever there was one.
Soon after the missionary’s arrival a note was pinned up on the hostel’s notice board. ‘Bowden Court Christian Fellowship’ announced the note proudly, and then went on to say that the Fellowship was about to hold its first meeting and that all residents would be welcome at the meeting.
The Fellowship’s founder turned out to be no tub-thumping ‘hellfire and brimstone’ zealot, however. On the contrary, he was extremely restrained. His approach was detached and objective, almost like an academic analysis of the Christian message, weighing up the evidence for and against that message but eventually coming to the conclusion that Christ was indeed mankind’s saviour. The missionary’s strategy was successful. In no time at all the Bowden Court Christian Fellowship was up and running.
Amongst those who went to listen to what the Fellowship’s donnish, bespectacled tutor had to say was Calum. As I have previously noted, he was into everything. The effect of the missionary’s words upon Calum was profound and dramatic. He became a changed person. I can remember his exact words to me – ‘I’ve been a sinner but the Lord has saved me’. Overnight, he abandoned his previous lifestyle. His joviality and gregariousness evaporated like dew in early morning sunshine. Gone were the partying and the relentless whirl of socialising. In their place came Bible Study, Prayer Meetings and Fellowship. The Bible became his constant companion. He never missed an opportunity to read it. I saw him once standing in a queue at the Notting Hill Gate post office, and what was he doing whilst waiting his turn to be served? Reading the Bible.
Although he was consumed by his newfound religious fervour, I have to confess that I was sceptical of his motives. Such intensity can’t possibly last, I said to myself. It was just a fad, not a Road to Damascus conversion. I was convinced that in another two weeks Calum would be back to his old habits. But two weeks, three weeks, a month, two months went by and he was as committed as ever to his Christian beliefs. It seemed as if my judgement was wrong (it was!) and Calum had indeed experienced a Road to Damascus conversion. There had been a moment of revelation leading to instant and radical change.
In the summer of 1966 I followed George MacDonald’s example and left Bowden Court forever. I returned to Anglesey. My hiraeth (a Welsh word whose expressive subtlety is not possessed by the English translation ‘longing’) for my homeland had been too strong. Though I kept in touch with George I lost contact with Calum and heard no more from him or of him.
Then, one Saturday afternoon in the late 1970s I think it was, I was pottering around in the kitchen when I decided to switch on the radio, which, as it so happened, was tuned to the BBC’s Radio 4. As the set crackled into life, a voice came from the loudspeaker. The voice had a Hebridean lilt and I recognized its owner immediately. It was Calum Matheson! Now this was an unexpected surprise on a quiet Saturday afternoon, to be sure. What on earth was Calum doing on Radio 4? He was being interviewed about some subject or other, that was obvious enough, but exactly what was under discussion? That’s what I wanted to know and, as you can imagine, my ears were now glued to the radio set. I took in every word uttered and after a few sentences it all became clear to me. Under examination was the problem of drug use by young people. Calum had been actively involved in helping addicts and was comparing the problem in inner-city areas such as Glasgow with more rural areas. But there was more: I learnt from the interview that such was Calum’s Christian belief and commitment that he had actually gone into the ministry. This was news to me.
After the broadcast ended I switched the set off and pondered, still in a state of surprise, on what I had just heard. Well, to begin with, I had to admit, to my shame, that the scepticism with which I greeted Calum’s religious conversion fifteen years previously had been completely unfounded. Clearly, Christianity still dominated his life. The sweeping changes in him, which I had witnessed in London, were permanent. It was apparent that his enthusiasm and sense of purpose were entirely undiminished. Here was a man who had found his true vocation.
In June 1992 George MacDonald informed me of Calum’s death at the age of 43. I was shocked and saddened by this news. It seemed a most cruel and unjust fate, particularly so for someone in Calum’s circumstances.
When I read the tributes in the Stornoway Gazette and Monthly Record (kindly sent to me by George) I saw just how far Calum had travelled in his personal and spiritual development since those now-distant days when our paths crossed.
One of his Free Church colleagues wrote of him that he was, ‘. . . big in stature, big in spirit’, that he had a ‘cheerful personality, a ready smile’ and a ‘warm and sincere nature’. I agree completely. Those were indeed the very qualities that I found most endearing in him whilst we were at Bowden Court hostel all those years ago – qualities of compassion and humanity, which were later to prove so beneficial in his all too-short Christian ministry. I have such great memories of Calum though those memories are tainted by regret and sadness at his tragic and untimely passing.
Crofter's Son . . . Donald John MacAthur
Donald John MacArthur
was born 70 years ago on the 23rd of January 1932 in the old blackhouse at 2
Dalbeg, the youngest son of Angus and Mary MacArthur. It was a hard-working,
often arduous, life on the croft with few if any of the luxuries we take for
granted today. And yet Donald spoke often of halcyon days full of fun and humour
and childhood pranks, and of the benevolent guidance of his mother, Mary.
School life for Donald was, by his own admission, something to be endured and as further education was then financially beyond the means of the average crofter Donald, like so many of his generation, went into National Service and joined the Royal Artillery. Army life, with its strong sense of order and discipline, appealed to him and he felt that he had benefited greatly from his army experiences, both in England and in Germany.
His Chosen Career
In 1955, having
been demobbed, Donald applied to, and was accepted for, the Inverness Constabulary.
It was to be his chosen profession for the next 32 years. In the police force
he quickly moved up the ranks and in 1967 Donald joined the C.I.D. as a Detective
Constable. He always maintained that detective work was what real policing was
about and with his innate intelligence and investigative abilities he soon gained
In 1976 Donald was called upon to take over what effectively became the Northern Constabulary’s biggest-ever missing persons inquiry – the disappearance of Renée MacRae and her three-year-old son, Andrew, neither of whom has ever been found. Donald was convinced that he knew what had happened to them and it was a source of continued frustration and sorrow that the perpetrator of the crime has as yet eluded justice.
He is quoted as saying in November 2001, “I'm convinced she was murdered. And I believe I have spoken to the person who did it. It was someone we knew and questioned at the time . . . I would dearly love to think that one day we will find the person (who killed her)”. It would be a fitting tribute to a man who was regarded by his colleagues as “one of the finest detectives this force ever had” that one day this case could be laid to rest.
to be promoted and, having attained the rank of Superintendent, he decided in
1985 that, after 32 years in the police force, he would retire to his beloved
Dalbeg. He and his wife Catriona soon settled into a much gentler pace of life
although Donald could often be seen striding across the hills, indifferent to
his usually breathless companions. He was captivated by the beauty of the landscape
around him and was acquainted with every inch of the croft.
Retirement also gave Donald an opportunity to indulge in his lifelong love of literature. He was a voracious reader and with his incisive mind and appetite for knowledge he was an able adversary in any debate. He was a natural raconteur and loved nothing better than holding court with a good story. Pipe music, the poetry of Robert Burns and the songs of Màiri Mhòr nan Oran were other interests he pursued.
A Modest Man
Donald John was
essentially both modest and unassuming and would have been uncomfortable with
such epithets. However, any man who is remembered with such a degree of respect
and affection as Donald is, by all those whose lives he touched, is deserving
of such remembrances.
He leaves behind a family bereft of his presence, to whom he was devoted and who in turn were devoted to him – wife Catriona; daughters Mhairi, Christabel, Catriona, his only son, Angus; grandchildren Emma, James, Ceitidh, Katharine - and little Lewis Donald, born just recently. They all feel the richer for having known him.
Police Superintendent, Donald John MacArthur, pictured above, passed away on 5 February 2002. This article is based on a tribute which was read at his funeral service, in Carloway Church of Scotland, by Dr. Kristian Davis,his nephew from Canada