Scotsman Obituaries: David Nelson, farmer, agriculturist and Highland host
David Nelson was a big man; in stature, in heart and in ambition, for the people and landscape around him. His passing this month leaves a significant gap in the lives of his family and friends, but also in Scottish agriculture and Mearns and Aberdeenshire communities.
His 6ft 2in frame and warm heart were familiar to all who knew him, but ambition is perhaps not a word that even David himself might have conjured if asked to reflect on his traits. The Lancashire brogue would swiftly dismiss any self-reflection as conceit, anyway. But ambition was as strong a part of his character as the booming voice heard across hillsides, the beard and a love of the land.
Born to Gordon, an electrical engineer, and Joan, in Eccles, Manchester – his middle name coming from a famous paternal line of barometer and clock makers – there were few ewes or heifers in sight as the toddler played on Manchester streets. But as he grew through childhood with brother Stuart and sister Jill, attending St Mark’s Primary School and Worsley Wardley Grammar, the attraction of farming would become a calling. And the resilience needed for working the land also became apparent early on.
Aged just 10, David contracted polio. He would spend four months in an isolation hospital, his parents taking it in turns to visit, but only able to wave to him from afar. A vaccine was developed at that time and there is a sense now, during Covid times, of what he and his family endured. David recovered but the virus affected the muscle structures in his leg and he would always have a limp, which made his passion for sport a greater challenge.
Any suggestion that allowances need be made brought stiff rebukes. The way that he lived life and maintained his sporting passion, playing goalkeeper while at Newcastle University, enjoying cricket – with son, Mike, his regular runner – and eagerly schooling his and many other children in the arts of kicking, passing and catching a rugby ball, made him a wonderful example for disabled people in times when disabilities were rarely discussed.
His passion for rugby was stoked by legendary Rugby League chairman Tom Mitchell, when Dave worked at his Calva Farm near Workington. Agricultural degrees were then limited to those from farming backgrounds, and so a year on a Warwickshire farm and time spent at Workington brought vital hands-on experience that helped him through an agriculture and economics degree at Newcastle University. But, from then on, rugby, union or league, was never far from his thoughts, and it is fitting that he spent his final night on this earth watching the British and Irish Lions’ final Test in South Africa with his family. The disappointment of defeat was nothing compared to the loss of picture with three minutes remaining and the game evenly poised.
But David also took great strength from those around him. He found a woman, almost as tall and certainly as strong, who would become his perfect partner. Barbara was a cook at Newton Rigg College in Penrith, where David was a lecturer. They met in May, 1973, and when a farming job came up in the Orkney Isles, the pair saw it as an exciting adventure and married on 29 December to enable them to head north in early 1974 as husband and wife.
It was some distance from their upbringing, but the post of farm manager and agricultural adviser fed the ambition for real, hands-on farming. The family grew with Michael and Clare both born in Orkney, before excitement was piqued again in 1977 by the opportunity to partner with Dutch investors in a 2,000-acre farm at Kilmartin, Glenurquhart, near Inverness.
This was no ordinary farm. It was a pioneering agricultural/tourism business, which featured hillside chalets, and an outdoor swimming pool, sauna and large kitchens around a central entertainment barn. While Barbara’s culinary skills were given free rein as visitors came from every corner of the world to sample Highland hospitality, David’s ambition was similarly encouraged, by day developing the mixed arable and livestock farm with new crops and breeds, and by night becoming a popular host with games, songs and ceilidhs – and education in whisky – that brought the glen to magical life. His incredible energy and love and nurturing of good friendship made him a natural.
In 1985 he took the family east to Glensaugh Research Station near Laurencekirk, which would become the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute and now world-renowned Hutton Institute, to return to innovative farming, the environment and agro-forestry. He monitored the impact of Chernobyl on Scottish land and livestock, and would become well known for Shetland sheep and Blue Grey cattle.
Professor Jeff Maxwell, formerly of the Macaulay Institute, commented this week: “David’s contribution to agriculture research and the conflict he managed between the needs of scientists and his desire to farm well was impressive. He was a professional agriculturist with abilities in terms of stock and land management of the highest standard.”
He joined the BBC Scotland’s Agricultural and Rural Affairs Advisory Committee, and featured on ‘Landward’, whose producer and presenter Arthur Anderson, a friend of 45 years, recalled his passion and deep insight. “No fluffs or hesitation, David always made my job so much easier... he will be much missed by the farming fraternity.”
His love of sport never waned, a fine shot, he was a shooting referee at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. A convincingly fervent Scotland supporter at Murrayfield – on the occasions they weren’t playing England – he was tickled when a Scotland coach approached him at a training session, David having chosen to wear an England top for a spot of devilment, to enquire whether he was an RFU scout.
The long-term effects of polio and bad luck meant David was rarely shy of pain from his legs. He was run over by a tractor, injuring his strong leg, and then damaged a femoral artery falling, putting up bird boxes, which forced amputation of the weaker leg and, ultimately, retirement, at just 55. He remained a strong supporter of polio charities, notably the Rotary’s Polio Plus Campaign and Jaipur Limb project. The family will be making a donation to the British Polio Fellowship.
But David and his family were settled in Mearns by then and he threw himself into community life, and supported Barbara’s newfound career in education. His involvement was wide and varied, from committee chair roles at Auchenblae Primary School, Mearns Academy board and the community council to Justice of the Peace for 24 years, Laurencekirk and District Rotary for 35 years, patient rep for the Scottish Ambulance Service and member of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board. The Kincardine Development Partnership, the British Grassland Society and various other committees were glad of his support.
A man of strong integrity, a natural leader and orator, David was a strong advocate for local people who frequently turned to him for guidance and mediation.
Ambitious, not for himself, but for the land, his family, friends, and communities around him, the arrival of grandchildren, Kirsty, Isla, Meghan, Issy, Harvey and Douglas, brought huge happiness, and excitement.
This was a life lived to its full, which shaped people and agriculture, and many more of us than he would ever have realised hold deep, warm gratitude for being involved in just a part of it.
David is survived by wife Barbara, children Michael and Clare, brother Stuart and sister Jill, and six grandchildren
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