Tom Johnston

Professor of economics and university vice-chancellor

Born: 9 March, 1927, in Whitburn, West Lothian.

Died: 25 March, 2009, in Edinburgh, aged 82.

THE announcement of the death of Tom Johnston in The Scotsman made no mention that he was a professor and a principal and included no reference to his doctorate and many honorary degrees. Nor did it say he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; indeed, had been its president. That was Tom. He would have liked that.

Those born in Hawick are known as Teries. Thomas Lothian Johnston was born in Whitburn, the family moving to Newcastleton near Hawick shortly thereafter. So Tom, with a Border surname, became a proud Borderer and in every respect other than his place of birth, a real Teri.

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A contemporary at Edinburgh University, aware of Tom's academic skills, asked him why he had not thought of going to Oxford or Cambridge. Tom's reply was that had there been a university at Hawick he wouldn't have come to Edinburgh.

From Hawick High School he joined the navy, serving as a sub-lieutenant. Many who were in the services in these days found it to be a life-changing experience and it was said of Tom that the navy shaped him.

Graduating at Edinburgh with first-class honours, he was much influenced by the legendary professor of economics Sir Alexander Gray, who, recognising Tom's potential, appointed him as his "varlet", to devil up aspects of Sir Alexander's research. He also encouraged him to continue his studies at the University of Stockholm.

This gave him a European, indeed an international, view for the rest of his career. Returning to Edinburgh, he was awarded a PhD in 1955, his subject being the Swedish labour market. From 1955-65 he was a much-respected lecturer in the department of political economy at Edinburgh, but his skills were recognised internationally when he was invited to be visiting professor at University of Illinois and as a research fellow at Queen's University in Ontario.

Appointed as the first professor of economics at Heriot-Watt University in 1966, he became dean of faculty in 1969. An ever-increasing number of outside appointments came his way such as membership of the National Industrial Relations Court, the National Youth Employment Council and the Milk Marketing Board.

In 1976 he left academic life, writing and pursuing his growing interest and skill in industrial relations, mediation and arbitration and was the first chairman of the Manpower Services Committee for Scotland.

He was back at Heriot-Watt in 1981 as principal and vice-chancellor. He would be the first to disclaim a role other than as a member of a team of achievers, but Tom's captaincy of the team showed shrewd judgment and effective persuasion and this led to great success for Heriot-Watt. Along with the late professor Tom Patton he early recognised the importance of the North Sea oilfield and this led to the establishment of the Institute of Offshore Engineering. He was much involved in strengthening the university's links with industry.

Tom brought zest and inspiration to Heriot-Watt, always with a humane and light touch and always with good humour. When given the gown worn in the photograph on this page he said: "I didn't expect to have to wear Gala's colours." He had, of course, played rugby for Hawick Trades and Hawick, as well as being awarded a Blue at Edinburgh. This was in the days of amateur rugby and Tom said: "At Edinburgh University we had to pay to have our jerseys laundered and they were white."

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Tom was a Fellow of The Royal Society of Edinburgh and its president from 1993-6. Dr William Duncan, secretary of The Royal Society, speaks of his presidency as an important period in the society's history and Tom again led a team with vision and a willingness to accept change. That he was to hold this office, occupied in years past by another Borderer, Sir Walter Scott, must surely have pleased Tom Johnston.

In 1956 he married Joan. Together they saw the role of the principal's wife as being the university's official hostess. How well Joan fulfilled that role.

Sir Alexander Gray, as has been mentioned, was Tom's mentor, and wrote many poems. One of them, entitled Scotland, includes a verse:

This is my country

The land that begat me

These windy spaces

are surely my own

And those who here toil

in the sweat of their faces

are flesh of my flesh

and bone of my bone.

Well, Tom Johnston was begat of the Borders and just to look at his open, honest face is to understand the last lines of the verse.

Tom did not seek honours. His honorary degrees are too numerous to record. It is difficult to catalogue his achievements.

Tom is survived by Joan and their five children. In obituaries the details of marriage and family seem to be added almost as a postscript. For Tom, Joan, his family and his home were central to his life.