Norrie Kimbel - Last peat-cutter on Islay

Norrie KimbelNorman Campbell, known on Islay and internationally as Norrie Kimbel, died beginning of February 2006, six months short of his sixtieth birthday. For many years Norrie's was the face of Islay peat cutting. He had worked out on the moss since the age of twelve, and was latterly the only person on the island who earned his living lifting peats by hand. He was a feature of the Islay whisky festival during which he would give demonstrations of peat cutting for visitors, as he did for whisky tourists at other times of the year for some of the distilleries on the island.

Norrie had a streak of the showman in him and enjoyed telling strangers about his craft, which he demonstrated on his own croft out beyond Glenegedale. He would wink and smile knowingly at the happy symmetry of the twin facts that, first, the peat on Islay had taken 10,000 years to accumulate on top of bare rock since the last ice age and, secondly, that the island contained enough peat that, at current rates of extraction, the supply would last all distilleries on the island for the next 10,000 years.

Norrie's showmanship had, for many years, another outlet in the form of Norrie Kimbel's Revolving Disco. 'I was always keen on music,' he once told me over a glass or two of peaty malt. 'There was a kind of club that started up in the village here in Port Ellen called the Record Hop. I said there was disco's going on in America. I'd read about them, and I thought if I can get a way of amplifying this music, I'm going to be the greatest, like Jimmy Saville who was on the go at the time.

My real name's Norrie Campbell and that The Fugitive was on the go, in the late sixties, and he was called Kimbel, so I kind of pictured my name up in lights, as I wanted it to be, but Norman Campbell didn't look good. Harry Webb didn't look good so he changed his name to Cliff Richard. So I said I'm just going to copy The Fugitive and I'm going to be Norrie Kimbel. It was a great stage name and it really caught on and made me famous locally.' Norrie's trademark was a Stetson, bootlace tie and wide-buckled belt. For fifteen years he filled the Ramsay Hall every Friday and Saturday night. 'Up on the stage I had my own bar,' he said. 'Alcohol was banned from the hall, which was owned by the Council. I always managed to smuggle a half bottle in with the records. In fact, my first memory of whisky is warm whisky which had been smuggled in to dances down the leg of people's trousers. I wondered where girls kept their drink.'

Despite still working at the peats, Norrie enjoyed the trappings of stardom. 'I don't want to bum but I had silk shirts that cost about £50 a time; I had a steam box and ultra-violet lights: even your false teeth came out luminous. I wouldn't like to be a millionaire though. There'd be too many hangers-on. I'd be out there cutting peats and there'd be ten cars coming up the road. I'd be off.' Norrie was not married, and had no children. Now off for good, he leaves behind him the memory of laughter and good fellowship, as well as a 10,000-year supply of rich, Islay peat.

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