Obituary: Dr (David) Neil Paterson, forester, academic and social entrepreneur
Born: 14 October, 1929, in Kilmarnock. Died: 10 October, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 82.
David Neil Paterson was a celebrated forester, colonial servant, tree breeder, saw- miller, furniture producer and social entrepreneur.
Son of Robert Thomas Paterson, and Grace Kirkpatrick, David Neil Paterson was the original “wild swimmer” and almost born in the sea. His mother had taken the family swimming in Ayr in October 1929 while eight months pregnant. The shock had sparked the contractions and Neil was born in Kilmarnock.
His father was an agricultural academic, breeding cotton and building irrigation schemes in Sudan. He also translated Arabic and local languages for General Wingate while fighting with the Sudanese camel corps in Ethiopia. He returned to Scotland, playing a leading role in the establishment of the West of Scotland Agricultural School.
Pre-school trips to the Sudan during the 1930s inspired in Neil a sense of adventure and were to define much of his career. He spoke fondly of the times he and his brother disappeared on their donkeys into the Sudanese desert as the sun went down – without the knowledge of their poor, petrified parents.
He was educated at Strathallan School in Perthshire and Edinburgh University, turning up to the latter on the wrong day for the entrance exams for his intended career choice – dentistry.
He looked to see what other exams were on that day and tried his hand at forestry, bumbling into a wonderfully fulfilling career to which he was ideally suited and very successful. He graduated from Edinburgh in 1952.
Building on his undergraduate success as a prize-winning student, he was made an associate of the Institute of Wood Science, given an honorary diploma from British Columbia. In 1967 he was also one of the first to receive a PhD from the University of East Africa in Nairobi in forestry genetics, catapulting him onto the international conference stage. Latterly he had spent time at Keble College, Oxford University, with which he had a long association.
It was while he was in Edinburgh that the Stone of Scone disappeared from Westminster Abbey and was transported by a series of Morris Minors back to Scotland. Neil alluded to involvement in this campaign, but had taken a vow of secrecy and the exact knowledge of whereabouts of that historic stone has gone to the grave with him.
After a two-year stint in national service (the Air Force put his potato-peeling ability to good use), Neil headed off to see the world, arriving on the east coast of Canada in 1954 with little other than his saddle with the intention of buying a horse and riding across the nation to find work.
He found work in British Columbia, where he surveyed a huge area of forest wilderness in the remote Yukon. He was flown in on ski boats, and lived with a gang of men, for months on end living off porridge and elk. Here he learned over the long winter nights to play the mouth organ, a source of entertainment for years to come.
He moved from Canada to Kenya in 1959, where as a colonial servant for the British Government he served as district and then regional forest officer for the Abedare and Kinnangop regions. A fluent Swahili and Kikuyu speaker, Neil oversaw thousands of acres of forest, protecting species for the people of Kenya and breeding bigger and better building materials for them (the subject of his PhD). He managed more than a thousand men and was responsible for hundreds of thousands of villagers. He also encountered the end of the Mau Mau uprising and had horrific tales to tell.
However, he embraced the idea of decolonisation, unlike many of his former colonial administration colleagues, wearing the tie of the newly independent country with pride and doing his best to build the capacity of his young African colleagues.
In 1969 he moved from Kenya to Malawi, where he ran a research station in forestry genetics and was in charge of the forest workers’ training school, but the call to Scotland was too strong. Neil decided he wanted his family to belong to Thornhill in Dumfiesshire and turned down positions in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Oxford University to return to where his heart resided.
By the age of 40 Neil had achieved more than most people do in a lifetime but in the absence of a forestry research station or university in Thornhill, Neil set about creating his own employment.
He quite literally built a little sawmill from wood, with the help and expertise of foreman Jimmy Sutherland. Along with a 1950s bandmill from Belgium and, at one point, Dobin the Clydesdale horse, Neil built a little business into the leading hardwood sawmill in Scotland, exporting to the USA and Holland.
In part as an outlet for his wood he developed Queensbury furniture, reproducing Charles Rennie Macintosh furniture, the plans for which he sketched when the Kelvin Hall Museum or Hunterian gallery guards weren’t looking.
To house the business, and save the building from ruin, he bought and renovated the Queensbury Rooms (the old family factory canteen) in Thornhill, which he then sold back to the village as the community centre. Similarly, he renovated the historic Thornhill Parish Hall. This was unsuitable for his needs in many ways, but he wanted to renovate buildings as going concerns and that building is now once again central to the village social life as an art gallery, coffee shop and retail outlet.
It was for Thornhill that he became a real social entrepreneur. There was always a project on the go. He founded the Thornhill squash club, converting a small church into a vibrant one-court club where he played until his late 70s. He founded the Abbeyfield home in Thornhill and campaigned for its building. As chairman of the community council he organised clean-ups of the woods and built paths through them.
Perhaps the most ambitious of his social entrepreneurship projects was the founding of the Crichton University with a number of other retired academics.
For Neil everything was possible – “Can’t afford bricks and a builder? Build the sawmill from wood.” “Can’t afford a tractor? Use an old horse.” “Don’t want a building to go to ruin? Find some money, do it up and pass it on.” “Need more academic study in south-west Scotland? Get some people together and build a university.” Neil often said: “You can do anything if you put your mind to it,” and it was certainly true for him.
Neil founded the British Hardwoods Project to replenish our indigenous deciduous stocks. To that end, he outlined a plan at Oxford University to garner the necessary support of significant land owners but afforded no genuflection to the privileged.
When one prominent Lord made the journey from his estate in northern England to Neil’s house in Thornhill he sat in the same seat in Neil’s study as his sawmillers who’d drop round for their wage packet one a week. The saw dust was flicked to the floor and he stayed for soup at the kitchen table. Neil valued home brew with the boys at the mill every bit as much as whisky with the Duke discussing planting oak trees.
What motivates social entrepreneurs varies; for Neil it was his love of people. At Christmas, he always wanted to have to dinner the lonely and the infirm.
David Neil Paterson was the last generation of cravat wearers; he was a real gentleman with a big heart. He died after a typically valiant fight following a ruptured oesophagus in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, aged 82. He is survived by his wife Judy and sons Rob and Dirk.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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