Obituary: Sir William Garth Morrison, KT CBE DL, former Chief Scout

Sir Garth Morrison. Picture: TSPL
Sir Garth Morrison. Picture: TSPL
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Born: 8 April, 1943, in Edinburgh. Died: 24 May, 2013, in West Fenton, East Lothian, aged 70.

SIR Garth Morrison was probably best-known for his 40-year involvement in the Scout movement, rising to become Chief Scout for the UK and Overseas Territories, head of the Scout Association, a post that he held from 1988 to 1996. It is a post first held by the Scouts’ founder, Robert Baden-Powell (in those days the title was Chief Scout of the British Empire) and currently by adventurer and television presenter Bear Grylls. But Sir Garth was far more than “just” a Scout leader. He was a Royal Navy officer for 12 years; Deputy-Lieutenant and later (Honorary) Lord Lieutenant – the Queen’s representative – for East Lothian, and a farmer at West Fenton, East Lothian, providing grains for Scottish breweries and distilleries, horse livery, cottages for golfing and other tourists, and a much-praised riding school on his land – Muirfield Riding Therapy (part of the Riding for the Disabled Association) – which helps to rehabilitate disabled people.

Two of his proudest moments were being appointed to the Order of the Thistle by the Queen in 2007 and, as a Lord Lieutenant, being invited to the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in Westminster Abbey in 2011.

“On the one hand, it was a magnificent occasion being witnessed by well over a billion people around the world,” he said after the wedding. (Later statistics suggested it was more like two billion). “But it was also a terribly important moment in the lives of two young people.”

Afterwards, American TV presenters, most of whom had not been allowed into the abbey, sought out Sir Garth for his comments on what it had been like inside. Why him? “I was wearing my kilt, which probably marked me out a little bit,” he later said. “My son was in Mexico at the time and he told me later he’d seen me on YouTube.”

William Garth Morrison was born in Edinburgh in 1943. He attended Pangbourne College boarding school in Berkshire, where he became Chief Cadet (head boy) and captained the English Schools under-15s rugby union team.

He moved on to the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, Devon, where he received the prestigious Queen’s Telescope award, and later Cambridge University (Pembroke College) where he graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1966, having been three years a “Blue” for his athletic prowess and captain of the university golf club. He served as an engineering officer in the Royal Navy for 12 years, most of this time serving in nuclear submarines, retiring with the rank of lieutenant in 1973. Thereafter, he split his time between his Scout work and running his 560-acre farm in West Fenton, near Gullane. He married Gillian Cheetham, in July, 1970, and they went on to have two sons and a daughter.

After retiring from the navy, Sir Garth held numerous positions in the Scout Association starting in 1973. These included Area Commissioner for East Lothian and Chief Commissioner for Scotland. He received Scouting’s Silver Wolf Award in 1982.

The following year, he attended the 15th World Scout Jamboree in Alberta, Canada, and, in 1987, the World Jamboree near Sydney, Australia. He was appointed Chief Scout for the UK and Overseas Territories (former colonies or dependent territories) in 1988, retaining close links with the Scouts after his term as chief ended in 1996.

The Scout Association, of which he remained vice-president and president of the Scottish Scout Association, credited him with many of the changes that underpinned the growth of scouting in Scotland, the UK – indeed worldwide. He tackled scouting stereotypes to make the movement more appealing to a diverse range of backgrounds, partly by spearheading a more relaxed atmosphere and more enjoyment, and partly by easing the uniform rules to make young people feel more relaxed, even “cool,” about wearing it. He was also instrumental in the inclusion of girls in scouting.

During his tenure as Chief Scout, Sir Garth was heavily involved in the Promise Appeal, which culminated in 1992 with fundraising activities by Scout groups across the UK, including seeking grants from the corporate sector. The appeal raised £2.5 million.

Sir Garth served as Deputy Lieutenant for East Lothian from 1984 to 2001 before being appointed Lord Lieutenant for East Lothian in 2001, an honorary post he held until his death. He was a member of the Society of High Constables and the Guard of Honour at the Palace of 
Holyroodhouse, as well as a board member or trustee of numerous organisations, including the Lothian and Borders Committee of the Royal Jubilee and Prince’s Trust, the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and the National Lottery Charities. Wearing his farmers’ hat, he was a past president (2009-10) of the Royal Highland & Agricultural Society of Scotland.

Garth Morrison was made CBE in 1994 for his work in the voluntary sector and created Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle by the Queen on in 2007, giving him the title Sir. Despite the title, he was rarely happier than developing the Scouting movement or running the family farm at West Fenton, close to the village of Gullane and not far from North Berwick.

While paying the bills by growing the grains that became our beer or whisky, Sir Garth and his wife Gill were deeply involved in more modern forms of farming. Parts of their land were given over to holiday cottages, renovated from Victorian stables and attracting tourists from around the UK and beyond. Golfers who came to play Gullane, North Berwick, or even Muirfield often rented the self-catering cottages for their tranquillity.

All of that helped pay the bills, but Sir Garth and Gill demonstrably gave back to their local community, around their farm and throughout East Lothian. With Sir Garth a financial and moral stalwart, and Gill hands-on (and reins-on), they developed what they called Muirfield Riding Therapy, a riding school on their farm that used the natural empathy between ponies and young – or even older – people with mental or physical disabilities. The school has changed many people’s lives, something that gave the couple massive pride.

Sir Garth enjoyed golf, sailing, rugby and his continuing links with the Scout movement. He died at home in West Fenton after a brief illness, and is survived by his wife Lady Gill, two sons Alastair and Chris, a daughter Clare and six grandchildren.

PHIL DAVISON