Obituary: Sir Iain Fraser, businessman, writer, trailblazer of coffee houses with The Elephant House
Life for Iain Michael Duncan Fraser was one of great adventure. It is just that for his wife Anne, children Joanna and Ben, grandchildren Isla and Duncan, step-children Catriona and Scott, along with his younger brother, Christopher and his plethora of friends, it was far from long enough – and potential projects abounded.
Sir Iain Fraser, Bart, who died aged 67 on 3 April 2019, was a great lover of life, his life having launched (and for over 20 years he worked for two major shipping companies) in Sarawak, where his father was working as a surgeon.
His grandfather, also a surgeon, was from a crofting community in Easter Ross and went on to become Principal of Edinburgh University and the King’s Surgeon in Scotland, for which he was granted a Baronetcy.
Brought home to Scotland aged three, Iain was given a small wooden elephant, a present that was, decades later, to form a key part in one of his lengthier ‘diversions’.
Whilst assuming the Baronetcy originally conferred upon his grandfather, John, by King George VI, with some reluctance, Iain warmed to its history and “family significance”, rather liking the idea that it would pass to his son Ben who, like his sister, lives in New Zealand, the birthplace of their mother, Iain’s first wife, Sherylle.
Convivial to the core, Iain organised regular dinners (often at the Loon Fung in Canonmills), mixing his invitees invariably to good (and lasting) effect.
Having displayed his potential when a student at Edinburgh University, he took justifiable pride in being a ‘people person’ and a natural salesman.
A long-time bastion of Edinburgh’s New Club, Iain respected its tone and its history while, at the same time, being more than prepared to question and tease aspects of its operation.
As chair of its catering committee, he led from the front, engaged fully with the staff (who reciprocated with affection and respect) and witnessed a steadily increasing take-up of the kitchen’s offering.
A regular diner, it is alleged that before his many Sunday lunches with his charis- matic mother, ‘Charlie’, he used to slip a surreptitious slug of sherry into his Bloody Mary.
As Father Hannibal (those elephants again), Iain was a keen member of The Monks of St Giles, a small group, founded in 1852 and drawn from various professions in south-east Scotland, who meet monthly in a spirit of bonhomie to share light verse, even doggerel, of their own creation.
Having cast off the lures of Hong Kong, to which he had been posted with the Ben Line, and Sri Lanka, Iain moved, by then with American President Lines, to California where, gradually, his ever curious mind led him to the then nascent coffee bars, with their relaxed approach and ever-growing range of coffees.
He started to investigate their modus operandi and, while very reluctant to leave his children even further behind him, he increasingly felt the pull of Scotland and the need to be closer to his ageing parents, of whom he was very fond and caring.
Later on in life, the caring of others was to enter his already busy agenda.
Arriving back in Edinburgh in 1965, with the mantra of only knowing about coffee and elephants, he soon acquired a property on George IV Bridge and, with at one time two branches elsewhere and with the support and knowledge of his now long-time colleague, David Taylor, set up the iconic The Elephant House, in a corner of which a certain Boy Wizard allegedly emerged…
The establishment, an acorn in what is now a veritable forest of coffee bars, was then the only one outside a few major hotels to offer a cappuccino!
To encourage its customers to talk to one another, The Elephant House does not hand out or broadcast its WiFi code.
With no previous experience in catering, this Glenalmond College and Edinburgh University educated semi-veteran shipper of Hong Kong plastic shoes (and other things) had set up not only a trail-blazer of note but what is now one of Edinburgh’s major tourist attractions.
With the business running smoothly and bagels now with a position in the Scottish diet, Iain’s ambitious ideas once more took off. While friends could occasionally manage to temper them, it did not happen often.
Arguments were not things that he tended to lose and when, after a stop-over in Singapore en route to visit his children, by then long-settled in New Zealand, he and his second wife, Anne (Sim), came across an illustrated book that reminded him of a series of similar ‘sketchbook’ publications from his childhood.
He was determined that no-one (especially, perhaps, dubious publishers) was going to prevent him and Anne who, in their albeit far too short a marriage, formed the strongest, most loyal and entertaining of partnerships, from producing the wonderfully illustrated A Sketchbook of Edinburgh, with its pithy and enlightening commentary.
Still very much in print, it has sold over 4,000 copies, with the second edition due for publication this August.
It is soon to be joined by a second volume, also illustrated by four young local artists of the Fraser’s choosing.
Iain and Annie walked a lot, talked a lot, and enjoyed rugby in general and Edinburgh Accies in particular.
A Hearts fan by name, Iain would grant this writer a smile of sorts if it was to be suggested that he would probably remember the score – if not the scorers!
The Frasers and were consummate hosts. Their parties were always lively and hard to leave. They travelled as much as they could and, especially with the appearance of far-off grandchildren, had many plans, now sadly dashed by fate.
Iain Fraser was one of the kindest and most thoughtful of men. While he did not suffer fools gladly and could show his exasperation, his love of life was something that he so much wanted to share with others, as long as they would be sure to benefit every bit as much as him.
John Scott Moncrieff