FOR some years, I contributed a weekly Scottish culture column to The Herald and a few days ago, I had cause to remember one I wrote back in September 2000.

Politically, that time, with hindsight, looks somewhat familiar.

The SNP had just lost their leader, who had resigned unexpectedly. There was a continuing row that had seen the party treasurer depart as well.

Many column inches were being expended on dire prognostications about the future of the independence cause whilst a new leader was being elected who gradually – and bravely – started to sort out the problems.

But I remember the column in question particularly clearly for two non-political reasons.

Of lesser importance is that it was the last time I had to file to a copy-taker. My publication day was Monday and I had been in Inverness for the SNP conference up until the Sunday afternoon.

Somehow my words went missing, so late in the afternoon whilst driving home to Argyll, I found a telephone box in Kemore and read them down a bad phone line.

However, the more important reason why I was so intent on filing, despite it being to my detriment, and the reason why I still recall it to this day was the subject – the funeral of my neighbour Archie McNaughton – the man from whom, 31 years ago, I bought the house where I live today.

Archie was a much-respected farmer whose knowledge of the history and lore of his community was legendary.

He was also a talented fiddler and he and his wife Barbara (who played the accordion) had a huge number of musical friends who would willingly perform long into the night in their house where whisky and conversation would flow in equally generous measure.

He was buried on a dreich autumn day, a smirr of rain soaking the large number of people gathered outside the packed beautiful old Kilmodan Kirk listening to the service through screechy loudspeakers.

Before the minister started to speak, Archie’s fiddler friends played a last tribute and when they finished, it seemed as if the whole glen was silent for a moment – marking not just the loss of such a fine man but also the passing of a whole generation.

Last Wednesday, 23 years on, the fiddlers played in a packed kirk again, and to a large gathering outside, as his widow Barbara was laid to rest, though the weather was spectacularly kinder. After the service, we stood by the grave in warm sunshine, looking across the river and fields to the hills above Loch Riddon and the Kyles of Bute.

Intimations of mortality come to us all, and I always feel them particularly strongly in that spot because it is where I will – at some unknown time in the future – be buried. So, standing there, I could not help but ponder how much had changed for me as well as for the community and country over the past 23 years.

The excitement of that time, with Scotland newly served by its own – admittedly still incomplete – Parliament after almost 300 hundred years of adjournment seems now to have been replaced by a jaded cynicism, whilst the institution itself is forced to defend the right to use even its own restricted legislative powers.

Despite the word having only been coined in 2012, Brexit has tragically narrowed the horizons not just of politicians but of young and old alike. The cross-fertilisation of cultures caused by citizens – both theirs and ours – travelling, working and studying abroad and the prosperity that came from the easy interchange of goods is much diminished.

We are, increasingly, the poor man of our continent and it shows. Meanwhile, Covid and the harsh memory of lockdown as well as its legacy in education, the health service and families left bereft still looms like a black cloud.

Whilst lives have certainly improved over the past two decades, there is also an increasing dearth of optimism about the public realm. More and more needs to be done by community volunteers yet the nucleus of activists grows smaller with every funeral.

Barbara, for example, was the organist in the churches in Glendaruel and Colintraive for 55 years. One of those churches will shortly close, and the organ in the other has been superseded by a tape machine.

Even more worryingly, the dialogue that is needed to find agreed and effective solutions that we as a nation and a community can get behind also seems to be harder and harder to achieve.

Division and disparagement are the dominant discourse and social media – unknown in 2000 – washes crude disinformation and vicious attacks over us all. However, it doesn’t have to be like this.

There is plenty still to celebrate in our country, not least the resilience of places like Glendaruel, which with the right support can attract new residents and create new jobs. There is still a willing community spirit which – if it were properly recognised and sustained – would provide the energy that could re-kindle enthusiasm and progress.

This cycle of decline is of course deliberately fuelled by a media institutionally biased against both independence and the Scottish Parliament and amplified by the same institutions constantly asserting that nothing can change, largely because they fear it might.

Scotland’s constitutionally progressive forces need to disrupt that deliberately dismal narrative by declaring a new united national purpose, ensuring that every part of the country is engaged with it, rooting it in reality and raising the eyes and the hopes of every citizen wherever they live.

It is time, frankly, that we rekindled our ambition and our faith in the future.

Those are the things which need to emerge from the summer of campaigning and deliberation that we have been promised.

Through accident and illness, facing every challenge that the time and the place presented, my neighbours the McNaughtons – with the pragmatic but determined ethic that comes from working the land as well as playing an instrument well – lived their lives believing in and delivering, better things for themselves and their family, for their neighbours, for their community and ultimately, for their country.

For me, that is the positive lesson that is bookended by two funerals, 23 years apart, in the lovely setting of Kilmodan Kirkyard in the Clachan of Glendaruel.

I am more than grateful for the chance to have learnt it and more than glad to encourage others to follow the example of my dear departed neighbours.