IRVINE Laidlaw loves the high life. Most of the year, he lives in a luxury apartment in Monaco overlooking the harbour and the Royal Palace where, just a few days ago, the Prince celebrated his birthday with a fireworks display.
But his 185ft cruising yacht, the Lady Christine, named after his second wife, is about to embark on a two-year round-the-world trip. "Christine and I love travelling and plan to fly in and out, whenever it berths somewhere exciting," he says. The 60-year-old tycoon’s collection of 14 vintage racing and rally cars - including a 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C Monza and a 1957 Maserati 250F - makes him a figure of envy for every would-be boy racer.
And the new year will once again see him sail Highland Fling, his Swan 60 cruiser-racer, in the Key West Regatta in Florida - a competition he has won twice in the past.
Yet Laidlaw, who almost single-handedly bankrolls the Tories north of the Border, has found his priorities changing. Reputedly the richest man in Scotland, whose company the Institute of International Research (IIR), the world’s biggest conference-organiser, is worth an estimated 720m, he is becoming increasingly determined to give something back to the country of his birth.
Last week, he teamed up with First Minister Jack McConnell, giving 1m to a new initiative - the Laidlaw Youth Project - to help disadvantaged young people leaving local authority care.
He describes the gesture as a "toe-dipping exercise". In 2006 - when he believes the economic climate will allow him to make the most money - he plans to sell up and start investing 10m to 20m a year of his vast fortune in charitable causes.
"I have always given to charities, but as I’ve grown older this has taken on an increasing importance for me," Laidlaw says. "My father was an enthusiastic, if random, donor. He would read something in the newspaper and think: ‘Those poor people’, and send off a cheque.
"That’s how I started out too. But now I want to target more money to fewer causes, to make sure it is being used well and to its best advantage."
With this in mind, Laidlaw hopes to collaborate with two other big benefactors - Lloyd’s TSB Foundation for Scotland and Tom Hunter, who already gives away millions of pounds a year through the Hunter Foundation.
"I have already been in touch with Tom, who is an old friend, and Andrew Muirhead [the chief executive of Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland], and there are plans to meet for lunch in February to discuss this further. The idea is that we would work together and encourage charities to work together. We wouldn’t be trying to run or control the charities, just to do everything we could to make their own task less burdensome."
Laidlaw’s principal interest is in helping the young - he has already set up a subsidised opera company for 4,000 school children, and is deeply committed to the idea of education for all.
"Children are our future, and yet there is so much wasted talent out there, and we cannot afford to waste talent in Scotland," he says.
"The reasons for this are obvious: there is poverty, of course, and a lack of emphasis on education by parents, a lack of discipline and of well-qualified teachers, bad neighbourhoods and truancy.
"If you come from that background then it is very difficult to drag yourself out of it without help. Children don’t have any confidence in their own abilities because no-one has told them that they are amazing."
Laidlaw, who was born the eldest of three children into a middle-class family in Keith in Banffshire, is not, of course, the first great Scottish businessman to indulge in acts of philanthropy.
Andrew Carnegie set the precedent, donating almost all his 1bn steel fortune to good causes and declaring that: "The man who dies rich dies in disgrace."
Talking to Laidlaw, however, one gets the impression the driving force behind his own giving lies closer to home: in his own secure childhood, and more specifically in his father, who appears to have exerted a huge influence on his life.
Ray Laidlaw, a Tory councillor, who ran the family’s textile company, instilled his son with entrepreneurial values tempered with a keen sense of social justice.
To this day, Laidlaw remains on the left of the Tory party, favouring the more compassionate, One Nation-style of Conservatism.
The Laidlaw family believed in the value of education, sending their eldest child to Blairmore, a prep school in Huntly, and then, as a boarder, to Merchiston House in Edinburgh.
From there he went to Leeds to study textiles, but switched to economics before doing an MBA at Columbia University in New York.
"My parents were very hard on me educationally," Laidlaw says. "My mother was a former teacher who spent the summer holidays instructing me, which I didn’t appreciate much at the time.
"And my father forced me to finish my postgraduate degree, and, of course, he was absolutely right. It was tough love. There were strong pressures to excel, to do better."
Despite the obvious bond, Laidlaw defied his father’s wish that he should join the textile company. He believed he had found his spiritual home in the US, where the ability for ordinary people to make lots of money chimed with his own aspirations.
But the Vietnam War forced him home - he could not fight for a conflict he did not support - and, in 1971, a failed publishing venture led him to lose the home he shared with his Norwegian wife Anne Marie, whom he later divorced.
The turnabout in his fortunes came when he teamed up with someone who ran tax-planning conferences and worked out how much his colleague was making.
"I packed everything into cardboard boxes, took the next flight to London and started conferences," he said.
By the early 1980s he had made his first million, and his company has kept on growing ever since.
Sadly, Laidlaw’s father died in 1975 when his son was still struggling financially. "I think he would approve of what I have achieved now," Laidlaw says. "He would think I was doing all the right things."
The importance Laidlaw places on the father/son relationship can be seen by the way in which he has supported a project called Big Brothers and Sisters, which matches children from one-parent families with mentors.
"There is a real absence of role models for people growing up today," he says. "The charities do really good work with deprived children, but there’s often a gap when they become young adults.
"There’s no-one to help them apply for jobs or open bank accounts. That’s the gap we want to fill. We don’t want to do the work for them, just help them on their way."
With such an interest in young people, you might think Laidlaw would be keen to pass the fruits of his labours to his own family.
Although he has no children of his own to inherit his fortune, he does have five nieces and nephews, all of whom benefit from his largesse from time to time. (He once arranged for Minis to be sent to each of them.)
But Laidlaw - like Hunter - believes that handing it down to the next generation would be a burden rather than a blessing.
"I don’t believe in young people inheriting vast sums of money," he says. "I would say the same if they were my own. It takes away the incentive to work which is integral and natural to humans.
"I believe if you choose not to work then you are a lesser human being. Besides, even with the sums I plan to donate, there will still be enough to leave them when I die."
Nor will his philanthropy impact greatly on his lifestyle. He won’t, for example, be giving up the motor racing, although he did recently sell one of his four yachts.
Just a few weeks ago, he took part in the Tour d’Espagna rally, although, he is quick to tell me, it was, unusually for him, a disaster. "The engine blew up on the second day."
His flat in Monaco is filled with Regency furniture and art works by 20th-century British painters such as Edward Seago.
"Don’t worry, I won’t be bored when I retire," Laidlaw says. "I have my hobbies, obviously, and Christine and I love travelling, so we hope to do more of that.
"And then there’s the charity work, which I hope will take up more and more of my time."
And, of course, there’s Laidlaw’s unstinting love of politics. For someone who loves to win in every aspect of his life, his devotion to the Scottish Conservative Party in a nation where their parliamentary success is slight could be seen as something of an anomaly.
But he believes he is helping to ensure the Labour party has a good and credible opposition, which he believes is important because "a good opposition keeps governments honest".
Nationally, Laidlaw is more optimistic about the Tories’ chances of success since they ditched Iain Duncan Smith for Michael Howard.
"Howard is a heavyweight and the whole atmosphere has changed since he became leader," he says. "I think he suffers from the reputation he had as Home Secretary, but I don’t think he is naturally right-wing. He has promised to lead the party from the centre and I will believe him at least until he proves me wrong."
But the tycoon is pragmatic enough to realise that there is no chance of a Tory executive in Scotland in the foreseeable future, hence his willingness to team up with McConnell, a man he genuinely respects, for the Laidlaw Youth Project.
"I think his willingness to put up 250,000 for this venture shows two things: it shows enormous confidence in my abilities to spend it wisely, and an enormous commitment to the children of Scotland.
"I don’t see any contradiction in joining forces with him and I don’t believe Jack does either. I am just glad Scotland is a place where petty politics is not allowed to get in the way of the bigger picture."
For a man who has been away from home for the past 22 years, Laidlaw clearly loves Scotland.
He retains some business interests, but as a partial tax exile (for the past four years he has in fact paid a six-figure sum in taxes, placing him in the top 1% of British taxpayers), he has no Scottish base. And, unlike Sir Sean Connery, he doesn’t toy with the idea of owning a Highland home in his retirement.
Besides being guided by the need to limit the number of days he spends in the country, he already has properties scattered around the world: for starters, he owns a home in London, complete with butler service, another in Sarasota in Florida, and a farm near St Tropez.
"Like all ex-pats, I feel a strong sense of my roots, perhaps increasingly so as I get older," he says. "But I already have more houses than I need. I would probably be better divesting myself of some of them, rather than buying another one."
The retail entrepreneur set up the Hunter Foundation in 1998. Since then, it has invested more than 12m in major enterprise and educational programmes, including the Schools Enterprise Programme and Determined to Succeed, where the Hunter Foundation is investing 2m on a matched basis with the Scottish Executive to fund a number of new programmes across Scotland.
The founder of Stagecoach is said to have given 1.5m in 2001 through the Souter Foundation. The previous year he gave one of the largest individual donations to Glasgow University - 1m for a heart disease scanner.
Worth an estimated 45m, the chairman and chief executive of The Gadget Shop is known for his philanthropy, particularly in relation to the Maggie Centres - a series of hospices for cancer patients being built across the country.
The chairman of the specialist engineering firm Clyde Blowers is a leading light in children’s charities. He has donated large sums to the Make a Wish Foundation, heads up Save the Children’s corporate advisory board, advising on marketing strategies and corporate sector issues and encouraging big business to donate.
Co-founder of the communications software firm Atlantech Technologies and his wife, Catriona, launched the Kate MacAskill Foundation two years ago. It redirects funds made through business into combating poverty and hardship for children.
SIR TOM FARMER
As well as being involved with large organisations such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, the founder of Kwik-Fit also makes smaller gestures, such as donating 1,000 for the refitting of one of the St Columba’s Hospice charity shops in Morningside, Edinburgh.