Obituary: Thomas Aitchison, lawyer and soldier

obit pic - Thomas Aitchison
obit pic - Thomas Aitchison
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Born: 25 December, 1921, in Malaysia. Died: 21 May, 2012 in Inverness, aged 90.

Thomas Aitchison was a lawyer whose unusual experiences took him across continents and cultures, including 1920s Malaysia to the elegance of Edinburgh, the bloodied beaches of Italy and Normandy and on to the Scottish Highlands.

He was transported from small boy who once listened to the roar of tigers in the jungle, to soldier and bodyguard for D-Day mastermind Lieutenant General, later Field Marshal, Montgomery, and ultimately became a successful solicitor and prosecutor, covering the widest jurisdiction in the country.

The son of civil engineer James Aitchison and his wife Agnes, he was born in Kuantan, Malaysia, on Christmas Day, 1921, his arrival generating such joy that his father danced with delight on the table at his club.

His first few years were spent in South-east Asia, where his earliest memories were of lying in bed listening to the sounds of tigers, or the firecrackers and dragon processions of Chinese New Year celebrations.

All that changed at the age of eight, when he was sent back to Scotland to be educated. An only child, he didn’t see his parents for the next two years. His schooldays were spent in Melrose, followed by Edinburgh Academy, and his holidays passed in the company of various aunts and uncles in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Though he enjoyed the camaraderie and rugby of his schooldays, he could never be described as a great scholar. And after his father retired to his native Bute in the 1930s, where young Thomas spent hours observing and tracking the steamers on the Clyde, in desperation he sent the boy to a crammer. Soon afterwards the Second World War broke out and his son’s secondary education came to an end when he joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, aged 17.

One of his first duties was guarding Glasgow docks, where he was often on the receiving end of abuse from the tough dock workers who resented the young sentry asking for the current password.

He served as a tank radio operator, with the 44th Royal Tank Regiment in the Eighth Army in the Western Desert, seeing action at El Alamein. He arrived in North Africa in 1941, and spent two years fighting against first the Italians and then Rommel’s Afrika Korps. It was period he would later recall as one of long stretches of boredom with short bursts of brutal action.

After being involved in the 1943 invasion of Sicily, he advanced up Italy’s east coast but was invalided out after contracting malaria. However, he later returned to service, before D-Day, as one of the then Lieutenant General Montgomery’s bodyguards.

He landed in Normandy on D-Day Plus One and served with Montgomery there, in the Low Countries, in the Ardennes Offensive – otherwise known as the Battle of the Bulge – and in Germany.

He ended his military career in the Army of Occupation in Germany. Never a medal-waver, he often said he was simply glad to have survived.

After being demobbed, and still undecided about his future, he took up the suggestion from a friend of his father that he might study law. He embarked on a fast-track legal degree scheme for ex-servicemen and went to Edinburgh University, discovering that his methodical and analytical mind was well suited to the law. In 1949, he married Margaret, whom he had first met at a children’s party on Bute the age of 12.

Having established his first private practice in Rothesay, followed by another in Glasgow, he then went into the Fiscal Service, which he regarded as a better financial bet than private work.

He was depute fiscal in Perth for ten years before promotion took him to Dingwall, as procurator-fiscal, in 1961. He settled in Strathpeffer and remained at Dingwall for 20 years during which period he also had responsibility, at times, for Ross and Cromarty and Sutherland.

His jurisdiction covered the largest area in Scotland of any fiscal but it was the happiest time of his professional life.

Despite the challenges of such a vast area, he loved his work and was hugely fulfilled by his career, which encompassed some of the biggest cases in the North of Scotland during the 1970s and 80s, including the region’s first big drugs raid.

He inherited the investigation into the disappearance of Inverness mother Renee Macrae and her three-year-old son Andrew. They were last seen on 12 November, 1976. Her burnt-out car was found on the A9 later that night and there has since been no trace of the little boy or his mum.

Soon afterwards, Aitchison was involved in the case of the murderous butler, Archibald Hall, also known as Roy Fontaine. The infamous serial killer’s victims were a former male lover David Wright; his employer the ex-MP Walter Scott-Elliot, who was driven north from London and buried in a shallow grave near Tomich, Inverness-shire; a girlfriend and accomplice Mary Coggle and his own half-brother Donald.

Hall was also suspected of killing Mr Scott-Elliot’s wife Dorothy in London, while acting with another crook Michael Kitto. Her body was dumped in Perthshire but Hall, who got four life sentences, denied her murder.

The riddle of SNP activist and Glasgow lawyer Willie MacRae’s death in 1985 was also an investigation that landed on Aitchison’s desk. The 61-year-old, who had been heading to his holiday home in Dornie, was found in his crashed car, on the A87 Kyle of Lochalsh to Invergarry Road, with a bullet wound to his temple.

He died the following day and there has been much speculation over whether his death was suicide or murder.

The last few years of Aitchison’s career in the Fiscal Service were spent in Inverness, while living just outside Muir of Ord, where his house, which was his favourite home, looked over to the west.

In retirement, he planted trees, played golf and enjoyed watching all sorts of sport. He was also an enthusiastic traveller, particularly fond of going on cruises, and was an accomplished host, throwing an annual “Hair of the Dog” party on 2 January.

A raconteur with a fantastic sense of humour, who loved parties and get-togethers, he was both witty and humble as well as a real gentleman.

Widowed two years ago, he is survived by his children Stewart and Mairi and five grandchildren.

ALISON SHAW