by Kenneth Roy
We once occupied offices in the same corridor. It is an odd thought that my former colleague and neighbour, the young patrician, is dead. His name was Iain Noble and he died on Christmas Day. It is an even odder thought that we were once part of a small team dedicated to planning the economic regeneration of Scotland. Iain made a better job of it. My heart was never in it. His was.
Scotland then – this wasn’t yesterday – was still a manufacturing nation. I was about to use the adjective ‘great’, but that would have been pushing it. The best was over. The weak sons who had inherited the family silver – almost invariably weak, it seemed to me, and to Iain Noble too – were furiously selling off the little that remained of their empires. The market for things of beauty or utility, or both, had contracted. Or rather it had shifted to other parts of the world where the same things could be made more cheaply.
The old Scotland was pretty well washed up: sold down those rivers that no longer carried our lovingly crafted sewing machines. Yet the illusion persisted. The messianic figure who headed our small team continued to peddle the theory that our future would always lie in manufacturing and that, if Scottish ingenuity could no longer be depended upon, the Americans would fill the many gaps. The project to re-establish Scotland as a branch factory economy proceeded with enormous conviction. Millions were thrown at it.
The youths – Noble and myself – and one or two others in the organisation took a minority view. Iain saw the Scottish future in financial services, which I barely understood as a concept, believing that banks were establishments run by grey men in suits who liked to say no. My own, more utilitarian, vision – not that it was much of a vision – was of a nation transformed by the service industries. Subversively I put about the notion that the sooner we got real and admitted it, the sooner we could retrain as waiters and hairdressers; I even managed to persuade the chairman, a nice man called Clydesmuir, to make a speech along these lines. He delivered my words with little enthusiasm. It was true that the prospect of Scotland as a nation of waiters and hairdressers was difficult to build a speech around, never mind a cause.
It gives me no satisfaction that Noble and myself, in our different ways, were proved right about most of this. Iain went on to found not one bank, but two banks, the first with Angus Grossart. He told me once that he and Grossart cooked up the plan on a bus.
He told me that, if you could solve the problems of the West Highlands, you would know how to solve the problems of Scotland – they were in his mind the same problems, just different in scale.
Iain’s spectacular progress in business surprised me. The Old Etonian down the corridor did not strike me as much of a buccaneer. For many months he devoted himself to the editing of a booklet he called ‘Source of Finance’, a vademecum for budding entrepreneurs, and his attention to detail bordered on the obsessive. In due course, Iain himself became one of the major sources of finance. I would not have predicted it.
Unlike most bankers, Iain gave something back. Having bought a 12,000-acre estate at Sleat, in the south of Skye, he turned the stereotype of the absentee landlord on its head, putting a personal fortune into the re-birth of a dying community and inspiring a local revival of Gaelic language and culture. He tried all sorts of ventures, some of which worked better than others. An early attempt to re-launch the local fishing industry foundered, a textile business ran for 12 years without ever recording a profit. But he never allowed himself to be daunted. He told me that, if you could solve the problems of the West Highlands, you would know how to solve the problems of Scotland – they were in his mind the same problems, just different in scale.
He believed passionately in the power of language as an economic tool. He learned Gaelic and fought for it. His lasting legacy may be the Gaelic college on Skye which he helped to make possible. He was not the first of the social entrepreneurs in the Highlands and Islands; John Rollo, from my native village of Bonnybridge, had founded the Highland Fund a generation earlier. But Iain continued the tradition: he was well named Noble. How much he was appreciated in Skye it is difficult for me to say; I was always impressed by the number of influential local enemies he succeeded in making.
He proposed once that I should attend one of his house parties in Skye where the star turn was to be his friend Alasdair Milne playing the bagpipes. Courage failed me; I never did hear Alasdair Milne playing the bagpipes. But I did have a long talk with Iain in one of his banks. By then – the late 80s – he was much exercised by the possibility of Scotland becoming a low-tax regime and attracting what he called ‘Euro business’, and by the need to lure back expats from Hong Kong, the sort that attend raucous Burns Suppers of patriotic fervour. He had recently returned from one such occasion. “Dammit,” he declared, “why aren’t these people in Scotland? An injection of 450 people of their calibre would probably solve all our economic problems at once.” I could imagine Alasdair Milne welcoming them at the airport.
Later, when I started the Institute of Contemporary Scotland, which he joined, Iain objected to our scheme for the integration of refugees and asylum seekers into Scottish society. There were to be no bagpipes for them, it seemed. After that unhappy episode, we were not in touch again. But I remember him with affection. Why would I not? He was a person of ideas, big ideas, daring ideas, and he was prepared to fail. We need people of that kind in Scotland. There are not many of them around.
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
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