Obituary: Georgina Scott Sutherland D St J, philanthropist

Georgina Scott Sutherland: Philanthropist and Dame of St John who swam in the Antarctic Ocean at the age of 79
Georgina Scott Sutherland: Philanthropist and Dame of St John who swam in the Antarctic Ocean at the age of 79
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 28 November, 1918, in Glasgow. Died: 14 May, 2014, in Milltimber, Aberdeen, aged 95

When the young Georgina Buchanan met her future husband on a boat to Australia in the 1940s it marked the start of a partnership that would ultimately foster the careers of countless young architects.

She was the young secretary to the Governor of Hong Kong; he was Tom Scott Sutherland, already a successful architect, businessman and councillor in Aberdeen, known for his cinema and house designs and for his progressive approach to improving the city’s slums.

He was divorced from his first wife, and he and Georgina married in 1950 and were soon living in the beautiful granite mansion, Garthdee House and its estate, overlooking the River Dee. He had sold to the BBC a previous home, Beechgrove House, which then became the corporation’s North-east base but it wasn’t long before it became evident that the Garthdee property was too large for the couple who had no children.

Three years after acquiring the sprawling Victorian home he gifted it, along with a generous endowment, to the Aberdeen School of Architecture, where he had trained and which later took the name Scott Sutherland in his honour.

After he died in the early 1960s his widow continued to support the school, and a library at the current Robert Gordon University, which stands on the site of the Garthdee estate, was dedicated to her.

Georgina Scott Sutherland, latterly known as Ina, was born in Glasgow but grew up in Macau and Hong Kong where her father had his own civil engineering consultancy. The youngest of a family of three, she was educated at King George V secondary school in Kowloon and enjoyed a privileged lifestyle.

She had two much older brothers, one of whom is believed to have ended up making his life in New York; the other signed up for the forces and died while flying on a secret mission to Stonecutters Island, just north of Hong Kong, which had been captured early in the fall of the colony. He has no known grave.

After the outbreak of the Second World War her father worked swiftly to get Georgina and her mother out of the colony as quickly as possible. They sailed on one of the last ships to leave for Australia. Her father remained and died during his internment in Stanley Prison.

Life in the antipodes was vastly different to the one she had known in Hong Kong where the family had staff and she enjoyed a social whirl of dancing and tennis.

Having left with just a suitcase, Georgina now had to work to support herself and her mother. She did a crash course in secretarial studies and found employment in shops to pay her way but they were seriously impoverished and it was the toughest experience of her life.

She remained in Australia for the duration of the war, latterly working for the government of Hong Kong in exile in Sydney. She then returned to the colony in peacetime to check on the home they had left behind and began working for the civil service, eventually being offered the post as secretary to the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Alexander Grantham. The position was ideal for her: she lived in Kowloon and loved the job, which took her back to the sort of life she had previously enjoyed.

In 1948, on a ship sailing back to Australia to see her mother, she met Tom Scott Sutherland, who was almost 20 years her senior. They married in 1950 and she never worked again but threw herself into a new life as the wife of a highly successful architect, cinema tycoon, housebuilder and philanthropist, becoming heavily involved in the Order of St John and was one of its longest-serving members.

She was invested as a Serving Sister in the order in 1954. Two years later, after moving out of Garthdee House, the property owned by her husband’s firm Modern Homes, the first students moved into the building now known as the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment.

Down the decades she continued to generously support both the architecture school and St John, with her pioneering work also helping to create the St John Nursing home in Aberdeen’s Albyn Place. She was one of those instrumental in establishing the St John Mountain Rescue Team in Aberdeen which, for many years, operated out of a garage behind the nursing home before moving to a purpose-built base just outside the city.

So enthusiastic was she in her determination to help that on one training trip she volunteered to be the “body” brought down off the mountain. Only a snowfall and her age prevented the team taking up her offer.

Made an officer of the Order in 1958, and then a commander, she was made a Dame of St John in 1979, an achievement of which she was particularly proud.

Feisty and straight-talking, she was a spirited individual and an intrepid traveller. She once went to Chile and ignored advice not to stray off the main roads in case she was targeted by thieves who would take everything she had got without compunction. Making the concession of leaving her handbag behind, she wandered into a tough area where she was spotted by a police officer. He escorted her to safety explaining that miscreants would even steal her shoes. She found the whole incident amusing given that her footwear was precisely where she had taken the precaution of secreting her money.

She was on the verge of 80 when she visited Antarctica and took a dip in the Antarctic Ocean, typically swimming out far beyond her fellow travellers. She later recalled her adventures at the bottom of the world in a talk, South with Scott (Sutherland), illustrated with slides of her in the water amongst the ice floes. Later, aged 84, and accompanied by friends, she returned to Hong Kong to search for her father’s grave. She found it in Stanley Cemetery and a poppy is now laid there in his honour each year.

While still able to live independently she had a home in Aberdeen’s west end, enjoyed bridge and retained an interest in travel, fine jewellery, art and Chinese culture and antiques.