There are always figures in your family history who cast longer shadows. The folk who catch the eye, who haunt and preoccupy. Sometimes their choices coloured everything that came thereafter. Sometimes they are enigmas. Sometimes you feel – or perhaps only project on to them – a sense of recognition. Sometimes you feel you can detect their influence on folk you have known – your parents and grandparents.

Angus Miller, my great-grandfather, was one of these characters. A rural doctor, he was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, and tended to the health of his community long before the Labour government of 1945 introduced the National Health Service. We still have candlesticks he was given by a grateful blacksmith, who couldn’t afford his medical bills, but who could work and shine metal into beautiful shapes – a memento of a child whose life had been saved on the western edge of the Scottish wilderness.

Years after his death, my father has been waylaid by strangers, who knew his grandfather, with stories of a sister saved. A few years by, he was summoned to a death-bed in Ardfern where a dying man wanted to express his appreciation for the long-dead physician who he felt had given him long life. Shakespeare wrote that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”. That’s not my experience. And that’s the strange thing. Angus’s bones are interred in an unknown spot: only his good deeds still have any life.

Born in Dunoon, Angus lived – and is now buried, in an unmarked grave, at his own insistence – in Lochaline in Morvern on the west coast of Argyll. My grandparents have now joined him, in the kirkyard, overlooking the loch. Angus died long before I was born, but is preserved in the eccentric collection of books he helped assemble across his long life and in my father’s recollections of his childhood.

Lochaline in those days belonged to an Alan Warner novel, or as the backdrop to Iain Banks’s Wasp Factory. Isolated on the west coast, on the mainland but more readily accessed by sea, the community was unselfconsciously surreal. When the last families left St Kilda in the 1930s, a significant number of the islanders came here, a halfway house between the isolation of their old homes, and modern Scotland. The St Kildans were met by a crowd on the pier, as the Harebell carried them to their new homes.

The villagers reportedly “cheered and waved a friendly welcome”, but the St Kildans made no response. “Some smiled, but others simply stared”, untouched by either joy or sorrow. Most of these migrants saw trees and motorcars for the first time in their lives – before being allocated their Forestry Commission jobs, working with these mysterious objects. There are no trees on St Kilda. As the local doctor, my great-grandfather tended to their hurts, and sniffles and injuries.

Lochaline was the kind of place which attracted folk who wanted – who needed – to live life unscrutinised. From the 1940s, Lochaline’s white silica sand mine churned out materials for high-quality glass, shipping out tonnes of the stuff from its tiny port. During World War II, its sand was used by the military to manufacture periscopes and bomb sights. And in the aftermath of peace, the mine’s broken personnel reflected the long aftermath of conflict and the injuries it inflicted. Veterans, broken by their experiences and sometimes horribly injured by their experiences – they toiled through the day to pry the sand out of the earth, spending their evenings and their earnings in the local hotel bar, their burns and injuries attracting no adverse comment.

Many lived out their whole lives, in this way. A lost Dutchman reputedly used to wander the backroads by night, practising his bagpipes and subsisting off the roadkill which passing travellers had blootered. A family of hoarders couldn’t bear to dispose of anything. When one telly broke, they simply stacked the next one on top of it, and craned their necks.

Angus himself was a thrawn character: contrary, godless, frequently at odds with the best wisdom of his own time. In the first half of the 20th century, he introduced my family both to the atheism and to the Scottish Nationalism which has continued to characterise us, four generations on. He kept copies of the Koran, and of the Unspeakable Scot, an inadvertently hilarious racist tract by TWH Crosland about the evils of the Scotchman.

Crosland, a crackpot associate of the pugilistic Marquis of Queensberry, had a particular loathing for the Scottish journalists who haunted Fleet Street, writing that “he [the Scotsman] possesses too certain solid qualities which are undoubtedly desirable in a journalist. For example, he is punctual, cautious, dogged, unoriginal and a born galley-slave”, but concluded nevertheless that “the Scotchman who comes to London knows that he is an alien and an interloper, and despised of his fellow-men, but he blusters it out”. Angus clearly had a – dry – capacity for humour.

But his life was principally marked by tragedy. Tuberculosis first killed his wife – and as the resident medical practitioner, Angus to drag his own signature across the terrible document: her death certificate. His teenage son, shortly afterwards, was also claimed by this affliction. He was left with my grandmother, a little girl, alone, rattling around in a big house in the middle of nowhere. The sense of bereavement must have been overwhelming.

In these dark days, he set his wife’s body down in a grave unmarked by any word or stone. And when his own time came, he was fastidious and characteristically contrary. There must be nothing. No monument. No dates. No born and died. No name. No formulaic regrets. No pleas to the almighty for consideration or redemption. Just anonymous dissolution. Perhaps it was an expression of his atheism. Perhaps he created no monument for his wife because the agony of her passing was so acute. Perhaps he just wished to be forgotten.

And perhaps he was right. The lights dim and memories fade. But you can see his tracks still, in the snow of the world.