Obituary: Robert “Bingo” Bremner, entrepreneur

War hero who loved his community so much he won it a coat of arms. Picture: Contributed
War hero who loved his community so much he won it a coat of arms. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 16 May, 1919, in Aberchirder. Died: 8 January, 2015, in Aberchirder, aged 95.

To describe Bingo Bremner as an entrepreneur barely begins to sum up the man’s achievements – but in his own words he had been “the biggest dunderheid” at school.

The fact that he went on to buy that same school property and base the family’s legendary store there illustrates a business acumen that outstripped the confines of the North-east village in which he was born and died and from where he amassed a mini-empire.

A grocer, draper, road haulier, potato, grain and coal merchant, he also ran electrical and plumbing businesses, plant hire and quarry enterprises and even dabbled in the chocolate substitute, carob. But he was best known for the house furnishing business Bremners of Foggie, its name taken from the colloquial reference to its location in Aberchirder, or Foggieloan.

Within the community he served as a town and county councillor, was the last provost of Aberchirder and the man responsible for the acquisition of its own coat of arms bearing the motto “Aye Foggieloan”.

Everything in life was a potential opportunity for him – from the Second World War when he earned a mention in dispatches for going behind enemy lines to steal cattle to feed the hungry troops, to a meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when he proffered a handshake with one hand, his business card in the other.

One of six children, he was orphaned at the age of ten when both his parents died within six months of one another. His father George, who helped manage the family grocery and drapery business in Aberchirder, died suddenly in June 1929. His mother Mary, who ran a corsetry business, collapsed on Christmas Day that same year, suffering a fatal heart attack as the family visited his grave.

Their eldest son was abroad working in a sugar plantation in Honolulu, the next oldest boy was taken in by his paternal grandparents and the four youngest children, including Robert, stayed in the family home, cared for by a succession of housekeepers until it was suggested they go to an ­orphanage.

However, their Grandma Bremner would not countenance such a thing and took them all in to the family home in the village square. The boys helped their grandfather, who had set up the business in 1889, in the shop and at 15, young Robert, who had struggled at school, went there to work full-time.

He acquired the nickname Bingo as a boy, as a result of helping out at a travelling fair that visited the village. One of the travellers was known as Bingo and they spent so much time together that the name stuck. From then on he was universally known as Bingo Bremner.

As a youth he used to cycle at the weekends to Banff, where he fell in love with a young woman, Annie, who ran a grocers. At 16 she became a war bride when they married in December 1939 after Bingo, then 20 and already serving his country, was granted leave from the army.

He had joined the 65th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, where he was a storeman and quartermaster and went on to serve throughout the entire war, from Dunkirk and Belgium in 1940, to Cairo the following year when he was part of the 8th Army, seeing action at Tobruk, El Alamein and Hellfire Pass. By 1943 they had reached the Mareth Line in North Africa, meeting up with the 1st Army to defeat the Germans and Italians.

Bremner went on through Turkey and Iraq to the Persian Gulf and on to India and Burma, where he fought in some of the most brutal jungle battles: at Arakan, Kohima, Imphal and Ngakyedauk Pass, a narrow track known to the Allies as Okeydoke Pass.

In July 1945, Bremner was mentioned in dispatches for his gallant and distinguished service in Burma.

Back home, his previous bartering, wheeling and dealing having served him in good stead during the war – he had been known to be able to swap sterling for local currency before an officer had even issued a request – he picked up jobs here and there until taking over the Bremners business when his grandfather died.

Over the years he expanded it, branching out into mobile grocery vans, the drapers, road haulage business and various other enterprises, including removals and auctions. At his peak, in the 1970s, he employed a staff of more than 50. When a bakery in the village closed Bremner opened a carpet and furniture business, later moving it to his old school premises where Bremners of Foggie continues today. The family also still owns two quarries in the North-east.

A dapper character with a neat moustache and immaculate presentation, he was a powerhouse, always on the lookout for the next deal. While he had a mixed success in business, he was never defeated, still dreaming up plans for new ventures – though one of his ideas did not go down too well with his grandchildren, who turned their noses up at his foray into a healthy chocolate substitute with a Cheshire-based carob bean business, spitting out the free samples on offer.

Aside from his commercial interests, he was a prominent local figure in public life. The last provost of the burgh of Aberchirder serving from 1972-75, he chaired the community council and then was a member of Banff and Buchan District Council for many years, standing as an independent although his values were Conservative. He was also an elder of New Marnoch Church and a staunch supporter and sponsor of Deveronvale Football Club, of which he was ­honorary president.

In 1998 he began inquiries to establish whether Aberchirder had ever acquired a coat of arms. When he discovered that it had not, the community council took up the issue, organised draft designs and, after public consultation, adopted a design and applied to the Lord Lyon, King of Arms.

The following September a ceremony was held, complete with pipes and a Lonach Highlanders detachment in full uniform bearing pikes, to present the coat of arms featuring two croziers, a boar’s head and cross pattée. Bingo took centre stage.

Fittingly, his 95th birthday last year coincided with the 125th anniversary of Bremners of Foggie, and the 250th anniversary celebrations of the village of Aberchirder, when he was again present on the dais.

Predeceased by his son Robert in 2005 and his wife Annie in 2009, he is survived by his children Ann, Betty, Marion, Elsa, Willie and Janice, 14 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.