Obituary: Major Peter Edward Gerald Balfour, CBE, soldier and businessman

Major Peter Balfour
Major Peter Balfour
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Born: 9 July, 1921, in Woking, Surrey. Died: 19 July, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 92.

PETER Balfour was not only acutely aware of his family’s illustrious heritage, he honoured it, revered it and, in time, added his own footnote as a distinguished soldier and leader – on the battlefield and in the boardroom.

Soldiering was in his blood: generations of his forebears had been in the Scots Guards and his father Brigadier Bill Balfour, a veteran of both World Wars, recruited many of the officers, including David Stirling and Lord Lovat, who went on to found and train the SAS.

As a young man during the Second World War he fought alongside his father whose regiment also contained at least eight generals, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, a chairman of United Biscuits, a Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and a chairman of Scottish and Newcastle Breweries – his son.

His mother Ruth, who was one of the first women to go to Cambridge University and worked as a doctor during much of the First World War, also had an impressive ancestry: her uncle, Arthur Balfour, had been prime minister. Both parents and their background had a profound influence on his life.

Born in Woking, he grew up between the family’s estate at Balbirnie, in Fife, and London where they had a house in Eaton Square. He went to Eton College, as have all eight generations of Balfours, and after leaving school in the summer of 1939 embarked on a walking tour of the West Highlands. He was in the Summer Isles Hotel in Achiltibuie when war was declared in September that year.

There then followed the period dubbed the “phoney war” in which little, beyond the Nazi occupation of Poland, was perceived to have happened in Western Europe. Too young to sign up, Balfour was sent to France to learn French until, in May 1940, it was invaded by ­Hitler’s forces. He escaped back to England via St Malo and enlisted in the Scots Guards.

His father, who had retired from the army in the 1930s, was asked to rejoin during the Second World War and commanded the Scots Guards for virtually all of the conflict. Consequently one of his men in the 3rd Tank Battalion was his son.

By February 1945 young Balfour was adjutant of the battalion and was serving in north-west Holland when he was wounded. Having got out of his tank, as battle raged, in an attempt to make contact with a commanding officer, he was hit in the back and lung by a machine-gun bullet. Two guardsmen tore the door off a farmhouse and carried him to a regimental aid post. He was transferred to an American amphibious DUKW (colloquially known as a Duck, a 1942 (D), utility (U) front (K) and rear drive vehicle (W)) and again made it back to London.

That autumn he was well enough to return to duties and served in Germany, as part of the occupying army, before becoming a regular soldier and gaining the unique distinction of being the only person in the history of the regiment to become adjutant of all three Scots Guards’ battalions before retiring as regimental adjutant.

He left the army with the rank of major in 1954, a highly regarded and hugely capable soldier who, had he remained in the service, would have been expected to reach the highest possible rank.

He and his first wife Grizelda settled in Gullane and he took a post working with his sister Nora’s husband, Sir William McEwan Younger of McEwan & Co brewers. Between them they built up the Scottish arm of the business. He became a director of Scottish Brewers in 1959 and a couple of years later the company bought Newcastle Breweries Ltd, changing the name of the merged business to Scottish and Newcastle. He succeeded Bill Younger as chief executive in 1968, becoming chairman from 1970 to 1983.

Those were years punctuated by pockets of union unrest and the infamous winter of discontent, at the end of the 1970s, which did not make it easy running a business. However, he had made a smooth transition from the army to commerce and become a highly efficient businessman and a good administrator. As a result he steered the company through, keeping it on an even keel.

Meanwhile, he also had interests outside the brewing industry: from 1972 to 1990 he was a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland and vice-chair of RBS Group; he was also chairman of Charterhouse plc (1985-91). In addition he was a director of a number of trusts, including the British Assets Trust and the Atlantic Assets Trust, both of which he chaired.

Having been a leader in the forces it was evident that ability was much sought after in the wider business world as he became chairman of the Scottish Council (now the Scottish Council for Development and Industry) in 1978 and served as its president (1985-92). He completed various trade missions, including to China, and was awarded the CBE for his contribution to industry.

He listed his recreations as farming and forestry but in truth they were virtually a full-time job. Having bought a farm at Upper Keith near Humbie, East Lothian, in 1962, he proceeded to turn it from an arable farm into a lovely country estate, taking great pleasure in planting 100 acres of trees and building up the venture to the point where the pheasant shooting could rival anywhere. Shooting was his passion. He was a very good, patient shot, as well as a patient fisherman, and taught all of his children, boys and girls, to shoot and fish.

Among his other interests were golf – he was a member at Muirfield for more than 40 years – the Scots Guards Association, piping andcricket. A member of the MCC, he was ­reputedly the only man then living who had seen England beat Australia at Lords in both 1934 and, 75 years on, in 2009.

A distinguished member of the Scots Guards Association, which he helped found in Fife in the 1940s, and president of the East Lothian branch for 30 years, he always insisted on marching with the men, rather than the officers, on any regimental occasion. Earlier this month (4 July), he chaired the Third Guards Club dinner in Edinburgh, at the age of 92.

He did not give up easily and had already survived losing the sight of one eye at 59, heart problems in his 70s and cancer in his 80s. He also lived by the ethos that he was here to serve not benefit, a belief reflected in his community-minded attitude, including his donation of land for social housing and the building of his village hall. When he turned 90 he invited his close family for lunch – along with 125 villagers.

A man who was enormously proud of his ancestry, he was a custodian not only of moral standards and values but of ­everything concerning the heritage of his family and its part in history.

Divorced from his first wife, he was superbly supported by his second wife Diana, who survives him along with children Hew, Georgiana, Fergus, Alice and Alexander and 14 grandchildren.