Obituary: Jack Sleigh, former chairman of the Royal Highland Show and Arctic convoys veteran

RHS president Jack Sleigh (right) with the Queen and judge Ewan Ormiston at the Royal Highland Show in 1992.
RHS president Jack Sleigh (right) with the Queen and judge Ewan Ormiston at the Royal Highland Show in 1992.
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John (Jack) Sleigh, farmer and RHS president. Born: 5 September 1924 in Aberdeen. Died: 20 December 2019 in West Fingask, Oldmeldrum, aged 95.

The grainy black and white photos show mountainous waves crashing down on the ice-covered decks of the ships taking part in the Arctic convoys. In the dark days of the Second World War, these ships with their British crews ­supplied Russia with food and munitions to help sustain the war effort against the Nazis.

One of the crew members, and possibly one of the last to survive to the present day, was Jack Sleigh. Although farm work was a reserved occupation and he could have remained on the family farm of Newseat of Tolquhon, Tarves, Aberdeenshire, he volunteered in 1942 to join the Royal Navy.

Educated at Tarves School, Aberdeen Grammar School and the North of Scotland College of Agriculture, the original aim of this ­teenager was to become a ­Royal Marine but he was, ­ironically bearing in mind the later hazards he faced at sea, dissuaded by a chief petty officer who told him being a Marine would give him “a very short life expectancy”.

Following training at Chatham and Campbeltown, Jack was posted to Londonderry to join a pool of sailors on stand-by as replacements for the crews of ­passing ­battleships.

His first mission was on the Flower-class corvette HMS Pennywort, accompanying a convoy to Gibraltar. This was followed by a spell with the destroyer HMS Duncan in the dangerous task of hunting for German U-boats in the North Atlantic. His next posting as a crewman was with the battleship HMS Anson, then based at Scapa Flow in Orkney. Anson’s main role was to keep the ­German Baltic fleet at bay – a fleet that included its ­dreaded flagship, Tirpitz.

When the UK Government decided to support the beleaguered Russian nation, the Arctic convoy was created, with the supply ships having to take the route round Scandinavia from Loch Ewe on the north coast to the northern Russian ports. Because of the danger from German ships using the Norwegian fjords to ambush the convoys, Winston Churchill described this ­supply route as the “worst journey in the world”.

Describing the experience later in life, where the sinking of a ship in the icy waters almost certainly led to death, Jack said: “It was just the luck of the draw if you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It was not until more recent times, and the ending of the Cold War, that servicemen involved in the Arctic convoys received honours from Russia that they richly deserved.

Three years ago, Jack was proud to be presented with the Ushakov Medal from the Government of Russia which recognised “bravery and contribution to the defeat of Nazism”. This award added to his Atlantic Star, Arctic Star and Burma Star.

His service in Burma came after the ending of hostilities in Europe, when he was ­posted to the Far East with the ­frigate HMS Taff. There, ­serving behind enemy lines in ­Burma, he helped round up ­Japanese prisoners of war who were then shipped to remote islands to fend for themselves.

On demobilisation in 1946, he returned to the north-east to start farming on the 220 acres of West Fingask, the tenancy of which had been acquired by his father during his absence abroad. It was not an easy return to rural Aberdeenshire – as he used to recall it was a case of back to paraffin lamps and no central heating after the comforts he had enjoyed in the Far East.

His travels weren’t over and through his father, who was involved in the export of ­pedigree cattle to North America, he and a friend accompanied a consignment of Aberdeen Angus and Beef Shorthorn bulls, along with a number of collies, to ­Canada in 1948. This was followed by a tour of the USA by train to take in the stockyards of Chicago and Denver.

Back home, he built up a successful farming business combining Netherton of ­Mounie, West Fingask and Newseat of Colquhon, the last farm being where he was born. These are now farmed by his sons, Patrick, Andrew and Philip.

In his own farming, Jack ­specialised in beef cattle ­production, finishing younger stock bought in Orkney, and sheep, where his entries almost always produced a strong trade at the autumn sales. He was also a well ­recognised arable farmer and West Fingask hosted the ­Royal Northern Agricultural ­Society’s first ever on-farm arable event.

For a time in the 1960s the family owned Presly’s butcher’s shop in Oldmeldrum and Jack greatly enjoyed ­serving his customers, with whom he built up a great ­rapport, ­later acquiring the paper shop next door which was run by his wife, Mary.

He was a stalwart of the ­Oldmeldrum community for many years where he became chairman of the local branch of NFU Scotland, acted as a long-time leader of the ­Sunday school, was an elder of Oldmeldrum Parish Church, and served as chairman of Oldmeldrum Sports.

In this latter interest, he ­welcomed many famous showbusiness stars who came to open the annual event, including actress Pat ­Phoenix, Coronation Street’s Elsie ­Tanner. Another of his interests was the reinstatement of the golf course in Oldmeldrum and the building of the club house. For his efforts he was made an honorary member of the club.

In the 1980s he was elected to the board of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, the organisers of the Royal Highland Show.

Elected chairman in 1991, he oversaw the development of the Scottish Food Exhibition, which has become an important part of the show. Jack also proposing changing the then midweek show days to the ­current Thursday to Sunday format, a move which has seen attendance soar to almost 200,000 over the four days.

He was also behind the ­nomination of an American billionaire as president of the show. This largely ceremonial post is normally reserved for royalty or prominent members of UK society but Jack had the bold idea of inviting millionaire American businessman ­Malcolm Forbes.

Forbes, whose father Bertie had his roots in rural Aberdeenshire, and who was the founder of the renowned Forbes business magazine, was then squiring film star Elizabeth Taylor.

It appealed to Jack’s sense of humour and occasion to think of Malcolm walking down the avenue from Ingliston House during the Highland Show with Miss Taylor on his arm, but Malcolm sadly died before what would have been his year of office.

However, one of his sons, ­Steve, a director of Forbes magazine and later to become a contender for the USA presidency, took on the role in 1992.

Steve caused a considerable flutter when he flew in for the show on the family jet. He proved to be an outstanding president, triggering extensive press coverage for the show and taking a keen interest in all its activities.

As recently as last May, Jack attended the annual reunion at Loch Ewe for veterans of the Arctic convoys but as he remarked sadly at the time, it seemed as if he was one of the last survivors.

In September, 2016, he was predeceased by Mary then aged 88, his wife of 64 years.

He is survived by his three sons, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren, as well as two of his four siblings. His first son, John, tragically died in a farm accident in 1955 at the age of four.

ANDREW ARBUCKLE