Obituary: Dr Harold Mills, senior civil servant who landed his dream job as chair of Caledonian MacBrayne

Dr Harold Mills CB PhD, scientist, politician and civil servant. Born: 2 March 1938. Died: 19 November 2019, aged 81 .

Dr Harold Mills has died at the age of 81
Dr Harold Mills has died at the age of 81

Harold Mills, who died on 19 November last year was, in a life of distinguished ­public service, a ­scientist, local ­politician and senior civil ­servant. Following his retirement, he served as chair and board member of many ­public and charitable bodies, ­perhaps most notably as chair of Caledonian MacBrayne, a position which he held from 1999 to 2006.

Born in Greenock, more than a small part of Harold ­never left the town. After attending Greenock High School, he went on to complete a first class degree and PhD at Glasgow University – his PhD focusing on the field of x-ray crystallography.

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There followed a period at the Roswell Park Memorial Institute in the United States where his work focused for two years on cancer research and, particularly, the structure of proteins.

He was then headhunted back to Scotland where his heart lay, and spent the next five years as a lecturer in chemistry at Glasgow University, where he continued to be very active in research.

Living again in Greenock, he decided, with some friends, to challenge the Labour ­Party hegemony of the time by standing for the local council as a Liberal. To his surprise he won a seat and in due course went on to become town treasurer.

It was his time on the ­council, that whetted his ­appetite for public service and so he applied successfully to join the Scottish Office as a direct entry principal. In a 30-year career he worked on many causes that were important to him throughout his life – the ­environment, housing and transport. But there was much else besides.

He headed the team which was charged with devising from scratch plans for a Scottish Assembly prior to the abortive 1979 referendum. He then spent two years heading up the office of Cecil Parkinson who was at the time Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

It was during that time that the Falklands War broke out and he found himself as the senior civil servant supporting a member of the War Cabinet.

On returning to Scotland, he continued to climb the civil service ladder. He was principal finance officer at the Scottish Office before becoming the Secretary of the Scottish Development Department.

SDD, as it was known, had responsibility for great tracts of public services in Scotland: housing, transport, the environment, historic buildings, all of which had interested and engaged Harold throughout his adult life and would ­continue to do so.

Then, on his watch, he found himself at the epicentre of three major ­disasters – ­Lockerbie, Chernobyl and its impact on the environment and food supply, and the Braer oil tanker disaster off ­Shetland.

Common to all these was the need to provide ministers with everything they needed to handle the situations ­politically and manage international press interest, and, above all, to create the conditions in which front line responders were able to get on and do their jobs ­effectively. These were tough circumstances and tough challenges but throughout them, Harold was not just a safe pair of hands but was a leader in developing the ­Government’s responses to these catastrophes.

Key to that was that he was a man who always wanted to understand things fully. ­Possibly because of his ­scientific training, he was meticulous in finding out about what was really going on in a particular situation and what would therefore work as a solution.Superficial ­knowledge leading to poor decisions was not for him. These were qualities which won him great respect from his colleagues and from ­politicians alike.

In his professional life, Harold was a serious man. He never took his many weighty responsibilities lightly. But at the same time, he was a man who often had a twinkle in his eye. All who knew him responded to that side of him.

Harold retired from the civil service in 1998. But that ­simply provided an opportunity to devote his talents and energies to many other projects dear to his heart.

He became chair of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and chair of Home in Scotland. He had a long association with the Viewpoint Trust, served 19 years on the board of the ­Maritime Museum in Irvine, was board member of the Waterways Trust Scotland, chair of Land Trust, a strong commitment to the Millennium Link project and much else besides.

But in a sense, the role he was destined for was to become chair of Caledonian MacBrayne – a job he loved and for which, it could be said, he had been born. Notwithstanding some initial controversy at the time of his appointment, his commitment to the West Coast and, above all, his lifelong love of Scotland’s ferries fitted him ideally for the role and he was never happier than when travelling on the company’s ferries and meeting staff across the Highlands and Islands.

His time at the company saw the introduction of new routes and five new vessels, including the MV Hebrides which was launched by the Queen – the first CalMac ferry to be named by a reigning monarch.

Throughout this long period of distinguished public ­service, there remained two other constants. The first was his long association with St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, where he served as an elder for many years. He was for a time the Cathedral’s treasurer, and he took on the challenging role of organising the great state and city services which the Cathedral regularly hosts.

He was much inspired by the musical life of the Cathedral and indeed, music was one of his great enthusiasms. He regularly attended concerts in Edinburgh and lent his active support to such ventures as Ian McCrorie’s Toad Choir in Greenock.

The other constant in his life was his family – Marion his wife and Margaret his ­sister, together with a much ­wider network of relations ­scattered around the globe but for whom Harold was a lynchpin of continuing connectedness.

Harold was a quiet and ­modest man who nevertheless, through a dedication to public service achieved great things. He has left Scotland and the world a better place. He will be missed.