Alistair MacLean was one of those rare folk whose career developed in different directions and also involved him in many organisations as a volunteer long before the term “big society” was ever conceived.
James Alistair Ross MacLean was born in the Highland village of Beauly in January 1918. He was the eldest of four children born to Donald and Elizabeth MacLean, and was named after his late Uncle Alistair, who perished in the trenches a year or so before he was born.
His father ran the licensed grocer in the village and his mother was involved in many community activities but was keenest on the musical and light opera society which fostered Alistair’s early love of choral music.
Alistair was a keen and able pupil at Beauly Public School, where he excelled at most things. As well as school work, he loved sport – he was a natural talent at shinty, football and tennis, and he also learned the art of lawn bowls from his father, who was a demon bowler.
The school choir entered the Mod competitions, winning a clutch of awards during his time there. He completed his school education at Inverness Royal Academy, from where he won a place to study chemistry at the University of Edinburgh in 1936.
He revelled in the social and academic life of the university, winning a Blue for shinty as part of the university team, and after graduating with a BSc in 1940, he went on to study for a PhD in organic chemistry. Following the award of his PhD, he joined the firm of British Drug Houses in London, where he was involved in the final production stages of penicillin.
After the end of the Second World War, Alistair joined the British Colonial Service as a scientific researcher and he spent seven years at the West African Cocoa Research Institute in Tafo, Gold Coast (now Ghana), researching the effects of disease on that country’s most important cash crop.
In 1954, he left the Colonial Service and joined the research chemist firm of Macfarlane Smith in Edinburgh, where he worked until the firm relocated to London in 1963. Alistair then retrained as a teacher and after a spell at Boroughmuir School, secured a position as a lecturer in organic chemistry at Napier College, later University, where he remained until retirement in 1983.
He was a born teacher and loved the rigour and challenge of the academic life and many students. I have reason to be grateful to his skill and guidance as a teacher and mentor.
In his spare time, Alistair had joined Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, where he sang as a bass, his favourite performance piece being Handel’s Messiah, which he sang every single New Year for the three decades he was a member of the choir.
He also played golf (left-handed as a hangover from his shinty playing), which he had taken up while in Africa, and joined Gullane Golf Club in 1966, playing regularly right up until 2010.
Occasionally, he won a few pence on the medal sweepstake but he never managed to score a hole in one – one of his few sporting regrets.
Alistair’s retirement saw him as busy as ever. He had always been a stalwart member of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and served as the area secretary for many years and was the Scottish representative of the Benevolent Fund for more than 40 years.
This latter volunteer role involved many journeys throughout the length and breadth of Scotland to visit members who needed to call on the services of the Benevolent Fund to provide additional help with illness or personal issues, or with family members who had additional needs or debilitating conditions, assessing their need for a grant (almost always agreed on) and then submitting reports to headquarters in London.
He served as secretary of Edinburgh University Graduates’ Association for many years as well as being an active member and organiser of events.
On retirement he rekindled his love of bowling and joined Braid Bowling Club, where he quickly established himself as a key member of various rinks and served as president for a year. His greatest sporting achievement was saved until he was in his late 70s when his rink of four qualified to play at the Scottish Bowling Association finals in Ayr. They didn’t win but he said just being there was the achievement of his career.
He always played to win but was generous and gracious in defeat. He was also a member of the Edinburgh High Constables for more than 25 years and was involved in their charitable activities within the city.
Alistair married Mary Forrester in July 1943 and the pair were a formidable team for more than 70 years.
Their family of two sons and a daughter were raised and educated in Edinburgh. They enjoyed holidays walking in the Scottish hills and glens, as well as their annual jaunt to Switzerland, returning for more than 20 years to the Alpenrose Hotel in Wengen.
They loved the beauty and magnitude of the mountains and the variety of flora and fauna to be found there. Their luggage was always weighed down with plant identification books so that they could compile their list of all the plants found on that particular holiday.
Alistair was an inveterate crossword addict and would chew over and research the answers to clues long after most people would have given up. Not for him the easy route of Google – on his side of the living room bookshelves were wholly given over to reference books of every description and his thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. He believed firmly in the values of volunteering and playing an active part in a community – he was one of the people who turned up.
Alistair is survived by his wife of 70 years, Mary; his son Donald and daughter Margaret; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.