Obituary: Alexander Dunbar, lawyer, farmer, conservationist and patron of the arts

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Died: 2 February, 2012, in Elgin, aged 82

Alexander (Sandy) Dunbar of Pitgaveny, near Elgin, has died aged 82 after a short illness. He was a well-known and colourful character who had led a varied career before coming back to run Pitgaveny.

National Service in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders included a spell at Pinefield Barracks (now Pinefield Industrial estate), occasionally escaping to Pitgaveny House on a Sunday, crossing the Lossie by way of the Kirkhill footbridge. Having completed his legal training, he was called to the Bar then worked as a lawyer for some years for ICI.

He moved to Newcastle to start up the North Eastern Association for the Arts, then became UK director for the Gulbenkian Foundation and from there to become chief executive of the Scottish Arts Council in Edinburgh for nine years before coming back with the family to Pitgaveny full-time in the early 1980s. Prior to this, he completed a diploma in agriculture.

The younger son of Sir Edward Dunbar, Bt, he had a lifelong passion for the visual arts, and his major career change into the arts was a nationally significant one when he moved to Newcastle to form, and later become director of, the first regional arts association in the UK, which was expanded under his tenure to become the biggest in Britain, known as Northern Arts.

While promotion of the arts is taken for granted these days, the template for all the regional arts associations later formed throughout Britain was the one designed and drawn up by Sandy when he started in Newcastle. In the latter stages of post-war austerity, promotion of the arts did not feature highly on the government’s agenda, and his vision and success in achieving this in one of the more depressed areas of the UK gave confidence to expand the concept nationally.

His sharp lawyer’s mind was evident in all aspects of his life and, while he did not suffer fools and could make his point with directness (often diluted by the twinkle in his eyes), he was a tremendously loyal employer and a good friend to many.

The circumstances in which he inherited Pitgaveny from his distant cousin, James Brander Dunbar, were unconventional. As a young man, his friend Oscar Hahn (nephew of Kurt Hahn) bet him £20 that he would not run naked to Pitgaveny House from his family home at Duffus in the middle of the day. Sandy won the bet, though he had to dive briefly into a ditch beside the Elgin to Lossiemouth road to minimise the puzzled looks from the occupants of a passing bus. His cousin was impressed with the young man’s spirit and indicated in a tantalising way that he might leave Pitgaveny to him, as he did to several other people, so nothing was sure until the old man died.

When he returned to live full- time at Pitgaveny in his early fifties, in a new career as a working farmer, he became closely involved with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and was keen to combine the economics of a working farm and estate with the ethics of conservation.

This concept is taken for granted now, but 30 years ago he was a man well ahead of his time. Fiercely protective of what he felt was best for the community and the landscape in and around Pitgaveny, he soon settled back into the area with his wife and two children. He was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Moray as well as becoming a stalwart of the Moray Society.

He loved the outdoors and remained a very fit man all his life. Right from his student days at Cambridge he was a regular participant for many years in the annual Trevelyan manhunt in the Lake District. He acted as a “hare” on ten occasions and was only the second person since the hunt’s inception in 1898 to catch all six “hares” in one hunt.

He was still running marathons at an advanced age, and latterly he was a familiar figure on his racing bicycle around the back roads of Pitgaveny, right up until last year. He is survived by his wife and their son and daughter.