Obituary: Sir William McAlpine, businessman and rail enthusiast who saved The Flying Scotsman for the nation

The Hon Sir William Hepburn McAlpine, Bt. Saviour of The Flying Scotsman and businessman. Born: 12 January 1936 in London. Died: 4 March 2018, aged 82.

Sir William McAlpine
Sir William McAlpine

Sir William McAlpine, the 6th Baronet, was a director of the famous construction firm and spent most of his career managing its interests in Scotland. In 1973 he gained worldwide fame when, almost single-handedly, he saved The Flying Scotsman from the scrap yard. The famous steam engine was in San Francisco with debts for upkeep mounting.

Sir William bought it for £25,000, paid off what was owed to the US and Canadian railways and had it shipped home via the Panama Canal. The Flying Scotsman returned to the UK and restoration proved a rather slow process at Derby.

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His fascination with steam railways was legendary – the reception for his first wedding was held on his private train, with the highlight being Highland dancing on the platform at Worcester Shrub Hill station. Sir William constructed a full-scale line in the grounds of his Buckinghamshire home and led many campaigns to preserve and restore historic railway buildings and their interiors. Sir William was a total enthusiast who displayed a shrewd commercial acumen in both his business career and his work in the rail industry.

He lived in a substantial estate in Oxfordshire which not only housed numerous items of railway memorabilia – a restored Victorian railway station, the steepest standard gauge railway track and many locomotives – but also housed a variety of rare animals – antelope, deer, wallabies and llamas – which freely wandered around the grounds. The magazine Country Life once called it “the most bonkers estate in Britain”.

William Hepburn McAlpine (known to many as Bill) was born at the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane, London, which was then owned by the family. His father, a fervent Scot, was Sir Robert McAlpine, 5th Bt and later a life peer. His great-grandfather, “Concrete Bob” McAlpine, was the founder of the construction company and his late brother Alistair (Lord McAlpine of West Green) was treasurer of the Conservative Party and a great friend of Margaret Thatcher. Sir William succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his father in 1990.

Sir William attended Charterhouse but left at 16 to join the family business, starting at its 30-acre Hayes depot, west of London, which housed much of the McAlpine railway operation. Save for two years’ National Service with the Life Guards, he remained with McAlpine as a director until 2007.

Sir William managed McAlpine’s substantial interests in Scotland with a canny commercialism and a prudent development policy. The company had a distinguished record of major construction in Scotland – notably the Glasgow Subway, Mallaig Extension Railway and the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

He was proud of his Scottish connections and his business card displayed, on one side, a map of the UK with all the main line railway routes – from Thurso and Wick to Penzance – over a background image of Glenfinnan Viaduct. Sir William was pleased when the viaduct gained even wider fame by being featured in the Harry Potter films.

Last year, Sir William presented Professor Roland Paxton, chairman of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Scotland Museum, part of Heriot Watt University, with an historic metal nameplate which originally hung at the Laigh Milton viaduct west of Kilmarnock.

Sir William enthusiastically supported the Clan MacAlpine and its society – he believed the clan could trace its roots back to King Kenneth MacAlpine in the 9th century. He did much to get the clan recognised officially and in an interview with The Scotsman in 2004 he said, “About five per cent of the clan members live in Scotland compared with 70 per cent in the US. It would be very nice if MacAlpines living in Scotland were encouraged to join. A meeting with the Lord Lyon King of Arms was organised at a clan gathering in 2004 at Oban.” Sir William added: “It was a lovely surprise to see others wearing my tartan apart from members of my close family.”

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The MacAlpine Society paid tribute to his work on their behalf, “Sir William was one of our best known MacAlpines worldwide and we always appreciated his wisdom and support. He was very active in helping our effort to become recognised as a clan in our own right.”

In 1985 Sir William founded the Railway Heritage Trust (RHT), which funds the restoration of Britain’s railway architecture. Sir William was greatly assisted in setting up RHT by Lesley Soane, a former general manager of British Rail, Scotland who joined him on the board. The two proved formidable in preserving station architecture and locomotive artefacts.

Sir William is survived by his second wife Judith, whom he married in 2004 at the station on his private railway, and by two children, Andrew and Lucinda, from his first marriage to Jill Benton Jones.

Alasdair Steven