Obituary: Hamish Haswell-Smith, architect, artist and best-selling author of The Scottish Islands
A Daily Telegraph article once called Hamish Haswell-Smith a Renaissance man and this was in many respects true. He had very wide-ranging interests but he always insisted that he was a Jack of all trades and master of none. He tried his hand at whatever took his fancy, whether it be playing the piano or the guitar, as well as composing. He was an ace DIY in all the building trades, enjoyed landscape gardening, hydroponics and even dabbled in wine-making. His laborious researches in genealogy produced a magnificent book of his family tree. Not only was he an artist, he also sculpted and managed to find time for inventions. As a keen gardener he devised, produced and marketed a successful fertiliser. He complained that he hadn’t had enough time to write an opera.
Hamish was educated at Dollar Academy and the Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School in South India. At 15 he had achieved sufficient qualifications to gain entry to the Royal Technical College (Strathclyde University) and after a year he then transferred to Edinburgh College of Art.
In 1946 he worked in the office of Basil Spence & Partners and in 1947-48 he served his year of practical training with Arnott & Inch Morrison. After his fourth year at College he, and three fellow students, formed the “Design Group”. At the request of Basil Spence, the Group carried out all the detailed design of the Railways & Shipbuilding section of the exhibition at the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, for the Festival of Britain.
He qualified in 1951 and was elected an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Employment was scarce in post-war Britain so he flew to Africa to take up a post with a firm of architects in Kampala, Uganda, who then transferred him to Nairobi, Kenya.
In 1955 he married Jean Hilton and in the same year he set up in private practice. He was a prize-winner in the George VI Memorial competition for Nairobi. By 1960 the British Government having suddenly declared immediate self-government for the colony, Hamish, with a wife and young son, decided to return to Scotland.
Once settled in Edinburgh, he joined Bernard Matthew, a past fellow-student, and they formed the partnership, Matthew, Smith & Partners. In 1964 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.
In 1972 Hamish decided to set up his own practice, Haswell-Smith & Partners. Later, Philip Black and John Gray became partners in the firm which grew steadily, with branch offices opened in Hamilton and Aberdeen
It was around this time that Hamish rediscovered his love of sailing, joined the Royal Forth Yacht Club and with Harold Buteux became part-owner of an International One Design racing yacht, Kyla. He enrolled at Leith Nautical College and qualified as a Yachtmaster. He was invited by three friends, Peter Crabb, Ian Terris and Craig Hutcheson, to sail with them on the West Coast in their yacht Jeananne. In 1983 they joined forces and bought a new Moody 41 and called it Jandara. At the same time Hamish began a steady retirement from architectural practice and devoted more time to painting and sailing. He had always carried a sketchbook on the many trips abroad and continued to record whatever interested him. He always said that a sketch triggered many more memories than any photograph ever could.
His paintings were exhibited in most of the RSA exhibitions and also by the RSW. He had one-man shows in Edinburgh, Dunkeld and Glasgow and also participated in exhibitions in London, Paris and Venice. In 1987 he gathered together a small group of fellow architects and founded the Scottish Society of Architect-Artists under the patronage of the Duke of Gloucester.
Hamish became a member of the Scottish Arts Club in 1973. He was elected President in 1982 and during his term of office, there was to be the greatest change ever to occur in the Club since its foundation. The members had to vote whether to accept female members or not. When it came to a dead-heat, Hamish as President, exercised his casting vote in favour of the proposal, a courageous and forward-looking decision.
Sailing among the Scottish islands was an inspiration and he grew to love their unique beauty and the friendly resourcefulness of the islanders. He started researching the background and history and accumulated a vast amount of information which he tried to take aboard Jandara for ready reference. In the end he decided to encapsulate it in a book, a descriptive survey of all the isles of an area of one hundred acres or more, illustrated with his many sketches and with maps of every island compiled by himself using computer graphics.
The Scottish Islands, which was first published in 1996, was an instant success, coming top of the Scottish best-sellers non-fiction class. This book is currently the definitive work on its subject and has run to many reprints since and four updated editions. At the beginning of the book, in the Format and Overview, Hamish explains with great clarity its huge scope and the meaningfulness of its organisation. In this he displays a consummate grasp of detail and its relation to the whole picture. With great unassuming simplicity he gives a splendid demonstration of the book’s intellectual scope, its practical organisation and aesthetic organisation and treatment. The Sunday Times called the book “the acknowledged Rosetta Stone of island hopping”.
In his Author’s Note to the 2001 edition, Hamish says: “It is quite astonishing how many of our islands were still populated a few decades ago and whose inhabitants are no longer easily traced. All that unrecorded wisdom will vanish with them and so, with every passing year more and more of our common heritage is being forgotten or lost by neglect.” This is characteristic of his regard for and interest in people. The book is peppered with anecdotal records of people whom he met on and among the islands he surveyed, people whose rich variety he clearly valued and enjoyed.
Following on from this Hamish then published An Island Odyssey, a light-hearted collation of visits to various islands with a watercolour illustration of each featured island, and turned his hand to illustrating Neil Munro’s book The Vital Spark: The illustrated Para Handy. He also wrote a long series of weekend articles – an island per week – for the Glasgow Herald. In the 1990s the BBC featured a Tracks programme of Hamish on the Isle of Jura.
Hamish was indeed up-to-date and practical, keenly alive to the value of modern technology. It may sound contradictory to say that he was very typically a Renaissance man, but the essence of that concept is someone of wide interests and abilities, equally at home in matters practical, intellectual and aesthetic, and equally comfortable and successful in each mode.
It was his open-minded and open-hearted attitude to people that made Hamish such a good friend, valuing people for their personal qualities, for what they were. His friendship was open, warm, accepting, not conditional or reserved. He valued the humanity in people, and gave himself very freely in his friendship, which made it a pleasure and a privilege to know him.
Hamish leaves a wife, Jean, two children, Iain and Jannine and two grandchildren, William and Nicholas.