Obituary: Dr Richard Balharry MBE, conservationist

Born: 3 September, 1937, in Muirhhead of Liff, Dundee. Died: 22 April, 2015, in Newtonmore, aged 77

Dr Richard "Dick" Balharry: Conservationist whose many achievements included nurturing the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust
Dr Richard "Dick" Balharry: Conservationist whose many achievements included nurturing the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust

I was moved by your excellent obituary of the conservationist Dick Balharry (25 April), and understand how hard it must have been to include the many different organisations with which he was associated. May I, however, add one here though, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, which he both co-founded and chaired and which is now the largest organisation of its type, in no small measure due to his quite extraordinary skill and sacrifice.

It was in 1994 that Dick met up in a small flat on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile along with colleagues who included one of those behind the founding of Private Eye (Nicholas Luard) Scotland’s first full time whale watcher (Richard Fairburn) and some of the leading scientists in the field. We had, if memory serves me right, a total of £9 to put into the pot but were inspired by a speech made by Dick in which he predicted, rightly, that the health of the oceans off the Scottish coast would soon become of increased importance to the nation.

He also expressed a wish that the trust should dedicate itself to trying to bridge the gap between the indigenous peoples of the West Coast and the conservationists who were increasingly being seen by them as the enemy when our aims, for clean and bountiful waters, were surely exactly the same as the local fishermen whose support we would need, just as we needed to support them.

Before that time few in the cities realised that there were any whales off Scotland’s coasts at all but the 20-odd years of solid records of sightings made by the trust have now established the Hebrides as amongst the most significant areas for whales in Europe, and a huge industry has now been established, both recording and enjoying these animals and there is increasing evidence that their movements may be important indicators in our understanding of global warming.

Since then we have not only raised many millions of pounds, but we have also employed staff from the resident communities on Mull, Muck, Skye and the West Coast.

And while the trust’s journey has undoubtedly been a bumpy one, the fact that our survey yacht the Silurian will be sailing this year with more than a hundred volunteers compiling statistics on animal sightings and visiting many of the primary schools in the islands, Dick’s vision has to a very large extent been fulfilled.

Dick was a truly extraordinary man. Built like a bear yet with the compassionate eyes of a monk he would often start his meetings by hugging everyone in the room, not a practice that was common in douce Edinburgh, but his policy of careless good will to all mankind (except for certain land owners) and to hang with the consequences seemed to work.

When Dick was around, people would invariably leave their grudges at the door and do their best for the common good. He was a hard man to keep pace with on the high hill, yet he was also a hard man not to love.

His contacts were prodigious. I worked as his deputy on the trust and remember how in one sitting he could call in advice from dozens of notables including his Royal Highness Prince Charles, Dr Morton Boyd, the noted land owner Andrew Raven and many others who might not have agreed with his politics but would always be only too delighted to help this great, ever laughing, ever credible and totally engaging character.

Shortly before writing this appreciation I phoned the headquarters of the trust. They told me that virtually every one of our visitor scientist berths on the survey yacht Silurian have already been sold for this season and that it seems likely that the trust which Dick helped to start and run will lurch on for at least another year.

It is yet another feather in the cap for one of the greatest conservationists of our generation. He will missed both on the wild lands of Scotland and also on the bountiful seas which he worked so hard to protect and help blossom.