Obituary: James Andrew (Jim) Eddison, engineer and businessman who helped open up the Water of Leith to the public

Jim Eddison
Jim Eddison
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BORN: 9 May, 1921, in Aberdeen. Died 28 September, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 91

JIm Eddison had a distinguished career as a civil engineer and left his mark on some of the key building projects in Edinburgh between 1946, when he was demobilised, and his retirement in 1986.

In his business career, he was also a director and then chairman of Scottish Life, and served the community more widely through work with the Edinburgh Old Town Trust, the Water of Leith Walkway Trust and the Trefoil School at Gogarburn. As a sportsman, he was an accomplished athlete, specialising in hurdles, and played rugby for Edinburgh Wanderers.

Though born in Aberdeen, he was proud of his family’s Yorkshire roots. His father and grandfather had worked in insurance, settling eventually in Edinburgh. His father played rugby for England and won the Military Cross in the First World War.

He had, he always said, a sublimely happy childhood, and was much influenced by the character and example of his mother, Kay White. He developed an early love of nature, and liked to recall a school report which asked that he give as much attention to his studies as he did to the ringing of birds.

After school at Cressbrook in Cumberland and at Rugby, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in the autumn of 1939, just as war began. It was his maths teacher at Rugby who pointed him in the direction of engineering as a career, and he pursued an accelerated two-year degree programme in mechanical sciences, gaining a wartime Blue in athletics along the way.

He served in the 11th Armoured Division, latterly as a captain in the Royal Engineers. The division, whose emblem was the Charging Bear, fought its way across Europe from Normandy. Jim Eddison played a part in throwing the first Bailey bridge across the Rhine, and was mentioned in despatches. For the family, newly moved to the house of Lennox Lea at Currie, the war was an anxious time, because Jim’s elder brother John had been captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong. Photographs of the young Captain James Eddison show a tall, vigorous and handsome figure in his uniform, but he was never inclined to glamorise war, being all too aware of its human cost.

He married Mary Rayner in Exeter Cathedral in 1945. Their daughter Liz was born in Edinburgh two years later, and their twin sons, John and Andrew, in London, in 1950. Andrew died of leukaemia in 1952.

Jim Eddison’s interest in building was fired by an army course in Germany at the end of the war. He joined Blyth & Blyth as a graduate under agreement. He worked for a year in 1950-1 as an assistant engineer with LG Mouchel & Partners in London, carrying out the design of heavy reinforced concrete work for power stations. He returned to Blyth & Blyth in 1952.

There he was a charismatic figure – as one colleague of the time recalls, “a big strong man with a big strong personality”. He worked with a committed team who transformed the firm, and won for it a reputation for delivering on time and to contract. In this cause he adopted innovative arrangements for the period.

Engineers, apprentices and draughtsmen exchanged drawing boards at 8pm and 8am, to honour commitments to demanding clients, who then tended to keep their consultant engineers.

His specialism was in working with architects on reinforced concrete structures, ranging from the David Hume Tower at Edinburgh University to flats for Edinburgh Corporation and the new head office building for Standard Life Assurance in St Andrew’s Square.

He was for a time chairman of the Scottish branch of the Concrete Society. His reputation as an engineer resulted in Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, awarded in 1971.

Jim Eddison also worked on a voluntary basis with the Edinburgh Old Town Trust and with the Trefoil School at 
Gogarburn, near his home in Currie. As chairman, he played an active role in the life of the school, continuing to attend events long into retirement.

But a particular interest was work for the Water of Leith Walkway Trust, with the architect Ian Begg, following the vision of Meyer Oppenheim to complete the path between Balerno and Leith.

A 1986 report on outstanding construction works records the pair “scrambling along slippery muddy banks, quickly nipping across main railway lines, swinging under riverside trees and avoiding steam discharge pipes and brick constructions of doubtful engineering quality and less aesthetic value”.

It was in accordance with Jim Eddison’s lifelong respect for nature that he wrote that the magic land along the Water “must be partially controlled to fulfil our object of creating the walkway but thankfully, it cannot be entirely tamed”.

In his business career beyond engineering, Jim Eddison followed his father’s footsteps in the insurance industry. He joined the board of Scottish Life in 1968, and led the company with distinction as chairman from 1981 to 1987, valued for the soundness of his advice and his expertise in property matters.

After an injury forced him to give up rugby, his sporting interests turned to sailing, shooting and especially fishing, on the Tweed and the Dee, an interest shared with his wife Mary.

In retirement, Jim and Mary oversaw the building of a new house in Balerno, and especially the creation of a garden. He had a new passion, the meconopsis flower, and it was in character that he became something of an expert.

He was also able to visit his family in Papua New Guinea and in New Zealand, where he participated fully in the life of the farm near Palmerston North 
occupied by his daughter and son-in-law.

Mary died in 2007. He is survived by Liz, by two grandchildren and by three great-grandchildren. John died on 16 October 2012.