The ability to hold a conversation in Swahili at a bar in the middle of Edinburgh was just one consequence of James Gordon’s unusual war.
Avoiding a Luftwaffe attack that killed almost 30 colleagues; missing out on the Burma campaign, thanks to being divested of his tonsils; and being relieved of fighting his way through Thailand from Death Railway, courtesy of the US bomber Enola Gay, were three other notable incidents in the somewhat quirky military career of Captain Gordon.
It took him from law student to the King’s African Rifles, via the Gordon Highlanders, Kenya, India and Uganda, and after his return to Scotland, he built a successful career as a lawyer and honorary sheriff while becoming the doyen of the Scottish Liberal Party in Ayr and Scotland’s oldest active Liberal.
Born in his parents’ house in Forfar, he was named after his uncle, James Cargill Gordon, who died from wounds suffered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in the First World War.
His father, George, a master joiner, had also served in the conflict and was awarded the Military Medal for rescuing numerous wounded soldiers from the battlefield while under fire. George in turn met his wife Gwladys, a Welsh voluntary aid detachment worker, after he too was injured and sent to a military hospital on the French coast.
A generation later, young James, who was educated at Forfar Academy, began doing his bit for the Second World War while still at school.
He worked in a forestry camp and was a messenger for the Auxiliary Fire Service, becoming a firewatcher with the Senior Training Corps when he decided to study law at Edinburgh University.
After his first year at university he could have requested a deferment to let him to study for a further year but by that time he was 18 and volunteered for the Gordon Highlanders.
He was sent firstly to Bridge of Don barracks in Aberdeen, in November 1942, and then to Kent for assessment for officer training.
Although deemed officer material, he was sent back to Aberdeen until he turned 19 and had his first lucky escape the following spring when his platoon was out on a night exercise during a German air blitz of the city. After sheltering in the bunkers of a golf course, he returned to discover the ceiling of his accommodation had caved in and the barracks where he had previously been billeted had taken a direct hit. More than two dozen of his fellow soldiers were killed and the same again injured.
A posting to Dalton-in-Furness in Cumbria, for infantry training in the Lake District, followed before officer training in Morecambe. Promoted to 2nd lieutenant in March 1944, he was sent back to Dalton where he met his future wife, Jeanne, who was helping to build Wellington bombers.
The summer of 1944 saw him posted to Nairobi where he spent six weeks learning Swahili, a skill which never left him – testimony to which was the incident in an Edinburgh restaurant 30 years later when he heard two African customers talking. Immediately recognising the language, he proceeded to join them at the bar for a chat.
Then he was on to Londiani – where his major kept a pet cheetah – and Gilgil where troops were preparing to take part in the Burma Campaign.
There he developed tonsillitis and was sent to 87 British General Hospital in Nairobi to have them removed, resulting in several months’ convalescence and an escape from the fierce fighting as the Allies began to gain the upper hand.
By the summer of 1945 he was near Calcutta in India where, as a lieutenant, he was detailed to join the 46th Tanganyika Battalion.
Due to relieve the 19th Indian Division at the west end of the notorious Burma railway, constructed by thousands of Allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers brutalised under ruthless Japanese rule, the battalion was to attempt to make its way down to Bangkok.
Their major had been sent ahead and as his men were preparing to follow, an English officer ran in with the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped. The operation was delayed and then cancelled. The war was over.
Gordon remained in India over the winter, with the battalion acting as peacekeepers when rioting broke out between Hindus and Muslims and the officers as teachers helping the Africans to read and write before they were sent back to East Africa. He then returned to Kenya where he became a captain with the Kings African Rifles, served as paymaster and was involved in army recruiting in Uganda.
One of his saddest duties during his time on the African continent concerned the death of one of the native troops during an exercise. The soldier, from an area not yet reached by Christian missionaries, had not been baptised and so could not be buried in the cemetery. Consequently Gordon had to conduct his funeral service in the bush and bury him there.
In June 1947, almost three years after he had left Britain, Capt Gordon was back home. “The strange thing about my travels,” he later acknowledged with some frustration, was that, because of the nature of his deployments, “I did not qualify for any campaign stars at all!”
He and Jeanne married the following year and he completed his MA LLB degrees in 1950, starting work as an apprentice solicitor with Percy Deas & Co in Duns. He subsequently worked for Malcolm, Jack & Matheson in Dunfermline and then for a couple of firms in Ayr before becoming a partner in Robert Welsh & Co in Ayr in 1964, where he remained until finally fully retiring in 1994.
Gordon, who was vice-dean of the Ayr Faculty of Solicitors, was appointed an honorary sheriff in 1990 and sat at Ayr Sheriff Court. He was also active in the Scottish Law Agents Society and served as president in 1991-92.
A lifelong Liberal, he was chairman of the Ayr Liberal Association for many years and an election agent for Liberal parliamentary candidates in Bute and North Ayrshire in the 1960s and various subsequent constituency and council elections.
Credited with keeping the local party alive, he appeared on television three years ago, during the launch of Willie Rennie’s leadership of the Scottish party, as the country’s oldest active Liberal and remained a sharp, incisive mind.
Though gunfire noise during training had left him deaf in one ear and latterly he was completely blind, he retained a phenomenal memory – a human atlas and encyclopedia combined.
After a quiz this year in Limekilns, where he lived latterly, he queried the answer “equator”, to the question of what would be crossed during a journey from Nairobi to the Masai Mara. He recalled that Nairobi was one degree south of the equator and, after an atlas proved him correct, his son had to phone the quiz organisers.
“They told me they had sourced the questions and answers from the internet: World Wide Web 0, JCG’s brain 1.”
Widowed in 2013, and predeceased in 1999 by his 15-year-old grandson Ewan, he is survived by his son David, daughter Claire and four grandchildren.