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W. M. Barr

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IN a further tribute to William McKinlay Barr (VR, January 19, 2013, vol 172, p 80), Ken Angus writes: Willie Barr was born in 1924 in Inverness, a son of the manse. When he was only two, his father answered a call from the parish of St Andrew in Helensburgh, then in West Dunbartonshire but now in Argyll and Bute. A third brother, Dick, was born there and after some years, Douglas completed the family. Mr Barr was very popular, being well known for his pawky sense of humour. The older brothers were free spirits and inclined to high jinks. In the manse garden were two trees, and on one occasion a horrified parishioner reported seeing Willie and his older brother Robert at the tops of them, throwing baby Douglas, who was squealing with delight, from one to the other!

The Second World War was under way when Willie enrolled in his first year at Glasgow Veterinary College, but as soon as he was old enough for National Service he decided to volunteer for the Royal Navy. Imagine his chagrin when he was told that being a veterinary student put him into a group of reserved occupations. However, he learned that an exception might be made if he agreed to train as a flier and he joined the Fleet Air Arm.

After the war he resumed his studies at the veterinary college. Having just been accepted for the new BVMS degree course in 1949, I contacted Willie, who was just starting his fourth year, and was greeted most warmly by an awesomely athletic person with great presence and charm, who gave me some useful books and much good advice. All local students travelled daily to Glasgow by train. The station most conveniently adjacent to the college was Charing Cross, where Willie usually disembarked. Only, the train didn’t stop at Charing Cross! Eventually, he was apprehended and had to desist.

In 1960, I was working in Ibrox in Glasgow and received a call from a solicitor inquiring if I would like to work with Willie in Lochgilphead, and I was delighted to take up the offer. The practice was widely scattered and involved much travelling, sometimes on narrow roads and occasionally on foot or by boat to some of the islands just off the coast. The contrast with west Cumberland, where I had previously worked, could not have been more striking. The practice headquarters was situated in full view of the Crinan Canal and Willie could sit in his office and see the sails of yachts passing his front gate! Apart from several large estates, many of his farm clients operated only just above subsistence level and work was partly subsidised by the Highlands and Islands Veterinary Services Scheme. Travelling expenses often had to be offset by the mileage allowances set by the Scottish Milk Marketing Board's AI service, which employed Willie as a lay inseminator. The move introduced me to eight years of living in an idyllic environment under Willie's benign tutelage and his wife Kirstie's generous hospitality. All the difficult and stressful jobs were shared equally, and I grew to appreciate Willie's unfailing courtesy and his wonderful sense of humour, as well as his unique clinical skills with hill cattle and his interest in ram health. Especially appreciated was his attitude to my social life; as long as I could provide him with a contact phone number I could engage fully in local pursuits (no mobile phones in those days). However, I soon came to realise that Willie was prepared to meet difficulties head on.

On February 13, 1963, he carried out the biennial tuberculin test on hill cattle on Skipness Estate, near Tarbert. The following day the worst blizzard for 100 years blew in, paralysing the road system and it was still snowing heavily two days later – the day the test was due to be read. Realising that to postpone the test would mean that the cattle would have to be gathered again at calving-time when they would be very difficult to deal with, Willie determined to try to get to Skipness to complete the test. He managed to take a car to within a few miles of the home farm. Then, clad in his official ministry greatcoat and waders and carrying certain provisions, he set off on foot. Meanwhile, I returned to the surgery, a hair-raising journey. An hour later the estate phoned to see if Willie was coming. We seriously considered calling out the rescue services but a second call revealed that he had reached Spion Kop, an isolated dwelling, and had stopped for a brief rest. Luckily, hydro-board workers were there and took him on to the home farm.

Towards the end of the 1960s the farm side of the practice went into decline, as some of the big estates went into forestry and put away their livestock. This led to financial strictures. Willie discussed this frankly with me and I decided, with many regrets, to move on. A solution offered itself immediately: Tom Jarrett, who ran a single-handed practice on Islay, offered to sell up and join Willie as a full partner. I kept in contact with Willie after I moved to our present home and visited him in Lochgilphead from time to time. His eldest daughter lived in Midlothian, and when Willie visited he would drop in for coffee and a chat. Latterly, our contacts were confined to brief telephone conversations but I was always glad to hear the voice of my old mentor and friend. The loss of such a big man leaves a big space. My deepest sympathy goes out to Kirstie, to Andrew, Alison, Nancy, Mairi and the grandchildren, and to his brother, Dick.

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