Alexander “Sandy” Collie Shaw was born on April 30, 1944, on Rothiemurchus Estate in the Scottish Highlands, overlooking the Cairngorm mountains. In accordance with family tradition, Sandy came into the world in an upstairs bedroom of his grandfather’s farmhouse, and was placed in the bottom drawer of an old dresser. His parents, Andrew and Isabel Shaw, named him after his uncle, a member of Scotland’s Lovat Scouts, who died earlier that year in an avalanche near Jasper, Alta., during wartime training. Sandy’s father, a heavy-duty mechanic, was often on the road, so Sandy spent his early years at the farmhouse with his mother and older sister before moving to nearby Aviemore.
Growing up, Sandy and his friends occupied themselves on the wooded hillside trails, gathering berries and exploring. Before there was a ski resort in the area, they would carry their skis up the slope on foot. An athletic boy, he played soccer, and joined the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. His sense of compassion was ingrained early on: sister Anne was severely disabled, and brother John, 15 years his junior, had Down’s syndrome.
After the ski hill opened at Cairngorm in the mid-’60s, Sandy got a job as a chairlift operator. In January 1967, he met New Zealander Alison Hardman at a dance. Alison, who was working at the visitors’ centre, was drawn to his ability to “have a good discussion without any hard feelings.” Their debate about Scottish nationalism that evening ended at the train station, the last words exchanged through a train window as Alison departed for a trip. When the season finished, she took off for Yugoslavia, but upon hearing the Scottish tune My Heart’s in the Highlands, she knew she had to go back. Sandy proposed, and after he earned his boilermaker’s licence, they married at the farmhouse in 1968.
The next decade took them to England and New Zealand, where daughters Kirsty, Fiona and Megan were born, but they eventually settled on Canada, which, due to his uncle’s death, had “always figured largely” in Sandy’s life, says Alison. They were granted entry in 1979, and moved to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, where Sandy worked for the Harmac Pulp Mill, and Alison, a computer programmer, got a job in city hall. Sandy quickly forged friendships, and his “good Scottish brogue” was an integral component of their Christmas singalong, says friend Bill Merilees. He had a sweet tooth, and whipped up Scottish tablet and pavlova—a meringue dessert he “fell in love with” in New Zealand—“on demand,” says Alison.
As Sandy and Alison told their friends, “We spent our money on travel rather than furniture.” The family went overseas, and often piled into their orange Volkswagen camper van. The girls were sometimes reluctant participants: on the way to the Yukon, they sang of how they didn’t want to go to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Kokomo. When his Scottish relatives came to visit, Sandy took them to Jasper. “He was so proud of how beautiful it was,” says Alison.
His favourite climb was on Nanaimo’s Mount Benson. The frequency of his solo missions prompted Alison to buy him a cellphone for safety. Sandy loved “sweeping views,” and had “a great eye for detail, and a curiosity,” she says. In the piles of nature photos he took, she says “deer disappearing off into bushes” figured prominently. A member of the Nanaimo Field Naturalists, he “became a fixture” at the annual Christmas bird count, says Bill. He also “prepared for contingencies,” with a first-aid kit and supplies, says Bill. “He didn’t get into situations where he had to bail himself out.”
After more than two decades at Harmac, Sandy retired in 2004. In excellent shape, he cycledaround town, and joined two weekly hiking clubs. While Alison used a walking stick, Sandy’s hands were often “in his pockets”; for him, 10 km was a “shorter hike.” Though they tried ballroom and Latin dancing, Sandy “didn’t have a feel for any other beat of music” than Scottish, she says, and they joined the Scottish Country Dancers, where they had “a lot of laughs.” A patient, loving man, Alison says Sandy “was completely delighted” with his grandkids, who never tired of his playful teasing.
On Sept. 9, Sandy and Alison took the ferry to the Whistler area with the Nanaimo Tuesday Hikers. The next morning, they set out on the Garibaldi Lake Trail, a nine-kilometre climb known for its stunning views. Sandy was leading the pack when, at 10:30 a.m., he collapsed. While they waited for paramedics, the group tried rescue breathing and CPR, but it was already too late. Though the source is still unknown, doctors believe that an irregular heartbeat caused Sandy’s sudden death. He was 65.