As he once observed, with a considerable degree of understatement, life is full of surprises – none more so than finding yourself on the wrong end of a Kalashnikov, dancing with the Queen and two princesses or being mooted as a potential leader of the Liberal Party.
For James Davidson the first came courtesy of a period in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, by which time he had already served King George VI and family as a naval officer, the latter followed his election as MP for West Aberdeenshire.
In a brilliantly multi-faceted life he also became a hill farmer, television presenter, organiser of Scotland’s premier agricultural event The Royal Highland Show, climbed the Eiger and was a single parent to three young children.
Seemingly unstoppable, in retirement he became a healthy living campaigner, studied otters in Chile, created a children’s book and completed his first parachute jump – all proof of his abilities not only as a master of reinvention but as a formidable operator.
His unusually varied life began in the port of Chatham where his father, a naval captain, was commissioning a destroyer. He spent his first two years in Malta and was schooled at various establishments before becoming a cadet at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in 1940, aged 13. Two key influencers were the sight of the battleships Nelson and Rodney, along with the cruiser Hood, off Nairn in 1938, and the film Sons of the Sea.
Still just 17 when he joined his first ship, in the final year of the Second World War, he served on HMS Anson, part of the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, patrolling off the Danish and Norwegian coasts. He later joined the cruiser Newfoundland as a senior midshipman, sailing to join the British Pacific Fleet and reaching Manus in the Admiralty Isles the day Germany surrendered.
As the war with Japan continued he saw action in Operation Wewak, covering Australian troops landing on New Guinea, and in Operation Inmate, an attack on the Japanese stronghold of Truk in the Caroline Islands. He went on to serve on HMS Whimbrel, escorting a fleet train of tankers and store ships off the Japanese coast, and was 500 miles from Hiroshima when news of the first atomic bomb blast came through on August 7, 1945: “Even now, more than half a century later, I wonder about the morality of that terrible act of destruction,” he later wrote.
That, and the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, ended the war. He was on Whimbrel at Tokyo harbour for the Japanese surrender on September 2 where he witnessed 250 Allied aircraft filling the skies, a vast array of Allied ships and despairing Japanese, heads in their hands.
On the way home he happened to read some General Election pamphlets which galvanised his Liberal views. At 19 he became a sub-lieutenant on HMS Vanguard, a battleship fitted out for the Royal cruise to South Africa, when he danced with the then Queen Elizabeth and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. He entertained them at gun room parties and attended Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday party before being posted to HMS Wren in the Persian Gulf.
Unsure his future lay at sea, he secretly applied to do a BSc at Aberdeen University but was told he had another seven years to serve before he could leave the Navy. Making the best of it, he decided to brush up on the Russian he had learned as a cadet and qualified, through the Navy, to study Russian at Cambridge, with six months in Paris when he lived with a family of Georgian princesses.
After passing the Civil Service Commissioners’ interpreter exams he was appointed assistant naval attaché to the British Embassy in Moscow, taking up the post in 1952 after a year as Boys’ Training Officer for a Rosyth-based squadron of frigates.
The handsome 25-year-old lived in a dacha in the Perlovka forest, constantly tailed and in the glare of anti-Western propaganda. His encounter with a Kalashnikov-toting soldier came one Sunday afternoon when, during a forest walk, he was held at gunpoint until 3am, accused of entering an unmarked forbidden zone and of being an “unacceptable” person.
In Russia he saw Stalin both alive and lying in state, travelled widely taking discreet photos, including images of submarine construction on the Volga, and married Kit Jamieson, the beautiful secretary to the Canadian Chargé d’Affaires. In 1954 they were the first westerners since the Second World War to leave the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian Railway and Nakhodka, shadowed incessantly by an operative from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
During a spell as third in command on a destroyer he inherited a farm that had been in his family for nearly 200 years and duly applied to go on the retired list. In 1956 he moved north to the property at Tillychetly near Alford, Aberdeenshire, He taught himself the agricultural business, took a correspondence course at night and was subsequently elected to the North-east Area executive of the National Farmers’ Union. He also supported the West Aberdeenshire Liberal Association and enormously expanded its branch network.
Adopted as the seat’s prospective Liberal Parliamentary candidate, he lost out in the 1964 general election but in 1966 became the first Liberal in 35 years to win the seat. Jo Grimond appointed him spokesman on Defence and Foreign Affairs and he was nominated as the Liberal Party vice-chairman of the Great Britain-USSR Association. However the Russians refused to accept him, hinting he had been a spy. After Grimond decided to retire as leader he privately asked Davidson if he would consider standing for the role. By this time Davidson’s wife was suffering mental health issues and the prospect was unthinkable.
The couple split up and Davidson did not stand in the 1970 election, turning down the offer of a peerage and a seat in the House of Lords. Forging a new career he became chief executive of the Royal Highland & Agricultural Society of Scotland, responsible to a mammoth board of 52 directors, running the Royal Highland Show and establishing the Exhibition Centre at Ingliston. Meanwhile he had also been recruited as presenter of the Grampian Television programme, Country Focus, which he fronted from 1970 to 1982.
Divorced in 1973 and awarded custody of his three children, he married his second wife Janet with whom he had a son.
Awarded the MVO after serving the Royals on Vanguard, he was further honoured with an OBE for services to agriculture in 1984. He retired in 1992 and, shocked by Scotland’s terrible record of heart disease and cancer, immediately busied himself establishing The Flower of Scotland campaign to promote a healthy lifestyle. He recruited rugby legend David Sole as a trustee and was supported by stars including Sean Connery and Evelyn Glennie, plus the British Medical Association and the World Health Organisation. He developed a book and video, distributed free to every Scottish secondary school, spoke at almost 130 schools across the country and raised £10,000 with a parachute jump.
Having retired to Newtonmore, he was founder chairman of the local community Woodland Trust. A passionate climber, he had climbed widely in Scotland and the Alps, including ascents of the Matterhorn and Eiger, and was a committed conservationist, tracking and tagging otters in Chile at the age of 74.
A former president of the Clan Davidson Association, he also wrote and illustrated a colouring book for children and titles including Scots and the Sea and his autobiography Thinker, Sailor, Shepherd, Spy?
Devoted to Janet, whom he met more than half a century ago, he is survived by her, their son Calum and his elder children Sandy, Ros and Polly.