Remembering Derek Mackenzie

The funeral of Derek Mackenzie (Dalmore) took place on Tuesday 16th February, below is the eulogy given by Ian Blake who had been friends with Derek for over 60 years.

When the ageing WB Yeats revisits the Municipal Gallery in Dublin he is surrounded, he tells us, by the images of thirty years, the portraits of those who had been part of his youth, and he ends poem with these two lines :

Think where man’s glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.

Feasgah math Derek, you were just such a friend.

Good afternoon, Derek
This is a sad occasion; however I am quite sure that mourning is the very last thing he would have wanted.  Rather we should celebrate a life well-lived by somebody who was well-loved by so many people – it is a time to recall images which in my own case are those of twice times thirty years.
Furthermore it is my privilege to have been asked by Felicity, Kevin, Philippa and David Bennet to rehearse cherished memories of somebody who “was simply inspirational” – in the words of David, a former scout, whose lifelong friendship Derek valued highly.

I was posted to Scottish Command In September 1951 as perhaps the least technically adept Royal Signals National Service subaltern ever.  On my first Sunday evening I caught a tram to St John’s Church, where at the end of the service, meeting Robert and Keith Frost and, enquiring whether I could be of any help with the Scouts, I was whisked off to meet the rest of the family in Braids Road.

You, Derek, arrived….. “Just popping in……. Can’t stay….. Must be going…” Which he did…. three hours later of course ….. I say ‘of course’ because I was to discover ‘Popping in’….. Can’t stay…..’ but being still there hours later was a Frost family in-joke, Derek taking it all in good part…… Seems only yesterday….… Can it really have been sixty- five years ago?

Generous, kind, wise, loyal, trustworthy, hard-working, caring, are all words by which he has been characterised, but he was also tenacious, ever willing to ‘go the extra mile’ in order to resolve a situation and he always did so with dignity.  Although today he is foremost in the thoughts of Felicity, Kevin & Philippa, for theirs is the greatest loss, and in those of his Dalmore family – sister, nephews, nieces – he is also fondly remembered by that far wider family close to his heart, ranging from contemporaries who know how he cherished being a Leith High Constable, to the younger generations whom he mentored? (though that I fear is the trendy sociological term Derek himself would have abhorred)

He was an outstanding schoolboy athlete, very fast over 100 yards. The late Jim Paterson told me how Derek starred, as a schoolboy, representing the senior Ross-shire rugger side.  Later he played for Wanderers, though injury kept him from the First Fifteen and, on two or three occasions, he drafted me into the THIRD Fifteen when they were a man short.  But he loved Mackenzie history and was a keen member of the Clan Mackenzie Society for he was always a true Highlander at heart.  On one occasion we stopped somewhere on the narrow twisting old A9, I looked out of the passenger window into the beady eyes of an enormous bird not six feet away which never so much as stirred itself.  Respectfully Derek drove quietly away to drink our coffee where we were no longer intruding on the private musings of an aristocratic Capercaille.

Despite a demanding and successful career in the whisky distilling tradition of his Dalmore upbringing, he made time to organise skiing, climbing, sailing for 39th Haymarket Scouts, encouraging them to Be Prepared for life by inspiring them to ‘to look wide’ in his conviction that ‘Adventure Training’ should rejuvenate Scouting throughout Edinburgh. The reason he was so loved and respected by them was due to that selfless-generosity of spirit which underpinned everything he undertook.

Meat and food rationing did not end until July 1954 thus provisioning a scout camp required skill and ingenuity and Derek came into his own as an exceptionally well-organised Quartermaster, insistent on providing a healthy and balanced diet.  Feeding scouts was where we all learned to cook – to good effect it seems as Kevin tells me his Father, and “would take hours to prepare the stock and perfect the best curried carrot soup ever!”  He was particularly keen on a rather repellent very dry fibrous (but no doubt very healthy) breakfast cereal called Grapenuts.  The fact that Kevin never mentions them suggests that Felicity insisted on far more palatable fare.

Derek’s other obsession was never to waste anything.  In Norway with Coughingtz I recall one of us (surely not myself!) surreptitiously disposing of a half a very stale loaf into a fjord because he threatened to find way of incorporating it into our next supper.

I quote an email from Frank Stewart who had known Derek: “since about 1950 when I joined the Cubs at the age of eight, I am very sorry indeed that I shall be unable to attend. At 12 noon on Tuesday 16th, I am due to be on a plane just taking off from Edinburgh, bound for Oslo where I had already arranged to attend a translators’ conference. This is an interesting coincidence, as my interest in Norway and my study of Norwegian language stem largely from Scout camps there, which in turn, follow on from the expeditions made, slightly before my time.  A heart-warming tribute from Canada, from Roderick Farquharson: I will miss Derek greatly….. he was such an integral and invaluable part of my life, recalling how Derek had aroused his interest in gliding, skiing and photography amongst other lifelong pursuits.

Looking back on our Norway ventures I am surprised that Derek had never packed a fishing rod in Coffingutz because whenever I phoned him he was always either planning to go fishing or had just returned, usually with David. Whenever he visited me in Aultgrishan the freezer was enriched by three or four very fine trout.  During one such visit we walked along the shore, as I do every day, and I took him up the cliff on a narrow sheep-track.  Pointing out a shelf of rock where I sometimes sat sheltered from any east or north wind, I remarked “One day I’m going to put a chair there .”  Some days later a stout wooden garden-chair arrived from him and Felicity which, with the help of Davy Ross, a neighbour, is now bolted securely into the rock – a secret chair, almost impossible to see from the shore even knowing it’s there and quite invisible from the road.

Ten days ago Cabarfeidh, (that is Chief of Clan Mackenzie, John Cromartie,) and his wife Eve were visiting me.  We too walked the shore and up the cliff.  Each of us took the opportunity to sit in the chair and remember Derek as we looked across to Skye and South Harris.  Perhaps one day not too long in the future, Kevin and Philippa will try it out – even Poppy when she is a little older.  Derek would like that most of all because I suspect that his greatest regret in leaving us is that Poppy will have known him for such a very short time.

At first I returned quite often, to help with annual camps at Longformacus and in Perthshire, and to join him at Glenmore Lodge with Robert and Keith on a climbing course.  He and I spent a memorable week canoeing from Oban to Inverness via Loch Linnhe and the Caledonian Canal:

Derek, it is NOT me behind you ‘sniffing’– it is the seal following us!

Beaching at Castle Urquhart on Loch Ness we were challenged by its Highland caretaker – How had we got in without paying…. “That’s our canoe down there on the shore.”  A great smile, “Ach well that’s fine then…No charge….. The castle has not been taken from the loch since 1539.

Inevitably my absences became longer as university in Dublin, Oxford (and – based at The British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem – excavating by the Dead Sea) put ever greater distances between us.  But I knew that he and Felicity were able to buy Pantiles, the dream house which he first set eyes on and fell in love with whilst playing on Longniddry beach as a small boy.  I knew about Kevin and Philippa, about his pride in the garden which they opened it to the public.  I even knew of his shameful secret addiction – the passion for wearing and keeping old blue jumpers.

Herein lies the miracle of those unique, very special friendships some of us are lucky enough to make when young – they survive time, distance and separation.  Whenever you meet again, after however long you can take up a conversation as if you had spoken only the day before.  That’s how it always for me with Keith – and with Robert – and, until last month, with you Derek.

I began by quoting a poem.  I’d like to end with another poem (referring this time not to portraits in a gallery but to faces in a photograph I must have taken over sixty years ago) which I believe you too, would have found as comfortingly nostalgic as I do – it shows a patrol of scouts sprawled round their camp-fire waiting for the billy-can to boil (and we all remember how long that always seems to take)!  It epitomises for me, as I think it would do for you, those unsophisticated days when, young as we all were, we didn’t realise such fleeting images would be woven so vividly into the tapestry of our memory.

When it is published, I trust I have your permission to put for DFM below the title:

FAMILIAR GHOSTS
for DFM 1928-2016

You all must be well over sixty now.

Seven boys in Boy Scout uniform,
eleven or twelve, none older than thirteen,
unaware, or unself-conscious of
the camera half a century ago
one long-forgotten summer afternoon.

From a fire just out of sight which boils
the ‘billy’ far too slowly, as you wait,
smoke drifts over, wreathes up into trees
fully-leafed, out-shadowing the sun,
half-enveloping one spectral face.

Familiar ghosts…… I’ve not forgotten you.

No one speaks. Contemplative, your eyes
distant, focused far beyond the ‘now’,
pensive, thoughtful. Were you wondering
will I ever Be Prepared for life –
marriage, children, failure and success –
for death, of parents, all those whom I love?

Longingly uncertain, hesitant to embrace
that fearfully anticipated joy
on the almost-out-of-childhood verge
of being not-quite- men, this photograph
keeps safe your final summer’s innocence.

Badger Patrol…….. bright sherd of yesterday.

Math sin leibh an-dràsta, Derek, chi mi a-rithst thu

Goodbye for now, Derek, see you again.

February 16th 2016

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