Obituary: Tex Geddes

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The Independent Online
THE COLOURFUL laird of Soay, Tex Geddes, who died while returning from a bagpiping competition in the Outer Hebrides, was a character of near-heroic stature on the west coast of Scotland.

Born in 1919, Joseph "Tex" Geddes - typically, he claimed he was given his nickname by a Red Indian fellow commando - first became known to the wider world as Gavin Maxwell's harpoonist, during the latter's ill-fated post-war attempt to establish a shark-fishing industry in the Hebrides.

Maxwell went on to become a celebrated writer of books about natural history - notably Ring of Bright Water (1960) - but his first venture into print, following the collapse of his shark-fishing enterprise and an attempt at becoming a painter, was Harpoon at a Venture (1950) in which the central character was Geddes.

The two met at the Special Forces training camp in Arisaig on the West Coast in 1942, where they were both instructors. Maxwell, then aged 28, was an officer and an aristocrat, and taught fieldcraft and small arms; 24-year-old Geddes, a sergeant in the Seaforth Highlanders, specialised in amphibious warfare (explosives and boat handling) and had already won for himself a colourful reputation.

He was an accomplished knife-thrower and bayonet fencer, a boxer, a former rum-runner in Newfoundland, an orphaned lumberjack "tree monkey" whose father had been blown up while dynamiting a log jam and who had been expelled from school at the age of 12 as "unmanageable".

By his own account, he was born in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, and taken to Canada by his father when he was two, following a trivial altercation with the police. Others maintain he was raised by an aunt, the youngest of three fighting brothers, in Easter Ross, and never went to Canada in his life. His neighbours in nearby Skye believed that he hailed from Australia.

No matter. For Maxwell, Geddes was the personification of the "man of action", and at the end of the war he employed him as his lieutenant when he bought the tiny Hebridean island of Soay, off the south coast of Skye, and set up his shark-fishing enterprise.

The business was not a success, largely due to Maxwell's financial naivety, and the company was in liquidation by 1952. Geddes and his Cheltenham Ladies College-educated wife, Jan, bought Soay from the receiver.

The other inhabitants of the island meanwhile requested evacuation, and the Geddeses were soon involved in a complex legal dispute over compensation for assets abandoned and improvements made to crofts. A long wrangle in the Scottish Land Court led to a change in the law, but the Geddeses had to sell part of the island in order to meet their obligations. The authorities were only persuaded to continue postal and telephone services when Geddes got his friends to send him numerous telegrams and registered packages (some of which contained only stones).

Thirty years were to elapse before Geddes managed to buy back the part of the island he had sold. During this time he concentrated first on writing his account of the shark-fishing adventure, Hebridean Sharker (1960), and then to breeding ponies (at which he established a high reputation), inshore fishing from his well-known boat Shearwater (which he romantically described as "ploughing the fields between Scotland and America"), and story-telling.

Today the island has a population of nine, and the post arrives once a month. There is still no electricity: Geddes installed his first generator only four years ago, when he was 75.

He was a celebrated fear an tigh ("master of ceremonies") at ceilidhs in the islands, and in true Gaelic fashion his claims and stories became an imaginative tapestry of fact and fiction. Among the butts of his jokes were absentee landlords, and he made the news three years ago when he threatened to eat the German laird of the Island of Eigg, Herr Maruma, should he abuse his tenants. He also advised that the key to winning respect was always to dance with the ugliest tenant at local parties - although this was not a practice he himself followed.

Part cowboy, part inspiration, Tex Geddes enriched the lives of countless Hebrideans. The noted Highland historian, Margaret Fay Shaw of Canna, who knew him well for over 50 years, said of him: "Tex was a great story- teller and important as such. He was also immensely kind, and had that hunger for life and fun that is essential if you are to make a go of living in these islands. The Hebrides needs more people like Tex Geddes. So does the world."

Joseph ("Tex") Geddes, writer, fisherman and storyteller: born Peterhead, Aberdeenshire 24 October 1919; married Jan Haszard (one son); died Broadford, Isle of Skye 11 April 1998.

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