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Family and friends pay tribute to Alness ‘gentle giant’ Big Rab Smith

The 64-year-old was active in the town's Christian community.

Big Rab Smith of Alness at his Inverness baptism.
Big Rab Smith of Alness at his Inverness baptism.

The family, friends and pastor of Alness man Robert – “Big Rab” – Smith have paid tribute to the “gentle giant”.

A familiar face in the town’s churches, Ayrshire-born Rab and his family made the Highlands their home in the 1970s.

West coast raised

Robert Smith was born on March 18 1959 in Irvine, Ayrshire.

Part of a close family he was raised in a house with his mum Isobel, his grandparents Sarah and Robert Smith, his aunty Nettie, and her children.

Particularly close to his cousin Douglas, they were often assumed to be brothers.

Robert – later known as Rab – attended Logan Primary and then Cumnock Academy.

 ‘Big Rab’

As a family they relocated to Ross-shire in the early 1970s, for work. Still teenagers, Rab and Dougie “weren’t entirely honest” about their ages to secure jobs in the local pipe works.

Initially living in Evanton, Rab worked for MK Shands.

With a later move to Alness, he trained in horticulture, but shortly after returned to pipe work for Land and Marine near Tain.

In the 1980s Rab had a job with the Highland Council as a refuse collector and also worked for UMax for a time.

Rab, his aunty Nettie and cousin Janet on a visit to Skye.

A fan of cycling and darts, the big man with a dry sense of humour was known throughout the town.

His size – earning him the nickname Big Rab – helped secure occasional security work in Inverness, at Ross County FC, at Thunder in the Glen and for his beloved Inverness Caley Thistle.

Though a lifelong Rangers fan he adopted the other red, white and blue club as his own too.

Man of faith

Rab lived with his mum until her death in 2011. Though he remained close to Douglas and his wife Shonah, and his cousins Janet, James and their families, Rab would find a second family in the form of his local church community.

From no real religious background, Rab started attending church while working in Inverness. His baptism in 2008, in the River Ness, was such a significant day that he treasured a photo of the occasion.

It was after the loss of his mum, however, that his faith deepened.

He started attending Calvary Alness, a church run by pastor Billy McMaster and was a regular supporter of Christian country singer Johnny Bremner’s Drive-In Church, held in the Alness Academy car park throughout the summer.

A changed man

Shonah said: “He just loved going to church. As many meetings and services as he could really.

“It wasn’t something he was brought up with but it became incredibly important to him and I think it did change him.

“In his younger years, he would have liked a drink and a smoke but all that changed. He loved his Bible. It was probably the biggest Bible you’d ever see!

“Even with poor health he always made sure he got to church.”

Gentle giant

Rab suffered from COPD so walking to various church services would exhaust him.

“What should maybe have been a 10-minute walk, he’d leave an hour for. But he’d always make it. If there was a church service on and he could get there he would be there,” said Johnny Bremner.

“What I loved about Rab was that he wasn’t what he seemed.

“He was a gentle giant.”

Rab and Dougie’s son Ryan who he doted on.

In recent years Rab experienced significant grief with the loss of several family members including Dougie’s 25-year-old son Ryan, in 2019, in an accident.

“I think church brought him some comfort,” added Shonah. “As a family, we’ve certainly been through a lot.”

Humble and humorous

Rab’s pastor Billy said he’ll always remember the moment he met “the big man”.

“He opened the door of our church and he said, ‘I’m a born-again Christian, will you accept me here?’

“Of course we did. And I’m glad that was the case because it really won’t be the same without him.

“He had a daft sense of humour – a bit mischievous – loved to wind people up. He also loved a good debate… I called it friendly friction.

“And that was the thing about him, he filled up a room. From the big guy who could be a bit brash when he was on the street, he was a big gentle soul, who was humble, and emotional, when it came to his faith.”

Fly Away

Towards the end of last year, Rab’s health began to decline.

“I don’t think he let anyone know how bad it had become,” said Shonah. “So when he passed away it really came as a shock. He was just 64.”

It was discovered that Rab had died on January 15. A celebration of his life, led by his pastor Billy, took place on Friday January 26.

One of the cherished baptism images that Rab was so proud of.

His favourite hymn Rock of Ages and Johnny Cash song I’ll Fly Away were played.

Rab was laid to rest alongside his mum. His beloved baptism photos and Bible were buried with him.