Obituary: Dr William Robertson, CBE
Born: 16 July, 1914, in Stirling. Died: 19 July, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 98
DR WILLIE Robertson dedicated his career and much of his retirement to the industrial development of his beloved Scotland. He was the longest-serving head of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), holding the chief executive role from 1956-79, during which time he helped advertise the country to the world as a growing industrial power, despite the decline in the traditional coal-mining and shipbuilding.
As only the third head of the non-governmental SCDI – which was founded in 1931 to help create economic prosperity for Scotland – Robertson was an influential figure in the growth of the North Sea oil industry, which turned Aberdeen into a world-leading base for oil and made the world sit up and take notice of this country.
He was described as “the leading architect of the modern SCDI”, pioneering development techniques such as industrial estates and trade missions throughout the world, techniques that would be admired and emulated by many other nations. Since he launched the idea in the 1950s, the SCDI has sent more than 370 trade missions to 50 countries.
He himself travelled the world, from the United States to the then Soviet Union, to promote Scotland and, having set up an SCDI office in New York, helped to bring such global players as IBM, Burroughs and Hewlett-Packard to Scotland.
Backed by the SCDI’s broad membership base – big business, SMEs (small and medium enterprises), trade unions, local authorities, universities, government agencies, charities and others – he was a driving force behind coalfield reconstruction, the car factories at Bathgate and Linwood, and the growth of “Silicon Glen”, Scotland’s electronics industry, one of his passions.
“The sole criterion that people saw in those days was that of employment,” he once said. “What mattered was to create jobs.” He was also one of the first to impress on Scottish universities the benefits of collaborating with industry.
His work had further spin-off legacies for Scottish development – the creation of the Highlands & Islands Development Board (now Highlands & Islands Enterprise); the Scottish Tourist Board (now VisitScotland); and the Scottish Development Agency (now Scottish Enterprise).
When he joined the SCDI in 1956, it had only one other executive. When he retired in 1979, it had more than 50, based in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and London.
The son of a teacher, William Shepherd Robertson was born in Stirling in July 1914, only days before the outbreak of what would become known as the Great War. He attended the Allan Glen’s school in Glasgow, whose classroom floorboards Charles Rennie Mackintosh had trod half a century earlier.
Having left school in 1932, Robertson went to Glasgow University, graduating in 1936 with a First Class Honours BSc. His academic “brilliance,” according to his tutors, won him a scholarship to study electronics at the Technische Hochschule (Technical High School) in Dresden, Germany, that same year.
There, he witnessed the acceleration of Naziism, and he never forgot meeting Hitler’s eye when the Führer passed him during a procession. He returned to Scotland in 1938, warning of the dangers of what he seen.
“In Germany, I realised the worth of many of the features of the Scottish way of life. On the other hand, I became more clearly aware of the difficulties, internal and external, lying in the way of the development of Scotland. I decided, on my return to Britain, that I would apply my effort as directly as possible to Scottish development work.” That he did, for the rest of his working life, and on through retirement.
As war loomed in 1939, he married Elizabeth “Biddy” Ferguson, from Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth, and volunteered for the war effort. His electronics expertise won him a commission in the Royal Air Force to research still relatively-new radar technology to boost UK defences and the accuracy of allied bombing.
After the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, and through until the end of the war more than a year later, he served on the ground with allied forces, commanding a group of 50 men whose job was to uncover and study Nazi electronics systems vital to the outcome of the war.
After the war, his connections and expertise led to many job offers back in the UK, which would have meant a comfortable lifestyle, but he stuck to his convictions – to dedicate his career to the industrial development of Scotland.
He was working for the Ferranti electrical engineering company, which specialised in defence electronics and developed the first commercially-available computer, when he was appointed chief executive of the SCDI in 1956.
Among the great promoters of Scottish exports he worked with at the SCDI were (the future Sir) Iain Noble of Ardkinglass, Loch Fyne, that great champion of the Gaelic language, and the Fifer Donald Reid OBE, who spent his entire career with the SCDI.
Although he was the most forward-looking of men, Robertson was inspired by looking back to the period prior to the First World War when Scotland’s engineering pre- eminence had marched hand-in-hand with innovation. “This was among the largest shipbuilding countries in the world,” he once said. “It was a forefront for new technology. Apprentices from the Clyde, when they were visiting the Great Glasgow Exhibition of 1901, would go in their dungarees so that people would know they were engineers. That was status.”
By the time he retired in 1979, Robertson had been appointed CBE by the Queen and awarded an honorary doctorate of Sciences from Heriot Watt University. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Having settled in the early 1950s in half a mansion house in Trinity, north Edinburgh, with a fine view over the Forth, he became an elder and passionate supporter of his local Wardie Parish Church.
He also supported the setting up of the Scottish Christian Industrial Order, to advance the understanding of the Christian faith in the workplace. In his retirement, he wrote a history of Wardie Church.
“Willie Robertson was a thinker and a man of vision,” said Wardie’s minister the Rev Brian Hilsley at a thanksgiving service for his life last week. “He was also highly practical in his approach, an engineer with the energy and willpower to see things through. He was formidable in assembling persuasive arguments with the most influential of contacts. Willie Robertson knew everyone worth knowing: in Scotland, in Westminster, in Whitehall and beyond.”
Dr Robertson died three days after his 98th birthday. His wife Biddy died in 2000. He is survived by their sons Gregor and Fergus, the latter a retired Inverness church minister.
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