In Memoriam: Hamish Gunn
John M. Hammond
Hamish passed away peacefully in an Edinburgh hospital, on the evening of Thursday, 23rd February, 2006, at the age of 90, from complications that had arisen as a result of hip surgery that was necessitated after falling at home last November. Britain was deeply enmeshed in the First World War when Hamish was born at Perth on the 28th December, 1915, and his father, James Turner Gunn, was attached to the Royal Army Medical Corp, 18th Brigade R.F.C. Hamish was brought up at Auchterarder where his father was a much-loved local G.P. and made Freeman of the Royal Burgh of Auchterarder in 1962. His mother, Adelaide Lucy Frances Gunn, was Lord Kingsburgh's grand-daughter.
In the way of doing things in those days, Hamish was sent away in September 1925 to boarding school at Cargilfield, Edinburgh at the age of 9, and to Fettes College, Edinburgh five years later, a fairly stern institution that he would later refer to with great affection as "the prison." Most of all he was fascinated with machinery and wanted to be a mechanical engineer. This came to the fore with his interests in racing cars, aeroplanes and railway locomotives, but in 1934 he decided to become an advocate instead. Five years at the law classes at Edinburgh University gained him an MA LLB, as was the custom, and then, inevitably, WWII intervened.
In 1938 Hamish became the proud owner of a 1933 Lagonda 2 Litre Continental touring car in which he wooed Betty Young, a beautiful South African to whom he got engaged in October 1939, just after hostilities had broken out. He tore around Scotland in the Lagonda leaving all manner of turmoil in his wake, attended hill climbing trials over the zig-zags of the "Rest and be Thankful" Pass in Argyll and zoomed around the racing circuits at a time when racing cars were in their infancy. A ride with Hamish was not an experience for the fainthearted; he had no mercy for those less skilled in the ways of the road than himself and his withering contempt for other road users never left him. Later, he purchased a 1926 Bentley from a friend and in this he tore about the country in a dashing fashion, top down, bonnet firmly fixed, his pipe billowing smoke and sparks like a steam locomotive, and foot off the brake!
Hamish and Betty were married in Edinburgh on 24th October, 1941, by which time Hamish had been called-up for War Service. He became a Lieutenant with the 7/9th Royal Scots [T.A.], was invalided out in 1940 to become a Home Guard Adjutant in Perthshire until 1944, and then became a lawyer for the Claims Commission. He worked until 1946 in the Services when he was released with the rank of Captain and resumed his legal career. As a "Writer to the Signet" from 1949, he was proud to be the great grandson of one of the giants of Scots Law, John Hay Athole Macdonald, Lord Kingsburgh, who revolutionised Scots Criminal Law in the late-1800s and sat as Lord Justice Clerk from 1888 until 1915. Macdonald's portrait still hangs in the house at Colinton. Those delegates who attended the Rhodo'02 Conference at the R.B.G., Edinburgh may well recall attending the Banquet held in the privately funded Signet Library, said to be the most magnificent drawing room in Scotland. Hamish worked for three companies prior to moving in 1951 to J.C. & A. Steuart in Edinburgh, then the oldest legal firm in Scotland until its amalgamation in the 1990s. After a mere 10 years - things happened less speedily in those days - Hamish became a partner, and he happily remained a "mere scribbler" at Steuarts until he retired in 1986.
Hamish was a wily old bird and didn't talk about many aspects of his personal life. But, occasionally I would get a telephone call from Hamish and he would reminisce about years gone by and his many interests. He was very close to his brother, Alastair Donald Mackintosh Gunn who, with the rank of Flight-Lieutenant during WWII, flew Spitfires out of the R.A.F. Photo Reconnaissance Unit based in Wick, Northern Scotland. His Spitfire was shot down over Norway in 1942 and on 5th March he became a Prisoner of War. Alastair was subsequently sent to Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Poland, a special camp run by the Luftwaffe to incarcerate captured Allied air-crew who had a record of involvement in escape attempts. He was a regular digger on "Harry" tunnel and after his escape on 6th March 1944 from Stalag Luft III he was later captured near Gorlitz. Alastair was taken to the Gestapo Headquarters at Breslau and was last seen alive on the 6th April, 1944. Hamish was devastated to learn that F/L Alastair D.M. Gunn was one of the fifty escapees that were shot by the Gestapo, on Hitler's orders, as a reprisal in the aftermath of the breakout of 76 prisoners of war from Stalag Luft III, an event immortalised in the film The Great Escape. Hamish was very proud of his brother, found his loss difficult to bear and it is no accident that Hamish's son is also named Alastair.
Hamish's Grandfather, Norman Doran Macdonald who was an Advocate and son of Lord Kingsburgh, had connections with railway engineering and was on first-hand terms with William Stanier, Nigel Gresley and the other great locomotive engineers of the steam era, which opened many doors for Hamish. He continued to have an interest in railways throughout his life, the Waverley Route was a particular favourite and, after the demise of steam locomotives, he took Alistair along on visits to many of the preserved lines in Scotland and Northern England.
Hamish was also a keen fly-fisherman and loved to spend time on the banks of the Earn, Tweed, Brora and other rivers along Scotland's East Coast, his skill and precision with both salmon and trout being much admired by his fellow anglers who he entertained with his inimitable phraseology. According to Hamish, he learnt his craft by drowning worms on the end of a bent pin in the burns around Auchterarder. And, his skill and precision extended to grouse shooting on his family's obscure, bare, windswept moorland estate at Latheron, Caithness, the Balbair Estate at Bonar Bridge and the Sutherland & Uppat Estate at Brora.
He was also extremely passionate about gardening and his visits to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh led to a long friendship with H.H. Davidian. Some years back Hamish recalled, "In the 1950s Davidian told me to get myself a garden and that he would fill it with good specimen plants. And, true to his word, he did." So, a visit to Hamish's home at Colinton was always a memorable occasion and the "Postage Stamp," that he regularly referred to, was in reality a well laid-out large town-sized garden with a wealth of first-class plants. A visit to the garden would include a ceremonial "viewing" of the Lagonda, which was completely refurbished in 2002, and I don't recall ever coming away empty-handed from a visit to his garden. Hamish was also a highly-regarded photographer and this, in turn, led to a large number of his slides being used by Davidian in his set of four rhododendron monographs. Hamish was an exhibitor and regularly won silverware at the Scottish Rhododendron Shows that began in 1953 under the auspices of the National Trust for Scotland, some years run jointly with the Scottish Rock Garden Club, until independent shows commenced in 1989. Nothing pleased him more than to take prizes at the rhododendron shows, bearing the silverware proudly home to sit where it belonged on the sideboard for all to admire.
Hamish was a founder member of the Scottish Rhododendron Society (S.R.S.) and served on the Council of the Society from its very beginnings. In 1984 he succeeded the late Dr. Severne Mackenna to become the second president at the time the Society became incorporated as a chapter of the American Rhododendron Society (A.R.S.) and served throughout its formative years until 1990. Hamish continued to exhibit at the National Rhododendron Shows organised by the S.R.S., was always around to help those who needed advice, and was Show Manager when the A.R.S. held its Annual Convention in Oban in 1996. When Hamish was awarded the Bronze Medal of the A.R.S. in 2002 he had been involved with organising, stewarding and exhibiting at Rhododendron Shows for fifty years, a remarkable achievement.
A discussion with Hamish was always "interesting" and would often leave you wondering "where did that bewildering phraseology come from," as it would seem at first sight to be totally unrelated to the matter at hand. But Hamish would already be several steps ahead of the conversation, and perhaps he enjoyed a foresight that many of us could not aspire to. His mind was as sharp as a razor and could quickly get right to the crux of the matter in a manner that could be disarming.
Hamish retained his Edwardian approach throughout a long and productive life, just as though time had stood still since the 1920s and '30s. He had little time for "new-fangled" objects, or poorly engineered disposable products and he scorned the all-enveloping political correctness that continually serves to belittle so many aspects of our nation's great ideals. He was devoted to his wife, Betty, who passed away after a long illness on the 5th February, 1994, and he found the loss extremely difficult to bear. Hamish was a "character" in every way and will be greatly missed for his turn of phrase, his tales of days gone by - accompanied with the pipe and its billowing smoke signals, his sage advice on many aspects of life, and most of all his friendship. He leaves a son, Alastair.