Obituary: Alan Beattie Armstrong MVO FSA Scot, master joiner and Historic Scotland area superintendent.

Alan Beattie Armstrong
Alan Beattie Armstrong
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Born: 20 July, 1930, in Dunfermline. Died: 20 June, 2013 in Dalkeith, aged 82

When he began his working life in the family joinery firm, Alan Armstrong could doubtless never have envisaged a career that would see him play a key role in protecting and preserving some of Scotland’s most iconic and historic sites.

But that apprenticeship marked the start of a lifetime’s love and appreciation of craftsmanship that proved invaluable when he moved to the Ministry of Works and a post in the Ancient Monuments division.

The skills in carpentry, marquetry, construction and restoration that he had honed as a master joiner, cabinetmaker and undertaker, he could then apply, along with his meticulous eye for detail, to a vast range of important heritage sites, the length and breadth of the country from the Borders to the Shetlands.

His responsibilities, over a 30-year career in the civil service, encompassed everything from pre-historic sites on the islands to an Iron Age broch, Stirling and Edinburgh Castles and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the latter earning him the honour of being made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order for his services to the Monarchy.

It was a contribution of which he was rightly proud and which had its roots in his birthplace of Dunfermline, where his family ran Armstrongs the Joiners. After leaving Dunfermline High School at 15 he joined the firm, which also had premises in Galloway, Cowdenbeath and Kelty, to begin learning his trade.

A young man who relished making, restoring and repairing, he achieved a first class City and Guilds Master Carpentry and Joinery qualification from Dunfermline’s Lauder Technical College.

He spent his two years’ national service with the RAF at Ballykelly in Northern Ireland where he forged enduring friendships and became adept at establishing working relationships with a cross-section of society and 
military personnel, a skill which would also prove invaluable decades later when he liaised with senior army officers at both Stirling and Edinburgh Castles.

Returning to his family’s trade in 1952, he continued to develop and enhance his skills as a master joiner, cabinetmaker and undertaker; all superb training for the move he would later make to the Government’s Ancient Monuments Division, an agency now under the wing of Historic Scotland.

But before that he trained as a teacher. Having left the family firm as it was closing down, he qualified at Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow and taught carpentry to day and evening class students at Lauder Technical College between 1961-63. He was also a member of the examining board for City and Guilds certification.

However, during his time in the joinery business he had undertaken some work for Ancient Monuments at Culross Palace in Fife and when a post at the agency was advertised in 1963, he applied.

It was a job that required his attention to detail, pragmatic approach, technical knowledge and rigorous quality control to ensure the highest standards of restoration and preservation work.

He was superintendent of works for the area covering East Lothian, the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway from 1963 to 1971 when he became area superintendent at Stirling Castle with responsibility for a wide swathe of the country extending across central Scotland, to the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Nine years later he took over the same role at Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood where he remained until his retirement in 1993.

His contribution included helping to develop an initiative using contracted labour to maintain Monuments in Care. It was pioneered in the 1970s at Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe and later extended to Castle Sween, Spynie Palace, Fort George, Dundonald Castle, Balvaird Castle, Arbroath Abbey and Inchmaholm Priory, in what was to be the last major masonry consolidation programme of the agency.

He was also involved in the early stages of the Stirling Castle Great Hall, Palace and Kings Old Building restorations schemes, on driving the service tunnel excavated from rock below Edinburgh Castle, building a new shop and barrack block there, as well as in many grant-aided historic buildings across Scotland.

His role at the Palace of Holyrood House extended to Holyrood Park and its lodges, ensuring the royal residence was ready and properly presented for royal visits and functions.

Whether it was directing work there, on pre-historic sites on the mainland, the Northern and Western Isles, or on the more “modern” monuments such as the 18th-century iron furnace at Bonawe in Argyll and a thatched 19th-century blackhouse on Lewis, he was at ease.

Well liked, steady and reliable under pressure, he was also the focal point behind the scenes of various activities at Edinburgh Castle – where he supported the Military Tattoo for 13 years – and numerous other events including those at the Scottish National War Memorial and the United Services Museum.

He regarded the European Council of Ministers’ summit at the Holyroodhouse in December 1992 as the pinnacle of his career. It took a year of work to convert the Palace into a conference and meeting centre but, with his team, he achieved it, deploying his customary attention to detail and fostering close working relationships with staff, agencies, contractors and suppliers at every level to help ensure the event’s success.

Privately, he was a devoted family man, married since 1954 to Irene, whom he had met at Dunfermline Youth Club, and the father of two sons and a daughter.

He maintained links with the youth club down the years which led to him serving as president, in 1970, of the 25th anniversary of the twinning of Dunfermline and Trondheim in Norway. The relationship began in 1945 as a bond of friendship between the youth of the two communities and he helped to rejuvenate that connection.

A fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, his numerous other interests included a passion for cars, emerging technologies, breeding championship budgerigars and making jewellery.

He was a past president of Dunfermline Budgerigar Society and of the town’s North Congregational Church, becoming joint president when it merged with Canmore.

He is survived by his wife, sons John and Alan, daughter Alison and five grandchildren.