Obituary: Alastair C Paterson, engineer who piloted major projects across the world

Alastair Craig Paterson, CBE; FREng; Hon.DSc; FICE; FIStructE; FIMechE; FCI Arb. Born: 15 January, 1924 Died: 20 July, 2021 aged 97

Alastair Paterson played a prominent role in many professional bodies

Alastair Paterson was educated at The High School of Glasgow and the Royal College of Science and Technology (now The University of Strathclyde) from where he graduated in 1944, receiving a Diploma in Engineering Science (with distinction), and ARCST in Civil Engineering. That same year he also received a BSc Eng., with first class honours, from the University of Glasgow.

He had been in the OTC (Officer Training Corps) at school and university and, following assessment and selection, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) which had only been established two years earlier, in 1942. He was first posted to the REME workshop in Bridgend, South Wales, where he met his future wife, Betty Hannah Burley, known always as Jill. They married in 1947, a happy partnership which lasted until Jill’s death in January 2008.

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On being posted to India he found his troop ship was moored on the Clyde, close to his family home in Glasgow, but secrecy meant he was not permitted to contact them. On arriving in Doolally (Deolali), a notorious place for getting stuck for months, he was lucky to be posted withing two weeks to serve in Burma with Field Marshall Sir William Slim’s XIV Army (The Forgotten Army). He served in Burma, India and China. He achieved the rank of Major at the age of 22 and gained the position of Deputy Assistant Director, Mechanical Engineering (North Burma and China).

Amongst many experiences in Burma, he worked with Elephant Companies where the elephants were vital for transport, haulage and in general heavy work as, for example, lifting and placing accurately, huge logs for bridges. He was impressed by the elephants’ intelligence and the skill of their Burmese oozies.

When Japan surrendered on 15 August, 1945 the Japanese officer who was his opposite number in North Burma surrendered to him and handed over his sword. Paterson later donated this Samurai sword to the Royal Engineer’s Museum in Gillingham, Kent.

Soon after leaving the army, he joined the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board where he worked on the design, routing and overseeing of the construction of the transmission lines across the Highlands. He had bought an ex-army Willys Jeep to enable him to access some of the remoter Highlands but his mother asked him not to park it outside their house in King’s Park, Glasgow as it “lowered the tone”.

Because of his success with the Hydro he was head-hunted by Merz & McLellan, a leading firm of electrical and mechanical engineers. He thought he was settled in Aberdeen for life but Merz & McLellan soon asked to move south to a more demanding role.

In 1958 he moved on to Taylor Woodrow where he worked on nuclear power stations, including Dungeness ‘B’, and on large dam design and other projects. In 1960 he was invited to join the partnership Bullen and Partners, Consulting Engineers and to open their new office in Glasgow and so he, and his wife and four children, flitted back to Scotland, to Helensburgh on the Clyde estuary. With his new firm he was engaged to resolve difficulties with the geology on the approach roads to the Forth Road Bridge amongst many other interesting projects.

In 1966 he and his family moved south again to Bullen’s offices in Croydon, when he became senior partner. During this period the firm, led by Paterson, were the consulting engineers on the Suez Canal at Port Said, a new port in Nigeria, various projects in Saudi Arabia and Oman and, closer to home, the design of the Aber Swing Bridge in Caernarfon.

He led the firm into an expanding practice covering civil, structural, and highway engineering. Sixteen years after his retirement, in 2005, Bullen and Partners was incorporated into Faber Maunsell.

He served as a Member of Court of the Cranfield Institute of Technology in 1970 and was Chairman of the British Consultants' Bureau from 1978 to 1980. He was President of the British Section, Société des Ingénieurs et Scientifiques de France in 1980. In 1983 he was elected to the Royal Academy of Engineering and was President of the Institution of Structural Engineers from 1984-85. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Engineering Council from 1987-89 which overlapped with his time as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1988 to 1989. From October 1992 to January 1995, he was a Director of the British Board of Agrément.

In 1989 he was elected to become a member of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers and was made an Honorary Doctor of Science at the University of Strathclyde in the same year, when he also retired.

He was born in Glasgow and was the only son of Duncan McKellar Paterson and Lavinia Paterson (née Craig) and brother to Mary Campbell Griffith, who died in 2014. His father, Duncan McKellar Paterson, had served in the 17th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, The Glasgow Chamber of Commerce Battalion.

They lived in King’s Park Avenue. He spent childhood holidays with his family in Millport, in the Firth of Clyde, where he learnt to sail, and at his mother’s childhood home in Randalstown in County Antrim, Ulster.

He was fortunate in being able to live at home in West Wittering until the last few weeks of his life when, following a fall, he was admitted to hospital where he died on 20 July 2021.

A modest and intelligent man, he was successful both professionally and personally. He was a kind and loving husband and father and will be much missed by his loving family and friends.

He is survived by his children Lucy, Duncan, Alasdair and Rosalind, 14 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.


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