Obituary: Major Campbell Graham OBE MBE, soldier

Scots Guard who looked after the lion cubs that went on to star in the film Born Free. Picture: Contributed
Scots Guard who looked after the lion cubs that went on to star in the film Born Free. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 24 December, 1927, in Luton. Died: 3 April, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 87.

As a regimental sergeant major – with the ear-splitting vocal chords to match – Campbell Graham never had any trouble keeping his recruits in order.

But more than 50 years ago two new members presented him with one of his greatest challenges and, ultimately, one of his finest achievements. The additions, of the four-legged variety, were two tiny lion cubs, small enough to fit in his hands.

They had been found in a back garden in Kenya, where Graham was stationed with the Scots Guards, and the regiment took on their care, with Graham initially hoping to train them as mascots to accompany the regiment on guard duties at Buckingham Palace.

After that plan fell through the cubs, who were so tame they would wander through the mess, went on to global fame on film, as part of the cast of Born Free, the story of Kenyan couple George and Joy Adamson who raised an orphaned lion cub to adulthood and returned her to the wild.

It was just one episode in a long and exceptional army career that took him from 17-year-old recruit to sergeant major and quartermaster, a rare feat achieved only by those of outstanding character.

Born in Luton, where his father was a professional footballer, he was the son of Robert Graham and his wife Doris. He moved to Kilwinning with his father and sister, Pat, when he was eight, and lived with his grandmother, honing an Ayrshire accent and becoming a proud Scot.

After a spell as a stevedore at Ardrossan harbour, he joined the Scots Guards in July 1945, just as the Second World War was drawing to a close in the Far East, and trained at the Guards Depot before being posted to Trieste in Italy the following year and to Malaya in 1950.

He then completed three separate tours with the British Army of the Rhine and a posting to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst as college sergeant major, where the young officers in training included the future King Hussein of Jordan.

By 1963 he was with the 2nd Battalion in Nairobi, Kenya and was the Brigade of Guards’ youngest regimental sergeant major. He had been patrolling the farmers union show, where some of his drill squads were entertaining the visitors, when a train of events was set in motion that led to the lion cubs’ adoption.

An expat couple, who were about to return home following Kenya’s independence, struck up a conversation and he asked one of his men to look after them with refreshments. Not long afterwards they returned to see him at his camp at Kahawa, outside the capital, and asked if he would like two lion cubs they had found in their back garden.

“I thought they were joking at first,” he recalled. “Then, when I saw them, I thought we could maybe train them and bring them back as mascots for when we were doing the guard at Buckingham Palace.”

He was instantly smitten by the bundles of fur, who were named Unita and Fortior after the battalion’s motto, and a pen was made for them by the regiment’s Colour Sergeant Ryves. The cubs, also known as Boy and Girl by Ryves’ two daughters, were popular playmates for the girls and other local children.

“They did not know how to kill and they used to play with rabbits in the garden,” Graham once explained. “I never ever felt frightened of them. They would rub themselves against your legs when you were having a drink in the mess.”

When the time came for the soldiers to leave Kenya, Graham’s plan to parade them with the Queen’s Guard met with disapproval from Headquarters Household Brigade, and Glasgow Zoo, which he had contacted, declined to pay for a trainer.

It was after George Adamson visited them that a solution was found. He asked if they could be loaned out for filming and the regiment agreed, handing them over at Adamson’s estate to the actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, who portrayed the Adamsons in the film Born Free.

Joy used Unita as the lioness Elsa in the film and Fortior starred as one of the male lions. Graham joined the actors, Joy Adamson and the Queen at the premiere in London’s Leicester Square in March 1966. After filming, the regiment decided that the lions should be returned to the wild where Unita thrived and had cubs of her own. Fortior did not fare so well in his natural surroundings and had to be shot after attacking and killing a man in Navaisha, Kenya.

Commissioned in 1967, Graham rose through the ranks from lieutenant to captain and finally major QM, with postings to Sharjah in 1970 and tours of Northern Ireland and Germany between 1971 and 1974.

He served as motor transport officer and then captain quartermaster in the 1st Battalion Scots Guards in Belfast and then as district officer of physical training at Horse Guards, running all sport for the London district, for which he was awarded an MBE.

He finished his army career in 1982 as the regimental recruiting officer at Edinburgh Castle and arena marshal at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo where he made the cleaners stand to attention with their brooms and refused to allow spectators to leave until the national anthem had finished.

His fierce pride in his regiment was also aptly illustrated on at least two: having been approached by a trainer to field a boxer who could spar with “his champ” in preparation for a big match, he had no hesitation in declaring that his regiment was full of champions and urged the caller to “send along your man and he will be halted in his tracks”.

It was only when the “champ” arrived that he discovered it was Cassius Clay, later to become known as Muhammad Ali, who was about to fight Henry 

Scots Guards champion Fred Prime proceeded to knock Clay out, prompting Graham to ask the trainer, Angelo Dundee, if he had any more “champs” to offer.

And years later he was winched down from a helicopter onto the Edinburgh Castle battlements in full regalia, the underpants under his kilt emblazoned with the words “Join the Scots Guards”.

A strict and demanding man, he also had a big heart and after retiring from the army in 1982 Graham took on the role as manager of Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory in Edinburgh.

It was at a time when the business was in deficit and needed outside help.

He personally lobbied at Westminster and in 1984 its future was put on a much more secure footing when the Manpower Services Commission agreed to accept the factory as an official sheltered workshop.

Graham spent 12 years there and in 1994 was awarded an OBE for services to disabled ex-service personnel. Once fully retired, he continued to lead a busy life, living in the north of Edinburgh and taking the British Legion Parade every November.

He is survived by his wife Judith, whom he married in Edinburgh Castle’s St Margaret’s Chapel, son Gavin, daughter Philippa and two grandchildren.