Colonel John Davie: Soldier who served in Malta and Malaya before serving as a leading light of the National Trust for Scotland

He had no hesitation in ordering colleagues, if circumstances required, to ‘get a move on’

Click to follow

Retired colonels or brigadiers are not everybody’s cup of tea as civilian administrators. But as chief executives of New Towns, and many similar organisations, they have been successful – and, surprisingly, perhaps, well-received, even by those who may have shuddered at the appointment of a military man. One such success was Colonel John Davie, who went to the National Trust for Scotland and acted as Chief of Staff, serving the redoubtable combination of the Earl of Wemyss and March (the Chairman) and Sir James Stormonth Darling (Director) between 1972 and 1986.

He was born into a business family, members of the Scottish diaspora in London. From Gresham’s School in Norfolk he joined the City of London Yeomanry in 1939. Commissioned in 1941, he went with the 6th Seaforth Highlanders, the first reinforcement to the Malta garrison. He always maintained that the people of Malta deserved their George Cross: “I admired the stoicism of the people of Valletta.”

When HMS Icarus and the convoy protected by HMS Eagle, the elderly aircraft carrier, got through, the immediate threat seemed to be lifted. But in June 1942 the failure of two convoys to allow through essential relief supplies exacerbated an already desperate situation.

Malta’s harbours and airfields provided bases for the ships, submarines and aircraft that threatened the supply lines of Rommel’s Afrika Corps and the Italian forces in the Western Desert. Davie said that if Malta had fallen, the Allies could have done little to prevent unrestricted Axis reinforcements and supplies reaching North Africa. The situation became even more dire on 11 August 1942, when the Eagle was struck simultaneously by four torpedoes and sank in six minutes. Davie could not leave Malta until April 1943.

Fighting Rommel, he formed many lifelong friendships, and acquired a fascination with history, particularly the Greek and Roman worlds. Visits to Cyrene, the North African city of the Ancient Greeks, the Roman theatre at Sabratha, and Leptis Magna – which to his astonishment was more extensive than the Rome he helped liberate – sowed the seeds of the interest which led to the second half of Davie’s life, with the National Trust for Scotland.

In 1948 he went to Malaya as Company Commander with the 1st Seaforths, the advance guard which was to quell the insurgency. He reflected that though he lost good friends, he “enjoyed”, if that is not an inappropriate word, the Second World War. “Emphatically, none of us enjoyed Malaya,” he said. In North Africa, Italy and Europe, they knew who their enemy was; in Malaya, friends by day could turn out to be deadly enemies by night. If Davie had a role model it was Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, whose courteous candour, efficiency and willingness to make a clear decision were exactly the qualities Davie was to bring to the upper echelons of the National Trust for Scotland.

When the Seaforths were amalgamated he became second-in-command of the Queen’s Own Highlanders. The successful merging with the Cameron Highlanders owed much to his excellent relationship with his colonel, Charles McHardie, with whom he was to serve in Brunei and Borneo during Konfrontasi, the policy of confrontation pursued by Indonesia  in opposition to the formation of Malaysia.

After Staff College, Camberley, in 1955, Davie felt that having missed Sandhurst he had reached a glass ceiling in his army career, so welcomed the approach from Stormonth Darling to join NTS as his chief of staff. The approach was suggested by Will Marjoribanks, the softly spoken, reserved but authoritative NTS director for the North-east of Scotland.

The combination of Marjoribanks and Davie enabled NTS to smoothly take over some and develop others of the castles of Marr, their strongest cluster of properties. Castle Fraser near Inverurie was the ancestral home of Clan Fraser, presented to NTS in 1976 by Michael Smiley and his wife. That they gave their home, with an endowment, was partly on account of their confidence in Marjoribanks and Davie.

Craigievar is the fairytale tower-house near Alford in Aberdeenshire, rebuilt in the 17th century by the Forbes family. Marjoribanks and Davie did the groundwork, assembling the group of benefactors, including the Forbes-Sempill family, who bought the Tower House and presented it to NTS, complete with most of its contents collected and lovingly preserved over the centuries. Craigievar was one of Davie’s favourite properties, and he did much to ensure that it was first and foremost a home.

In 1976 HQ Forbes bequeathed to NTS Drum Castle near Drumoak, part of which goes back to the 12th century, and where 21 generations of his family had lived and made additions over the years. The property representative, a crucial position, was a powerful German lady, Krista Chisholm, a marked success. One of Davie’s most significant contributions on interviewing panels was as a shrewd chooser of people.

Fyvie Castle, near Turriff, is a huge Scottish baronial fortress associated with five successive families, the Prestons, Meldrums, Setons, Gordons and Forbes-Leiths. In 1984, amid controversy and Byzantine difficulties, the property was purchased, Davie playing a patient and crucial role in the protracted negotiations.

It was in 1951, more than two decades before Davie joined, that Sir James Burnett of Leys had gifted to NTS his magnificent 16th century tower house, Crathes, near Banchory, on an estate given to the family by Robert the Bruce. Marjoribanks and Davie tactfully weathered discontent from younger family members.

June, Marchioness of Aberdeen, told me that it was on account of friendship with Davie, and confidence in him, that the fourth Marquess of Aberdeen agreed in 1978 that Haddo House, home of the Gordon family for 400 years, should be administered by NTS.

My own most cherished memory of Davie was driving past the NTS offices in Edinburgh, after a night on the sleeper, and seeing the door open. Davie and his secretary were opening the post, as they did every morning. Consequently he knew everything that was going on and had no hesitation in ordering colleagues, if circumstances required, to “get a move on” – sometimes expressed in more forceful language. NTS was well-run, and Davie’s nickname, though not to his face, was “Our OGPU” – used affectionately by most, less affectionately by those with a tinge of idleness.

John Davie, soldier and NTS Scotland administrator: born 30 March 1921; married Coralie Garnham; died 29 June 2015.