Obituary: Col John Davie MBE, MC, chief of staff at the National Trust for Scotland

Col John Davie MBE, MC: Former chief of staff at the National Trust for Scotland
Col John Davie MBE, MC: Former chief of staff at the National Trust for Scotland
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 30 March, 1921, in London. Died: 29 June, 2015, in Aberdeenshire, aged 94

After a distinguished service with the Seaforth Highlanders, Colonel John Davie was appointed to the post of chief of staff at the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) and he proved to be an ideal and adventurous chief. From 1972–1986 Davie guided the trust with flair and a sense of purpose that saved many historic Scottish homes within the orbit of the NTS – notably Haddo House in Aberdeenshire, which became known as the “Scottish Glyndebourne”.

John Davie was born in London to a family with strong business connections in Scotland. He attended Gresham’s School in Norfolk then joined the City of London Yeomanry in 1939.

In 1941 he was commissioned into the 6th Seaforth Highlanders to serve with the reinforcements posted to Malta to maintain its vital port and airfield – both were strategic links to north Africa for the Allies.

The island was under constant bombardment from the Nazis as they flew supplies to Rommel’s troops in North Africa. The defence mustered by the Seaforths and the other forces proved invaluable and the heroism of Davie and his colleagues played an integral part in the success of the 8th Army in Africa.

Because of the constant fighting, Davie was not able to leave Malta until 1943.

In 1948 he went to Malaya as Company Commander with the 1st Seaforths. It was a tricky posting and required much diplomacy and political tact. The Malayan Emergency was to continue for over a decade and emerged after an uprising by the local communist party.

It was a bloody campaign and the Seaforths had orders to quell the insurrection as, it was felt, the spread of communism could impinge on the UK’s commercial interests. The High Commissioner in Malaya, Gerald Templer, who Davie greatly admired for his leadership and commitment, declared that “the hard core of armed communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated”.

During Templer’s two years in office the guerrillas were virtually exterminated and, although the campaign was brutal, it was deemed a success. In 1950 Davie was awarded the MC after commanding B Company for three years.

In later years Davie reflected that although he lost many good friends, he “enjoyed” the Second World War but, he continued, “emphatically, none of us enjoyed Malaya”.

Guerilla warfare was savage and cruel and the clandestine and brutal attacks proved ferocious in the extreme.

When the Seaforths were amalgamated with the Cameron Highlanders Davie was promoted to be second in command of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, with whom he was to see further gallant service in Brunei and Borneo.

In the former, the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own Highlanders faced fierce opposition from the guerillas but they successfully and safely reoccupied the local Shell headquarters and rescued 46 hostages.

After a brief period at Staff College, Camberley, in 1955, Davie decided to retire from the army to join the NTS as its chief of staff.

It proved an inspired appointment as Davie was scrupulous in his administration of the trust’s affairs and a leader of considerable zest and panache.

His stewardship of the NTS was exemplary and many distinguished families were undoubtedly attracted to it because he was understanding and totally reliable. One of his real coups was to welcome Haddo House in Aberdeenshire into the NTS. The William Adam Palladian mansion had been the seat of the Gordon family for 250 years.

In 1978, before his death, Lord Aberdeen had contacted the NTS and after delicate discussions Davie was able to approach Lord Kirkhill, minister of state at the Scottish Office, so that the NTS, with government funds, could purchase the mansion.

Lady Aberdeen, who continued to live in a wing of the house, praised the negotiations and said: “It is the end of an era, but it is the only answer and it will be lovingly cared for.”

Another major addition, and one of Davie’s own personal favourites, was the pinkish harled Craigievar Castle at Alford in Aberdeenshire.

With its great hall and fine paintings – in particular two outstanding Raeburns – it has proved to be one of NTS’s most popular visitor attractions – a jewel of Scottish architecture and design preserved for posterity.

One of his most significant contributions to the running of the NTS was Davey’s pioneering enthusiasm to update and have properly catalogued the NTS’s extensive archives.

Many of the items are of much historic importance and thanks to Davie’s enlightened concern they are now not only accessible to historians but safely conserved.

Colonel Davie was chairman of the Seaforth Association and of the Seaforth Club in Nairn. He married to Coralie Garnham in 1945 and they had a son and a daughter.