With the death of John DM Robertson the county has lost a highly respected member of the community who served these islands and beyond for a substantial part of his life. “Retirement” was not a word in his vocabulary and his zest to remain active meant that he never retired and was involved in the family business until the very end. Over many years he also gave much time to an array of public organisations, and his belief in maintaining good personal relationships guided his deliberations in the institutions he served.
But first and foremost he was a devoted husband to Norette and proud father of Susan, John, Fiona and Sinclair. He recognised that ultimately the most important thing in life is family, and always maintained that any success he achieved stemmed from Norette’s selfless, unflinching support and resilience.
Born in Golspie in 1929, John moved to Orkney in 1943 with his Orcadian parents, two sisters and brother. The family can trace its roots to Rousay, records going as far back as 1650.
A pupil at Kirkwall Grammar School, he continued his education with a law degree at Edinburgh University, where he distinguished himself in sport, gaining a Blue for cross-country running and quarter mile hurdling, being runner-up in the 1953 Scottish Amateur Athletics Championships in the latter event.
After graduating in 1953 he secured one of two Scottish places with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later to become BP) and spent time at various locations in the UK, Llandarcy, Wales being a personal highlight, before a secondment to Aden, Yemen where he managed several hundred employees.
In April 1958 his uncle Sidney Robertson invited him to join the growing family company and together they built up the business. By the mid-80s the S&JD Robertson Group held BP oil distributorships in Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and all of the North and West of mainland Scotland.
In 1985, John responded to an inquiry from a London plc to join it in tendering for the supply of fuel in and around the Falkland Islands, then beginning to recover from the 1982 war.
That the company established then has expanded significantly and continues to thrive today is partly due to the expertise and enthusiasm of John and his staff in those early years but, even more so, to his consistent determination to take the long-term view; profits made were never simply to be maximised this year but also reinvested for next.
The growth and longevity of the pioneering company he helped found so far away from his Orkney home is a testament to the soundness of this trademark attitude to business. He made the 15,000-mile round trip to the Falklands more than 50 times.
The demands of running a business and raising a family did not deter John from accepting various public roles. These put him at the forefront of public life in Scotland. He became chairman of Orkney and Highland Health Boards, chairman of the Scottish Health Management Efficiency Group, chairman of the North of Scotland Water Authority and chairman of the Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland.
He was a member of the National Health Service Tribunal for many years, an Honorary Sheriff for the Grampian Highland and Islands area and a Deputy Lord Lieutenant for the County of Sutherland.
He was awarded a CBE in 1993.
His fondness for words was transmitted to his grandchildren in the form of lists of his current favourites along with their meanings, and sent to encourage their interest in vocabulary.
His love of history and sport amalgamated in 1967 with his first book Uppies & Doonies, the story of the Kirkwall Ba’. A lifelong enthusiast of The Ba’, he won the coveted trophy on New Year’s Day 1966, and was chairman of the Ba’ Committee for many years, an informal group of Uppies and Doonies who come together annually, inter alia, to decide who will throw up that year’s Ba’s. He steered the game through choppy waters and undoubtedly contributed significantly to the game’s current robust state of health.
He went on to write The Press Gang in Orkney and Shetland, The Island of South Fara 1739-2008, and edited two volumes of An Orkney Anthology, The Selected Works of Ernest Walker Marwick.
He was a prolific reader, took great pleasure in rendering his garden a magnificent place of beauty, and in his early 40s discovered a passion for art, particularly Scottish art, much admiring the Orcadian painter Stanley Cursiter. Never was John more at one with the world than when walking the Orkney hill land. He felt the special charm and rare atmosphere of the moor on the Glorious 12th surrounded by family and friends, guns assembled, dogs excited and anxious to go. He walked over the hills into his late 70s, always sported a buttonhole, preferably white heather, and particularly enjoyed the annual visits to the island of Fara for a day at the grouse and snipe. He was a highly skilled and accurate shot.
After he and Norette relocated to Spinningdale in 1991, he took up shooting in various parts of mainland Scotland. Also a skilled fisherman, he spent much time on his favourite loch Swannay. Brown trout fishing in Orkney was his first choice with sea trout fishing in the Falklands coming a close second. He caught several sea trout weighing over 10 lbs.
John Robertson was an example of how to live life to the full. He believed unswervingly in integrity, loyalty and courtesy; he was an astute businessman, a keen sportsman and historian, but most of all he was a loving, kind and generous husband, father, grandfather and friend. He was also the epitome of his family motto Nil Sine Labore Viret, Nothing Succeeds Without Hard Work.