Speed, adventure and an entrepreneurial spirit were the hallmarks of Alistair Birrell.From Fleet Air Arm pilot to racing driver, hovercraft operator and impulsive hotel buyer, he embraced every opportunity to tackle a new venture – life was a gamble and it generally paid off.
Christened Alexander, but always known as Alistair, he was the son of Somme veteran and civil servant William Birrell and his wife Elizabeth and grew up in Edinburgh’s Drylaw Gardens.
Educated at the capital’s Daniel Stewart’s College, where he excelled in maths and science, he was also an enthusiastic piper and ruby player, becoming the school band’s pipe major and a hooker for the First IV, later serving as president of the Former Pupils’ Rugby Club.
After leaving school during the Second World War, he went straight to Edinburgh University to start an engineering degree but those studies were interrupted by service with the Fleet Air Arm. However, during his time with the FAA he completed an aeronautical degree and qualified as a pilot.
Following training in Padstow, Cornwall, he was posted to HMS Merlin, the Royal Naval Air Service base Donibristle in Fife, a repair yard for naval aircraft. There he was in charge of repairing and maintaining large aircraft and, although it was expected he would be posted to the Far East, his commanding officer valued his skills too highly and he remained in Scotland.
He left the service as a 2nd lieutenant and finished his studies at Edinburgh, gaining honours degrees in both mechanical and electrical engineering, and took a job with electrical engineers James Scott & Co, managing its branch on the city’s George IV Bridge.
But in 1948 a visit, with a Fleet Air Arm friend, to an airfield at Duns prompted his interest in motor racing. The airstrip operated as a racetrack for many years and, as a result of his extensive mechanical knowledge and fascination with speed, Birrell and his friend found themselves buying a Riley car. After cutting the roof off they entered it into races and Birrell’s career on the circuit began.
He raced with teams including Alba Union, the legendary Edinburgh-based Ecurie Ecosse and Border Reivers alongside Formula One stars Ron Flockhart and Jackie Stewart’s brother Jimmy. But this was long before the era of multi-million pound sponsorships deals and in order to support his sport he raised funds by buying decrepit motorbikes, doing them up and selling them on.
After accumlating enough to buy a ramshackle old single-decker bus he used his engineering skills to convert it to provide living quarters in the front, with the racing car accommodated in the rear. With this quirky mode of transport he toured the racing circuits of Goodwood, Silverstone and Brands Hatch and took part in the glamorous Monte Carlo Rally in 1952. After almost a decade behind the wheel he retired from the track, having driven most of the racing cars of the era – Jaguar, Lotus, English Racing Automobile and Cooper Bristol.
Then in the 1960s he embarked on an entirely new venture but one that still involved transportation. He went into business with friend Peter Kay, launching a unique initiative, Clyde Hover Ferries sailing an SRN6 commercial hovercraft between Dunoon and Gourock. It was the first commercial passenger service and offered commuters a faster alternative to the road and ferry routes. But it failed to attract sufficient passengers and ran for only one season, in 1965. He and Peter also, briefly, became hoteliers, buying the Islay Frigate Hotel in Tarbert.
It was typical of his have-a-go- attitude and, though neither enterprise lasted particularly long, both were exciting at the time and provided valuable lessons for the future.
From there he founded Alistair Birrell Electrical Contractors in 1966 and revelled in the joys and challenges of self-employment, being unafraid to take a calculated risk. His reputation and stature grew and, with it, the business which won contracts for projects and redevelopments in Edinburgh city centre. Equally, he retained an interest in serving individual private clients and always had time for the small jobs.
While forging ahead with his business, family was also hugely important to him, as evidenced by a large catalogue of carefully edited family photographs. He met his wife Olive at a ball in the capital’s George Street Assembly Rooms. They married in 1958 and went on to have a son and daughter.
Family holidays entailed motoring vast distances across Europe, to Italy, Spain, France and Germany before driving made way for sailing, an interest that had begun in the 1960s in Fife. He joined Largo Bay Sailing Club and enjoyed many competition wins. Then in 1980 he bought a cruising yacht, big enough to accommodate the whole family and which he sailed along the west coast, before upgrading to a larger vessel which he would sail from Inverkip Marina in Renfrewshire to the Mediterranean.
He retired in 1989 but remained a man of an infinite sense of adventure and curiosity. He is survived by his wife, their son Callum, daughter Yvonne and four grandchildren.