Obituary: Peter Elliott, structural engineer known for his sunny disposition

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Peter Richard Elliott, structural engineer. Born: 20 May 1957 in Edinburgh. Died: 19 September 2019, aged 62.

For an architect there is no closer or more critical relationship than with our structural engineer. Peter had the sort of big, blunt engineer fingers that can prise open and repair the most delicate and fiddly mechanisms but had also worked a farm and led roughneck offshore diving teams on the rigs.

His craft was to build and mend things and he had the engineer’s inherent fascination with how they work and how they went together – he was famously caught dismantling live electrical equipment, aged three.

He loved old buildings, and in a world where another structural engineer could examine a historic building and tell me that, despite the fact that it had been standing for hundreds of years and could, with care, last hundreds more, his calculations showed it couldn’t and shouldn’t stand up, it was a blessing and relief to manoeuvre Peter into the job.

He read and understood a building better than anyone I knew: saw the clues, teased-out the structural logic and understood what was in the minds of those that built it. He sought to honour their craft and integrity, in repairing and repurposing it.

Critically, too, Peter, like the best lovers of history and heritage, saw the present, and making new buildings in it, as part of a continuum. He took the ingenuity and integrity he saw in historic structures, and the Scandinavian modern design he so loved, and applied them to new construction. He was a joy to work with.

Peter was born in Edinburgh, schooled at Uppingham and was drawn into engineering by some wise friends and, I like to think, his blunt fingers and childlike curiosity – for he never really grew up, retaining also the smile, chuckle and demeanour of the happy ­cherub all his life.

He chose his teachers well, working with Arups, Cundall Johnston and Mark Whitby of Whitby Bird before returning to Scotland to establish Elliott&Co in 1991. His and the practice’s work was deeply crafted, lean and pragmatic, on projects like The Festival Hub with architect Ben Tindall – where he, with true engineer’s skill and daring, converted a King Post roof truss into a Queen Post; Abbotsford House, Riddles Court, Newhailes, Old College and the Assembly Rooms with Law Dunbar-Naismith/LDN; Rosslyn Chapel, Dawyck Gateway with others; and, with me, Linlithgow Burgh Halls, Calton Hill Observatory, the Dovecot Studios, the Poetry Library, the Edinburgh ­Centre for Carbon Innovation and others.

His work was balanced and strengthened by other interests and his clubs and associations give you a flavour of the man: Peter was a member of the Speculative Society, the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, the Tweeddale Shooting Club and the Royal Company of Archers; the Newcomen Society (very old engines) and many other engineers’ technical societies with ever-more complex acronyms such as ISEHG, the Institution of Structural Engineers History Group (he was never happier than when wrestling with some old cast iron ­column), ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the outlandish ISCARSAH, the International Scientific Committee for the Analysis and Restoration of Structures of Architectural Heritage; and, in simpler contrast, the Triumph Owners’ Motor Cycle Club.

And so he mixed his professional life with his personal, with childhood friend Jemima, whom he married in 1985, and children Rebecca, Naomi and Sam, at their homes in Newbattle, Ravelston Dykes and his beloved Broughton Farm, in the Scottish Borders, ­surrounded by cars and bikes, and the farm and its buildings, to refurbish.

His last years, and his illness, were hard on him and Jemima. But Broughton Place Farm and his Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, and his close family, kept him happy. He was aye full of bonhomie: his first thoughts were for you, and I can attest to his huge personal care and kindnesses.

And his chuckle never left him.

While his death was sudden we cannot say it was unexpected; and it is somehow sweet and fitting that this lover of Scotland, the outdoors and engineering should take his last breath in the clean autumn air of the Firth of Clyde, on the heavy engineering of the Campbeltown ferry, after a happy, sunny day with his beloved Jemima, visiting grand, historic houses.

Peter leaves behind his mother Susan, wife Jemima, children Rebecca, Naomi and Sam, and grandchildren. And Elliott&Co lives on, in the capable hands of Jemima, John and Seamus.

MALCOLM FRASER