Pilmar Smith, who has died aged 87, was an exceptional individual who in the course of a long life achieved much success in business and public life while earning and retaining the affection and respect of all with whom he came in contact. Most readily identifiable to many through his association with Heart of Midlothian FC, of whom he was a lifelong fan, and director and vice-chairman for more than a decade from the early 1980s onwards, he was also a successful bookmaker in Edinburgh for many years, making his name through greyhound racing at Powderhall.
Politically he was a staunch Labour Party and trade union activist from an early age, whose guiding principle was that all should be given an equal chance in life irrespective of beginnings. Extremely well connected with the upper echelons of the Labour Party and trade union movement, he was chairman of the East Lothian constituency party until 2006. He was also a board member of Lothian Buses for 17 years, including 12 as chairman, during which period the company won the prestigious UK bus operator of the year award four times, recording substantially increased financial turnover and passenger numbers.
Despite his accomplishments, he remained a “people’s person”, genuinely interested in others and as equally at home in the company of “important people” as others not so considered. In North Berwick, where he had lived for about the last 20 years, he was a very popular figure who had time for everyone and was highly regarded for his contributions to community life.
He was born in Edinburgh’s Old Town, only son of David and Isabella nee Pilmar, hence his first name. With his sisters Ella and Janet, he was initially brought up in the Castlehill area in the lee of Edinburgh Castle. His father, who was a salesman for a soft drinks company, had family roots in East Lothian, where his father had been a farm worker.
Pilmar grew up hearing about the unfair conditions these workers had to endure, sparking his early interest in socialism. His father was a Hearts supporter who infused his son with love of the club.
After attending Castlehill Primary, he next went to Tynecastle High School after the family moved to Dewar Place, near Haymarket. As the school overlooked the Hearts’ ground, he was sometimes able to watch the players train, which further fired his enthusiasm. A talented outside right himself, he played for well-known juvenile club, Merchiston Thistle and was invited to play a trial for Wolverhampton Wanderers.
At the same time he heard that Hearts boss Tommy Walker was interested in him and declined Wolves’ invitation. Unfortunately, the Tynecastle interest never materialised and instead he played for Haddington Athletic and Loanhead Mayflower. Smith began working life as an electrician, completing his apprenticeship below ground at Newtongrange’s Lady Victoria pit, where he was a youth delegate, further stoking his political interest.
Although his ambition of playing for Hearts was never fulfilled, he was delighted to join the club’s board in 1982 on owner Wallace Mercer’s invitation and remained until 1994, including a spell as vice-chairman. Although cut from different cloth from Mercer, a property developer and Conservative Party supporter, the two gelled well to raise the club’s fortunes after a spell in the doldrums, coming close to winning the League and Scottish Cup in 1986 and taking the team regularly into Europe.
Smith introduced a wide array of business and political contacts to further the club’s best interests and was especially adept at providing a bridge between the fans and the club hierarchy as well as between players and the sometimes brash Mercer.
He was influential in setting up the club’s Youth Development Committee following a visit to his friend Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United to study their youth structure and was involved in the redevelopment of Tynecastle.
When later no longer on the board and Lord Foulkes was chairman, he described Smith as his “right hand man” in preserving Tynecastle for the club, and he continued attending games until recently. He was also instrumental in reintroducing the annual Remembrance Service at the Hearts war memorial at Haymarket. Another sporting interest was professional running, in which Smith was an occasional sponsor for Scotland’s world class sprinter George McNeill, including the 1981 trip he undertook to Australia for McNeill’s successful quest for the famous Stawell Gift title when Smith secured a big win. McNeill said: “When Pilmar had a betting coup, he cut in the trainer and runner too, not many bookies were so generous.”
In his early 20s he worked as a bookmaker’s clerk before setting up in business for himself aged 25, mostly working in greyhound racing at Powderhall where, through shrewdness and hard work, he built an excellent reputation.
He embraced horse racing too and opened betting shops at Dalry Road near Tynecastle and Balerno, the former managed by his sisters and the latter by Bobby Blackwood, his brother in law and a former Hearts player.
At this time he lived in Murieston Crescent during the week and at North Berwick at weekends. In 1992 he joined Lothian Buses as vice chair to friend and trade union leader Alex Kitson, replacing him in 1997 when he presided over an unbroken success story for the next 11 years, again bringing his nous, acumen and people skills to the table. He brought in several innovations, including the night and airport services, flat rate fares and upgraded the vehicle fleet.
Latterly in North Berwick, despite illness and advancing years, Smith characteristically supported the campaign to keep the local Edington hospital open. Until recently he enjoyed playing golf regularly at Archerfield and spending time with friends.
He is survived by sister Janet and five nephews and nieces.