I have a special reason for fondly recalling Sir Alex Fergusson, the former presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, who died last week at the age of 69. I met him only once, long before his entry into politics, when he was a hill farmer in the Ayrshire village of Barr. We are talking late 1970s.
In those days I did more public speaking than was good for anybody. (Perhaps that is why, these days, the idea of appearing on a platform apart from a railway one no longer appeals to me.) The first quarter of the year was always relentlessly busy: Burns suppers in January, drama festivals in February and March. I sometimes wonder how I managed to make a living between gigs, for there was hardly any money in these activities.
One such occasion I will never forget: the Barr Burns supper organised by Alex Fergusson.
The village somehow boasted two hotels – how could that have been possible? – as well as a fashionable tearoom for weekend jaunts. Only eight miles from the nearest town, Barr nonetheless felt isolated. According to the historian of the Carrick covenanters, it was the last place in the Scottish Lowlands where Gaelic was spoken.
The population in the late 1970s was just over 100, though nearer 250 if you included the surrounding agricultural parish. A measure of the importance of the annual Burns supper – its status as the hot ticket of the winter social season – was that, from this tiny community, almost 100 attended it. And I must frankly record that every one of them was a bloke.
I was living in Maybole at the time, renting the castle in the High Street that the president and his wife might have glimpsed in their recent motorcade through the town. I was therefore fair game for an invitation to the local Burns suppers. All but one – a dry one in Ayr – I enjoyed. But Barr was unique.
The Immortal Memory – my assignment for the evening – went well enough
in a company of knowledgeable Burns scholars from the many local farms. I sat down to warm applause and a loud dram proffered by young Alex. A second followed and then a third. My taste for whisky, like my taste for public speaking, was more than was good for anybody. Soon I felt extraordinarily well disposed to Barr, to Robert Burns, to my new best friend Alex Fergusson, indeed to the whole of the human race.
But then, through a haze of mellow bonhomie, I heard a statement that had an instantly sobering effect. I believe it may have been Alex himself who brought me the shocking news. 'Of course,' the voice was saying, 'they'll be expecting you to say a few words at the end of the night.'
A few words? Hadn't I already spilled many, many words – more than enough for one evening? Hadn't I just proposed the principal toast? Expecting the poor speaker to rise again: was this not a cruel and unusual punishment?
'It's a tradition in these parts,' the voice was imparting gently. 'Just a few words.'
At a late hour, I gripped the rostrum with unsteady hand to deliver my few words. There was laughter. Were they laughing at me or with me? Either way I had given up caring. A few more words. More laughter. When I eventually finished, it was to a roar of what I took to be appreciation. What on earth had I said to cause such hilarity? Whatever it was, the memory of it was not immortal.
In the morning, Alex Fergusson drove his bleary-eyed guest of honour back to Maybole. We agreed that it had been a memorable night and, among the mutual felicitations, I thanked him for being such a wonderful host. In time, I even forgave him for not warning me about the second speech.