Obituary: Dr Stefan Kay OBE, Scottish businessman and railway preservationist

Dr Stefan George Kay OBE. Businessman and railway preservationist. Born: 25 July, 1944 in Peebles. Died: 19 February, 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 76

Stefan Kay
Stefan Kay

A chance meeting on a bus ultimately helped propel Stefan Kay into a long and distinguished career in industry – and an enduring, fruitful association with Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University.

As a teenager whose exam results were disappointing, he had begun an apprenticeship with Ferranti and was attending night school when he met a college lecturer while heading home one evening. The academic, who worked at the then Heriot-Watt College, suggested young Kay apply to study there.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

He was accepted on an undergraduate mechanical engineering course in 1963 and almost immediately began making his mark, particularly within the Student Representative Council (SRC). He went on to become the institution’s first student union president and remained a dedicated university supporter and significant influence among staff and students throughout his ensuing career as a senior figure in the paper industry.

Kay was the son of Polish refugee Stefan Kwiatkowski, who fled his homeland at the outbreak of the Second World War and joined the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade when it was formed in Scotland in 1941.

Ending up in Peebles, he married local teenager Barbara Taylor and became paper mill accountant Stefan Kay. Their son initially grew up in the Borders town, where a lifelong interest in steam engines developed during boyhood visits to the local railway yard. Following a family move to Penicuik he attended Holy Cross Academy before going on to Heriot-Watt, where he was elected SRC president in 1965 and re-elected two years later following the granting of university status.

After graduation he won a Unilever traineeship and a placement at Thames Board Mills in Essex where he became technical superintendent and mill chemist. He then returned to Scotland, joined CH Dexter Ltd and was production manager there before spending ten years with St Regis Paper as mill managing director in both Berkshire and Devon. In 1988 he joined Inveresk PLC as managing director and led a management buy-out two years later, taking the company to the London Stock Exchange in 1993 before retiring in 2001.

Throughout his busy career, in which he chaired the UK Paper Federation’s energy, environment and forest certification committees and was president of the Paper Federation, he remained closely involved with the university. Early in his working life he wrote for the student newspaper, later became Watt Club president and a member of the university court for a decade.

After retiring he worked for the institution on a consultancy basis before becoming director of campus services at its Galashiels site from 2003 until 2009, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate for services to the university and the paper industry. He had already been honoured with the industry’s Gold Medal and an OBE, was a Freeman of the City of London and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and newspaper Makers.

Highly regarded as a role model for countless students and graduates, in addition to his immense personal contribution to the institution, he also made a significant financial donation which supported numerous causes including the Music Residency programme and Access Bursaries. Highly regarded as a role model, latterly he continued his association, sitting on the board of the Students’ Union.

Having had his interest in steam engines fuelled as a boy, he continued his passion for both full-size and model railways in later life. Gifted a Hornby model engine and track on his 12th birthday, decades later he graduated to a large model layout in a spare bedroom.

He also enormously enjoyed travelling to Poland to drive trains. He had invested in the Wolsztyn steam train company and, after a session driving steam trains in Poland, he joined Bo’ness and Kinneil heritage railway, starting on the bottom rung as a cleaner. He worked his way up, becoming a fireman and certificated driver, committee member and chairman, from 2001-2005, of the Scottish Railway Preservation Society, where he remained a director and trustee until a couple of years ago. After his death a refurbished engine, adorned with a wreath, drove the line as a mark of respect and to commemorate his work and friendships at Bo’ness and Kinneil.

Kay married his wife Helen, whom he had met when they were students, in 1969, and they went on to have three children, son Graham, who died in infancy, and daughters Catherine and Rosie. They maintained the Polish connection when Rosie’s first job as a professional dancer was with the Polish State Dance Theatre in Poznan. When she set up her own Birmingham-based company her father became chairman of her board, just one of the many commitments he managed to juggle with enthusiasm, loyalty and dignity in a hugely-productive life.

He is survived by his wife, their daughters, three grandchildren and his sister Anne.


If you would like to submit an obituary, or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]

A message from the Editor

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.