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Features / Obituary: ‘Gritty, honest and no-nonsense’

Robbie Leith - Photo: Ivan Hawick.

This is a slightly re-worked and (inevitably) shortened version of Davie Gardner’s tribute to Robbie Leith who died earlier this month, aged 61.

I think it would be hard to argue with the view that Robbie Leith was a ‘genuine wan-aff’.

Like many folk, I heard his name before I actually got to know him personally.

In a relatively small community like ours that usually means one of two things: either the person in question is making some kind of impression in that community; or they are, quite simply, a bit of a character. Robbie, of course, ticked both boxes.

I first met him when I went to work at the then Shetland Line Shipping Co (now Streamline) in 1977. I’d got a job in their transport office and Robbie was the general foreman.

I think it’s safe to describe Robbie as in perpetual motion; a coiled spring. He never undertook anything at what you might call a leisurely pace. If things were moving too slowly – or even routinely – there invariably was Robbie, to fire things up.

And if things happened to be quiet, you could usually stand by for some wind-up, devilment or mischief, delivered with a mischievous grin.

But those things weren’t what brought Robbie to wider public attention. In the late 1970s he was living in Tingwall and was involved with the local community and especially the hall, turning his hand to fundraising efforts and events.

But not for Robbie sedate Sunday afternoon teas, whist or 500 nights. No, he promoted full-blown talent shows and tours of Shetland with his skiffle band The Tingwall Valley Stompers. He even organised Shetland’s very first and, as far as I know, only ever, medieval jousting contest complete with charging horses and knights in armour. No half measures for Robbie!

To say Robbie could be blunt is perhaps an understatement. When he stood for council, I asked him what his election statement was going to be.

He said: “Weel Davie, I wis thinking o’ something simple and tae the point – just a picture of me with ‘Vote Leith’ above it and below the words ‘Nae Bullshit’.”

He did, however, end up rethinking that tagline and settled for ‘Straight talk’ instead. 

When Robbie committed himself to something he enthusiastically gave it his all. On polling day, for instance, he was the only candidate who was there the whole day from start to finish (bar taking time out for a ‘fag break’ as he used to term it), personally meeting everyone as they came to vote, appearing totally relaxed and apparently enjoying the whole thing.

Robbie never shirked a challenge, openly spoke his mind, believed strongly in himself and his abilities and – outwardly at least – wasn’t too bothered what others thought or made of him. “Dey can either tak me or leave me,” he would say. But he had the equally important trait of being able to laugh at himself when, like us all, he did get things wrong.

Robbie’s sheer strength of character was perhaps his strongest trait. Even when he fell seriously ill a few years back he faced the whole thing with almost dismissive good humour. Mind you that same trait, coupled with sheer willpower and determination, ensured he made a reasonable recovery following major surgery.

But it was through music that we had most in common over the years. Unlike many musicians Robbie never – openly at least – displayed lofty ambitions. He simply ploughed the musical furrow he wanted to plough, and did what he did best: singing, making music and entertaining folk. That didn’t mean he wasn’t talented of course – because there was no doubt about his abilities in that respect.

He was a one man, living, classic country music juke-box, especially during his regular weekend spots in the Noost. He especially enjoyed – and indeed was very proud of – the fact that others invariably enjoyed what he did, too, however raw, honest and down to earth that might have been.

Noost regulars will miss his Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash and even Conway Twitty classics, and most certainly the character and wit behind the delivery of them. To say that Robbie’s passing will leave a hole in the Noost’s social programme – and of course Shetland’s social calendar – would be yet another Robbie-related understatement.

Robbie’s songs and vocal delivery pretty much mirrored the man himself: gritty, honest, no-nonsense, occasionally rough and ready, down to earth stuff. No embellishments, but plenty of integrity, delivered straight from the heart.

Inevitably, Robbie will be most missed by his immediate family and closest friends, for they knew the real Robbie Leith. To them, he will simply be irreplaceable – but I hope they can take some solace and pride from the fact that, as a much-respected individual, character, musician, work colleague and all-round good-egg, Robbie will be irreplaceable to many others too.  

A ‘genuine wan-aff’ and no mistake – and I am proud to have been able to call him a friend.

Davie Gardner

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