Obituary: Brian Lambie MBE FRSA (Scot), ironmonger, provost and museum founder

Brian Lambie, right, with Hugh McDiarmid. Picture: Contributed
Brian Lambie, right, with Hugh McDiarmid. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 28 May, 1930, in Biggar. Died: 27 December, 2014, in Wishaw, aged 84.

Ask Brian Lambie a question about his beloved Biggar and it would lead inevitably to a meandering virtual journey around the Lanarkshire town: his breadth and depth of knowledge of the area was unsurpassed.

Not only had he archived an encyclopaedia of information in his head, but he physically amassed a representation of the town down the centuries, preserving it in artefacts over a range of heritage venues that gave the community more museums per head of its small population than anywhere else in Scotland.

Lambie, a self-taught academic and historian, was essentially a hoarder who just couldn’t help himself, instantly able to recognise the value in what others deemed worthless and determined to safeguard the legacy of Biggar and Upper Clydesdale’s past.

As a result, he helped to create the string of museums, the first of which began in the back store of the family’s ironmongers in 1964, blazing a trail for today’s heritage museums.

He also shared his knowledge of the town and its history with Biggar enthusiasts all over the world, tracing their genealogy and providing valuable additional local information, something he often dispatched in birthday cards, dropping the recipients a line about significant local events that had occurred that same day.

Lambie had in interesting heritage himself: he was distantly related to four-times Prime Minister William Gladstone – his mother was the last Gladstone to be born in Biggar – and his great-great-great-great-grandfather, the stonemason Robert Paterson, was Sir Walter Scott’s inspiration for Old Mortality.

His love of collecting junk began in his youth. He was as a stoker for the annual Biggar Hogmanay bonfire and regularly rescued unwanted rubbish destined for the blaze. As he once explained, it was just after the end of the Second World War and many people were moving to new homes: “All sorts of lovely stuff was being thrown out…there were lots of things I took home instead of to the fire.”

He left Biggar High School at 16 to work in his father’s High Street ironmongers. Originally established in 1864 as John Gladstone’s, down the years until Lambie’s retirement it had always been run by a shopkeeper related to the founder.

While working in and later running the business, Lambie gathered more and more Biggar artefacts, housing them in the back store. Then in 1964 he created the original museum, Gladstone Court, as a private venture. It comprised a fascinating complex of narrow Victorian wynds, complete with old signage and street furniture, featuring businesses including a printer, cobbler, bank, grocer and ironmonger.

Four years later the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who lived just outside Biggar for more than 25 years, performed the opening ceremony when Lambie opened it up officially to the public. Lambie later instigated the restoration of Brownsbank Cottage, the home MacDiarmid shared with his wife Valda.

Biggar Museum has since retained the property just as it was when the couple was resident. It also established a writing fellowship there whose first incumbent was the first Scottish Parliament writer in residence and Booker Prize-nominated author James Robertson.

After Gladstone Court, Lambie was the driving force behind several subsequent museums covering hundreds of years of Scottish life and history and all overseen by the Biggar Museums Trust of which he was president and founder.

His remarkable achievements include the rescue, transportation and rebuilding, stone by stone, of Greenhill Covenanters’ house from its original location to Biggar’s Burn Braes four miles away. It would later house an item that demonstrated the lengths to which Lambie would go to in order to preserve an object he treasured.

Known as the Levingstoun Bed, it was a dilapidated four-poster destined for the bonfire when Lambie found it at a private house. Even though it was cracked and covered in bird excrement he was determined to rescue it after discovering that it had belonged, several centuries earlier, to Patrick Levingstoun of Gullane.

The problem was he had nowhere to keep it. Ever resourceful, he raided his coin collection and used the proceeds of the sale of a 1930 half-crown to buy a tiny house to accommodate it during refurbishment. The bed later went into to the Covenanters’ house.

He was also behind the preservation of Biggar Gas Works, which closed down in 1973 and is the only gasworks to be retained in Scotland.

He then instigated and founded the John Buchan Centre, a museum in Peebles devoted to the life of the first Lord Tweedsmuir. Lamington Chapel also came under the wing of the trust. Although not a museum, it is being carefully restored.

The Moat Park Heritage Centre, which he also founded, was opened in 1988 by the Princess Royal. It traces Clydesdale’s geological heritage and the story of its people, from the Stone Age to the 20th century, and like the other museums contains many items from his collections.

Latterly, in retirement, his greatest interest was in the Albion Archive, a history of the Albion Motor Company whose co-founder Thomas Blackwood Murray came from the town where he built and tested the first Albion car.

Lambie was honorary president of the archive and in contact with many Albion owners. He also raised funds, took part in an annual rally and, from his office in its premises, undertook genealogical research for people with links to Biggar. It wasn’t unheard of for those who had sought his advice to receive a six-page letter from him, full of their family’s history and bursting with anecdotal information about relatives, sometimes many times removed.

He had an unquenchable curiosity for anything connected with the town and knew the story of its people intimately, always delivering his popular lectures and graveyard tours without notes. But he was also an authority on many other things from art to music, costume and history and. A member of Biggar Kirk choir for 70 years, he wrote a play, A Rose For Mary, performed to celebrate the kirk’s 450th anniversary in 1996.

Honoured to hold the office of Provost of Biggar, he was made a Churchill Fellow in 1979, received an MBE in 1985 and is remembered not only for his legacy to the town but for his mischievous sense of humour, jovial personality and devotion to his family, who cherish the role he played in preserving their roots.

His wife Lena died in 1985 and he shared latterly shared a home with his companion Graham Crouch, who also predeceased him. He is survived by his children Helen, Susan, Biff and Anna and five grandchildren.

ALISON SHAW