Obituary: Stephen Rostron

Multi-talented character with a passion for mechanics and steam engines. Picture: Contributed
Multi-talented character with a passion for mechanics and steam engines. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 8 July, 1950, in London. Died: 17 February, 2015, in Yarrow, near Stenton, East Lothian, aged 64.

Somehow, you expect mischievous people to be small in stature. Stephen Rostron, who has died in East Lothian at 64 after a long illness, was quite the opposite: over six feet tall, broad of build, with a big, Blessedesque voice, and yet possessed of an impish sense of humour that will be much missed by those who knew him.

He was an enthusiast for aged wheeled things, once boasted a collection of no fewer than seven classic cars, and nicely brought that passion together with his naughty side in the case of the Kawasaki.

A friend who had acquired a motorbike of that marque was so boringly enamoured of it that, just to annoy him, Stephen decided to buy a Kawasaki too.

The friend was clearly put out when told, especially when he didn’t even recognise the model number – let’s say A53SPKVHW. “Don’t think I’ve heard of that one,” said the friend. “Can I come over and have a go on it?”

Duly invited to Stephen’s East Lothian cottage, he was shocked to see that the Kawasaki in question was a lawnmower – on which he was welcome to give the back green a good trimming (cue Stephen’s cheeky chuckle exploding into a belly laugh).

It wouldn’t have surprised anyone, least of all his wife Hazel, if Stephen had later brought the machine into his workshop and converted it into a motorbike anyway. He was that kind of handy, stretching his well-read, agile brain into the challenges of oily engineering.

Educated at Edinburgh’s Trinity Academy and Aberdeen University where he got a 2:1 honours degree in economic history, he had originally wanted to be an engineer like his father and, although his early path veered away from that while taking him nonetheless into the technical middle ranks of Scottish Gas in Edinburgh, he remained fascinated by how everything worked; how this part of anything interlocked with that part. He was a man of many parts indeed.

His passions included steam trains, a lifelong love that began when, as a London-born baby brought up in the shadow of Bristol’s Clifton Bridge, his geography teacher mother often showed him the real, live beasts of that era puffing across their sky.

His romance with steam was sealed when, at the age of five, he was excited to board the Flying Scotsman to move to Edinburgh with the family, including sister Susan, who recalled: “I bounced all the way and Stephen asked questions all the way.”

The enthusiasm was expressed again much later in life when both he and Susan received a small inheritance. She decided to invest it wisely in an early retirement fund but he bought himself a model sit-on steam engine and track on which he could travel round and round the garden.

But there were many other enthusiasms. Travel, music and food were high on the list. Stephen was an accomplished cook – and consumer. He often wandered off to the kitchen to find a “small smackerel”, a favourite expression of his early hero, Winnie the Pooh, just to see him through to the next meal.

Absorption of informational titbits was also a special talent. His widow recalled at his funeral that he could read or hear something once – in a book, online, on the radio or TV – and file it away so that it would later reappear when someone said: “I wonder why…?” or “What does such-and-such mean? or “How does the universe work?”

“He had a store of information covering everything from particle physics to 18th-century agriculture. If you wanted to know something you asked Stephen. If you wanted something mechanical fixed Stephen would either do it or know how it should be done.”

On leaving Scottish Gas, he joined Scottish & Newcastle, which – to those who knew him and his taste for beer – seemed ideal. He was involved with the sale of the brewery site at Holyrood where the new parliament (which he called “The Jockalorium”) now stands; but his key role was about fitting out new premises – all the desks, computers, filing cabinets, chairs, stationery, etc “so that he could quote the price of Biro pens by the kilogram”.

Most enjoyably challenged by the refurbishment of 
the building at Edinburgh’s Ellersley Road that became the company’s then headquarters, he sourced the boardroom furniture, commissioned artwork installations and set up a contract for all the office furniture from a Swedish company, which, of course, required frequent visits to Sweden.

He and Hazel first lived – and were married – in Edinburgh before moving to Dirleton, where they spent 12 years. It was there that he was once asked to play Father Christmas for the children’s party. He had the right figure for it and the children were delighted with him after his arrival by helicopter on the village green.

However, he found the Santa outfit too hot, and when the chopper took off again he ripped off the hat and beard with a sigh of 
relief… but still clearly visible to the children. Many parents no doubt had to reassure their youngsters that they just imagined that Santa had cast off his beard and hair.

On deciding “we wanted to be somewhere a bit muddier”, Stephen and Hazel took off again – for Birnieknowes near Cockburnspath – before settling in their latest home near Stenton.

He was still solving domestic problems even when bed-bound, says Hazel: “I would take a photo on my phone of the innards of the boiler or the grass-cutting tractor and he would tell me which bit to turn or move to correct whatever had gone wrong.”

Edinburgh and East Lothian have lost a big character in more ways than one. He will be greatly missed by Hazel, Susan and all who knew and loved him, not least his two beloved cats who sat with him to the end.