Obituary: Gordon Urquhart, gregarious, witty, musical Invernessian whose spirit of adventure enhanced many lives

obit pic - Gordon Urquhart
obit pic - Gordon Urquhart
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Born: 22 June, 1958, in Inverness. Died: 10 February, 2012, in Zambia, aged 53

Among his 50th birthday gifts was a baseball cap emblazoned with the legend “The Big Easy”. There could hardly have been a better phrase to sum up Gordon Urquhart, a gregarious, witty and relaxed Invernessian whose laid back attitude to life was infectious. Big in stature, spirit and intellect, he was easy company with an easy smile, a man who embraced adventure and never got caught up in the rat race.

His eclectic career encompassed roles as an archivist, aerial photograph salesman, researcher and film extra as well as extensive work in the field of arts and heritage in the Highlands. Beyond that his interests were myriad: from Caley Thistle to war poetry, punk music to reggae, art and film.

At an age when many might consider winding down, he upped sticks with his family to Zambia, where he spent the last year of his life volunteering and supporting his wife Anne in her post with the Chipata School of Nursing through the Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET).

Leaving Culbokie behind, he didn’t know if he would like southern Africa but, typically, he just got on with it. And, as with everything else, he devoured the Zambian experience. It was simply his latest adventure.

He was the son of Isobel and Kenneth Urquhart, and his early years were spent in Drumnadrochit before moving to Inverness, where he attended Dalneigh Primary School and Inverness Royal Academy. His love of music began at school, where he played trumpet in the orchestra, sang at the Gaelic Mod and was a member of various school bands. As bass player in an outfit named Jed Ludd, he gigged around the Highlands with friends in a transit van.

After leaving school he went to Aberdeen University to study for an MA but gave up his degree course after the sudden death of his father. He returned to Inverness for a while before taking a job as an archivist with the Scottish Office in Edinburgh.

There he pursued his interest in music, which had been a big part of his university days. In Aberdeen he played bass and sang vocals in punk bands The Parachute Failed and Chaos Bros.

He had also begun writing songs there and once in Edinburgh he provided lead vocals and various electronica for The Pheasants, as well as all the lyrics and fair proportion of the music. He once described the band as “a combo that flashed like a comet across the face of electronic rock”. Others suggested his band names were sometimes superior to the sound they produced.

Following his time as an archivist he took a job travelling all over Scotland selling aerial photographs before eventually returning to Edinburgh where he met Anne. She encouraged him to go back to university and finish his degree in cultural history. He graduated in 1995 with first class honours, later working on his PhD, which focused on Highland culture during the First World War.

Latterly, while in Zambia, he continued his studies, by distance learning, working towards an MSc in cultural interpretation with the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

After he and Anne moved to the Highlands he was employed on a contract with Highland Council’s sports and leisure department where he was instrumental in improving disabled access to the local sports centre. His creativity, thirst for knowledge and passion for heritage then saw him set up his own research business. As a result he was often involved with UHI’s history department where his highly skilled and enthusiastic input included contributions to a series of ongoing research projects, in collaboration with Forestry Commission Scotland, aimed at chronicling the stories of Highland forestry workers over the last century.

This initiative was launched while he worked with HI~Arts in Inverness, the region’s cultural development agency. He gathered a huge collection of material, including photographs, making it accessible through the Forestry Memories website which used archive photographs to spark and attract reminiscences.

It was during his time with HI~Arts, from 2006 to 2008, that he earned his Big Easy cap – using his inimitable, informal approach to persuade a range of local and voluntary heritage groups and organisations to collaborate to make better use of the internet, helping to create the Heritage North website.

In 2006 he was also one of the team of artists who delivered the ground-breaking public art event, Imagining the Centre, 12 hours of innovative art installations in Inverness. His contribution was Soft City, a sound collage of local voices, opinions and memories of the Highland capital.

He enjoyed some success as a playwright, with showings at the Traverse Theatre, and across the Highlands including Eden Court theatre, where his funeral was subsequently held.

Always creative, he was a filmmaker, member of Cromarty Museum board and a regular subscriber to The Alberts, film awards run by John Mcgeoch at Arts in Motion, which feature such accolades as The McTavish Blowing your Own Trumpet award. He was also a supporting artist in the Gaelic language film, An Seòladh – The Journey – and an extra in A Lonely Place to Die, a thriller shot in the Highlands.

A man with unquenchable curiosity who could also be argumentative and stubborn, he was proud of his Highlands roots. A keen cyclist, hill walker and Caley Thistle season ticket holder, he maintained his football interests in Zambia, where he was also a member of The Radicals reggae band in Chipata.

He not only supported his wife’s work in the school there but also left a lasting legacy through his contribution playing a lead technical and evaluation role in a THET multi-country e-learning project, working with partners to help nursing schools access a tailor-made African website and digital library.

Jane Cockerell, chief executive of THET, said: “I’ll never stop being inspired by, and grateful for, the existence of people like Anne and Gordon – people who willingly give up their time, and the comfort of familiar surroundings, to work alongside those most in need of our support. As anyone who has witnessed the reality of rural healthcare in Zambia first hand will testify – the task is not an easy one.

“Gordon enthusiastically gave his skills and experience, particularly in IT, to benefit communities in Zambia. He has touched and inspired many.”

His humanist funeral featured a clip of him in Zambia teaching staff and patients, at Chipata Regional Hospital, the Beatles’ hit Yellow Submarine before those celebrating his life burst into a rendition of the song in his memory.

“He had a personality the size of a planet,” said his friend Duncan Macpherson, “and if you got even remotely close you were in his orbit forever.” He is survived by Anne, their daughters Heather and Kay, his mother Isobel and stepfather Gerald.

ALISON SHAW