Tribute: Dr Lester Borley CBE, Director of National Trust for Scotland

Dr Lester Borley CBE, Director of the National Trust for Scotland. Born: 7 April 1931 in Pontardawe, South Wales. Died: 13 October 2019 in Elgin, aged 88

Lester Borley, director of the National Trust for Scotland in August 1983 (Picture: Allan Milligan)

Lester was born in Pontardawe, South Wales, in 1931 and the family moved to Deal in Kent in 1934. There he attended the Parochial School until being evacuated to Wales, aged eight, during the Second World War. He joined the Dover County Grammar School which had itself been evacuated to Ebbw Vale. Surprisingly, Lester recalled being sent home to Deal during the school holidays despite the constant bombing, and experienced an air raid in London when he was sent to visit his grandmother. He finally returned from Wales to Deal and the Dover County Grammar School in 1944.

In 1949 he completed his National Service in the RAF before attending Queen Mary College in the University of London to read Geography and Anthropology. Whilst there he enjoyed the opportunity to fly a Chipmunk trainer in the University Air Squadron, where he made some lasting friendships. He was also an enthusiastic member of the university drama group and enjoyed acting in several of their well-received productions, including playing Warwick in Saint Joan and several Shakespearean roles. He was also active in student politics, becoming President of the QMC Students Union, and then Deputy President of the University of London Union, when he had the honour of hosting Prime Minister Clement Attlee at a lunch in College and found him very approachable and inspiring, with a wry sense of humour. In 1955 he was invited to be an English Speaking Union student debater on a tour of 40 United States colleges, which gave him an appreciation of the diversity and culture of the various regions of the USA, and this stood him in good stead in his later career.

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His first employer was the British Tourist Authority (BTA) based in London, but late in 1956 he was posted to New York. So, having recently met and married Mary, they set off together for a new life in the USA where tourism was a valuable dollar-earner for the Treasury. For four years in New York they enjoyed a burst of culture, as well as a stimulating introduction to the travel industry, and the arrival of their first-born, Stephanie. In 1961 came a three-year posting to Chicago where their second daughter, Megan, was born.

From his Chicago base, Lester travelled throughout the Midwest promoting travel to Britain. The family made many friends in the States and returned several times on holiday and business visits. Sydney, Australia, was the next location, a huge and fascinating territory to cover, with the bonus of watching the Opera House being built, and the arrival of Jessica, their third daughter, in 1965. Lester and Mary loved the Australian way of life and quickly became part of a lively social circle.

In 1968 the family was relocated to Frankfurt am Main in Germany. The Borleys enjoyed living in the beautiful Taunus area, and the children soon learned German from school. Lester organised a very successful visit to London for German travel agents and travelled widely throughout Germany to encourage visits to Britain.

After 16 years with the BTA, Lester moved the family to the UK when he became Chief Executive of the newly established Scottish Tourist Board in 1971, based in Edinburgh. He built a strong and effective organisation to develop tourism in Scotland, now called VisitScotland. In 1975 he and the family moved to Henley on Thames when he took up the post of Chief Executive of the English Tourist Board, based in London. This involved visiting all of the regional offices and encouraging their development.

In 1983 he was appointed Director of the National Trust for Scotland, to make his mark in the field of heritage conservation. He spent ten years with the Trust and enjoyed all the challenges of an organisation responsible for a large and diverse range of properties. With his broad experience of cultural tourism, Lester took a more commercial approach to the Trust to generate income and expand membership, as well as encouraging voluntary involvement. He fostered the close link with Scottish Heritage USA and made many friends through that organisation, with several exchange visits. In 1991 he received an Honorary Doctorate from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen for encouraging the development of tourism, and in 1993 he was awarded a CBE for his dedication to tourism and cultural heritage in Britain.

On his retirement in 1993, Lester became actively involved, for the next 25 years, with Europa Nostra in The Hague, and he helped to establish Europa Nostra UK, as well as taking on the role of Secretary General for a time. He organised conferences all over Europe, and also invaluable study weeks for young heritage professionals to work on projects together. He did some postgraduate teaching on cultural heritage throughout Europe, and at Edinburgh University. He was also a member of ICOMOS UK and the World Monuments Fund.

Lester had many other interests too, such as being a member of the Filmhouse Board in Edinburgh. He was always interested in art, and over the years built quite a large collection of paintings, as well as indulging a passion for glass of all kinds. He was a keen gardener and had lovingly attended his allotment in the grounds of the nearby Gallery of Modern Art for over 30 years, as well as his large walled garden at the cottage in Morayshire.

Mary and Lester visited their cottage near Aberlour regularly, having owned it since 1985. They were members of the congregation of St Margaret’s Church, where Lester became a member of the church vestry. He organised fundraising concerts for the church, which at times provided the opportunity for groups attending the Aberdeen International Youth Festival to perform in Aberlour. He researched the history of the Aberlour Orphanage, which had worshipped at St Margaret’s, and raised money to provide a photo-montage which is now exhibited in the church, the local school, Elgin Library and other sites in the area. He occasionally gave lectures for the Moray Society in Elgin, and successfully proposed Knockando Woolmill in Morayshire for a prestigious Europa Nostra Award. Lester and Mary, family and friends, all enjoyed their “second home”, and appreciated all the friendships made in Speyside over the years.

Lester was very much the family man, keenly interested in the careers and ambitions of his daughters and grandsons. He enjoyed family visits and celebrations and over the years he and Mary had many holidays with daughter Megan and family in California, always incorporating an exciting adventure such as the Grand Canyon. He was a great organiser and enjoyed planning family get-togethers, for example, in France, Cumbria or Mar Lodge in the Highlands.

On 1 October 2019, aged 88, Lester suffered a very severe stroke while at the cottage and passed away peacefully at Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin on 13 October, surrounded by his family. There were plans to hold a Memorial Service at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh as so many people would have wanted to celebrate his life. Sadly, due to Covid-19 lockdowns, the dates booked for March 2020, October 2020, and now April 2021, have all been cancelled. Instead, this Commemoration piece has been written and published in the week of what would have been Lester’s 90th birthday on 7 April 2021.

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