Obituary: Donald Helm MBE, National Trust of Scotland officer

Donald Helm. Picture: Contributed
Donald Helm. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 20 November, 1931, in Welwyn Garden City. Died: 25 February, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 82.

Donald Helm was a stalwart of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) and served the institution with devotion and enthusiasm for over 30 years.

He undertook numerous tasks both in the field and at the head office and, until a few weeks ago, working in the NTS’s extensive archives. Helm epitomised the spirit of volunteering, believing fervently in the work the NTS did and enjoying furthering its goals.

Colleagues were thrilled when he was awarded both the George Waterston Award in 2003 and in 2012 a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the volunteer department’s diamond jubilee celebrations.

In recognition of Helm’s long and distinguished contribution to the NTS, Sir Kenneth Calman, the Trust’s chairman, said: “Donald was a long-standing supporter of the National Trust for Scotland and served for over 36 years in many capacities, including council, regional committees, the Edinburgh Members’ Centre, Friends of Malleny Garden and on advisory committees.

“Donald was a committed volunteer and continued to be involved, working with the archives department. He leaves a lasting legacy.”

Andrew Knox Helm was the son of a distinguished diplomat, Sir Alexander Knox Helm, the last governor of the Sudan. The family had long connections with Dumfriesshire and Helm was educated at Stowe, then read law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

There he met and became a life-long friend of Sir Tam Dalyell who also did his National Service with Helm.

Sir Tam spoke of his friend with warmth over the weekend, saying: “My friendship with Donald was forged in the freezing conditions of the winter of 1951 in the potential officers’ Nissan hut of the 17th/21st Lancers (the “Skull and Crossbone boys”). It was the training regiment for the Armoured Corps and Donald’s and my beds were next to each other. We regularly returned soaked to the skin from the harsh training on the Yorkshire moors.

“Once, as an exercise, we had to do a presentation on a subject of our choosing. Donald gave a memorable account of the statues and landscaping of Stowe Park – his old school. So I always understood his deep devotion to the NTS and its various divisions.”

In the early 1950s, Helm joined BP and after four years in Nigeria he returned to work in its head office in London. In 1959 he was appointed to the petro-chemical division of BP at Grangemouth.

He always said it was “like coming home’’ for, although he had not been born in Scotland, he always felt defiantly Scottish.

He took early retirement from BP and worked with the human resources division of the Edinburgh solicitors Shepherd and Wedderburn.

Tom Drysdale, then managing partner of S&W, recalls: “Donald was a well-liked and resourceful personnel manager, who often went beyond the call of duty on the firm’s behalf.

“He was a good organiser and was in his element administering the firm’s social programme.”

When he retired for the second time in 1989, Helm devoted his energies and time to the NTS. He had already served as an enlightened chairman of the Edinburgh Members’ Centre (1985–86) and in the following year was elected to the NTS council, where he served until 1992.

Such was his detailed knowledge of the Trust’s affairs, he was re-elected in 2000 for a further five years. In 1991 he was elected to the executive committee serving for ten years until 2001.

His devotion to the Trust was total and he carried out all his duties with a deep personal commitment. He was a volunteer at the central office, both at Charlotte Square and more recently within Hermiston Quay, where he continued to volunteer carrying out administrative and archival documentation.

Helm was undemonstrative about his work for the Trust. He despatched his assignments with joy and a cheerful smile.

In 1997 he carried out a comprehensive investigation into volunteering throughout the NTS. His detailed proposals led to his “Gifts of Time” being approved in May 2000, and the appointment of a head of volunteering.

His other interest was the TA, from which he retired in 1989 as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Donald Helm, who was awarded the MBE in 1996, married Christine in 1957. She and their two sons survive him.

ALASDAIR STEVEN