Obituary: Hamish Robertson CB, MBE, colonial administrator

Hamish Robertson: Senior civil servant who played a key role in many policies affecting Scotland
Hamish Robertson: Senior civil servant who played a key role in many policies affecting Scotland
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Born: 6 April, 1931, in Jersey. Died: 10 September 2013, in Dollar, aged 82

Hamish Robertson, who died at his home in Dollar in September, played a critically important role in the early years of Malawi’s independence and later enjoyed a successful career as a senior civil servant in the Scottish Office.

Hamish was born and spent his early years in Jersey, where his father James worked in the Agricultural Department. He began his education in the parish school in Trinity, where the playground language was Jerriais, and enjoyed the freedom to roam over fields and beaches.

All this came to an abrupt end in June 1940 when the family were evacuated on the last boat to leave before the Germans arrived. Hamish vividly remembered seeing Cherbourg blazing under German gunfire as they steamed north.

Hamish’s mother Elizabeth took Hamish and his four younger siblings back to her family in Huntly, where James soon joined them, being employed by the Department of Agriculture for Scotland to inspect farms and ensure their maximum contribution to the war effort.

They found a house in Cairney so that Hamish had to swap his French dialect for the Doric and the rigours of a small Aberdeenshire primary school, shortly followed by the Gordon Schools, Huntly, where he thrived, emerging as Dux.

He gained a First Class Honours degree in History at Aberdeen University, gaining the Caithness Prize and sharing the Forbes Medal. After spending national service as an officer in the Royal Artillery he was appointed to the Colonial Service and sent to Cambridge for a year’s training.

Meanwhile, through a chance meeting with her brothers at a Scout Jamboree in France, Hamish had met Suzanne Taylor, daughter of the Peterhead GP Dr Gavin Taylor. They married in April 1955 in Kings College Chapel and that July set off together for a new life in the Nyasaland Protectorate.

Hamish had been posted to Chikwawa on the lower Shire River and was to spend seven satisfying years in district administration; he became fluent in Chinyanja and relished both the opportunity to travel round the more distant parts of the district and his later work on soil conservation.

In 1962 he was moved to the Finance Ministry, arriving just in time to play a key role in Nyasaland’s rapid transition to full independence. In 1962 the Nyasaland Protectorate was still part of the Central African Federation, which was responsible for many of the central functions of government.

In February 1963 the UK government gave Nyasaland internal self-government with Dr Hastings Banda as Prime Minister and later decided to dissolve the Federation on 31 December, 1963 and give independence to Nyasaland (renamed Malawi) in July 1964.

Many expatriate civil servants left, few local replacements were available and the workload was huge and very challenging.

Hamish found himself one of a very small band of competent but inexperienced young colleagues charged with improvising new arrangements for every aspect of government finance including taxation, a tariff regime, a central bank and a system of economic statistics.

They also had to establish from scratch new relationships with the UK and South Africa, with major companies (such as Lonrho) and with international bodies such as the UN and GATT. Hamish saw through the transition to full independence in July 1964 and stayed on until 1966.

He enjoyed working with the Finance Minister John Tembo and had a good relationship with Dr Banda, whom he would sometimes meet later when the latter was visiting Edinburgh. The experience of successfully carrying through such a huge programme of vitally important work was incredibly exhilarating for a relatively junior (and decidedly underpaid) young man and nothing in his later life would ever be so satisfying; in 1966 he was appointed MBE in recognition of his services.

Coming home to Scotland with his young family was certainly quite a jolt. Soon, however, they were settled happily in Dollar and Hamish had secured a Principal post in the Scottish Education Department. In 1970 he was appointed Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State, Gordon Campbell. Later work as a division head in the Scottish Office involved school curriculum, tourism and the Highlands and Islands and a notable spell as Finance Officer for the Scottish Home and Health Department. From 1987 until his retirement in 1992 he served as an Under Secretary in the Scottish Education Department, where he was involved in difficult and challenging issues in the aftermath of the teachers’ dispute of the mid-80s. He worked closely with Professor John Howie on the committee reviewing the Highers, the report of which sowed the seeds of the idea of a Scottish Baccalaureat. He also worked loyally and assiduously with the education minister Michael Forsyth on the latter’s introduction of school boards and on the government’s controversial and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to promote opted out schools in Scotland. He was appointed CB in 1992.

In retirement Hamish was much involved as chairman of the Central Region Crossroads Care Scheme and served as a lay school inspector and on the Carnegie Trust.

He enjoyed walking and skiing, tending his garden and above all spending time with his children and grandchildren.

Hamish was a man of total probity, reliability and loyalty who brought a shrewd and accurate mind and a great breadth of intellect to all that he did.

He was an engaging (and persistent) raconteur and his stories were always entertaining (a favourite phrase was “ne’er spile a story by considerin’ gin it were true”).

A key characteristic was the pride he took in all the things which had shaped his life – his Jersey origins, the values of his beloved North-east, especially its history (he was to the end a Strathbogie man) and its educational traditions, his time in the Royal Artillery and above all his work in Nyasaland/Malawi and his love of that land and its people.

He was a devoted husband to Susie, an intensely proud father of Helen, Barbara, James and Gavin and a loving grandfather and great-grandfather.