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Sir Iain Noble: Entrepreneur who championed the Gaelic language and culture

If the Gaelic language and culture is to be kept alive during the 21st century, it will be due in significant measure to the enthusiasms and demonic energy of Iain Noble. Without his drive and financial resources the now flourishing Gaelic College, near Armadale on the southernmost tip of the Isle of Skye, would not have been founded and would not have been the modern, flourishing institution it is today. Norman Gillies, Head of College from 1983 to 2008, told me that Noble had had the concept of a Gaelic college, and then "gnawed away like a dog with a bone until he got what he wanted."

Gillies pointed out that the College was only part of Noble's all-embracing concern with all things Gaelic. Six years ago my wife and I were taken round the College by Noble; having been sceptical Scottish lowlanders who wondered whether the teaching of Gaelic was a suitable use of public funds and educational time, we were impressed and converted. The present director Boyd Roberts told me that they now have 240 higher advanced students, 200 ordinary-grade students and 800 who are starting courses. They emphasised the culture and creative aspects of Gaelic. At Iain Noble's instigation they have established a "fas", the Gaelic for growth-building, which involves the creation of 100 houses and apartments. The population of this economically challenged area of Skye has doubled from 450 in 1971 to 900 at the latest count. The school population, which in 1972 was 27, has soared to 81 in 2009. Without Iain Noble this simply would not have happened.

Born in Berlin – at the home of his maternal grandmother, who was married to a Norwegian diplomat – and christened in Rome, where his father, who would later be British ambassador to Poland, Mexico and the Netherlands, was working at the time, Noble told me with a chuckle that his first steps as a toddler were along the Via Appia. His relationship with his father was warm but Sir Andrew Napier Noble was very British; Iain was very Scottish, and longed to get back from foreign parts to the family estate at Ardkinglass on the shores of Loch Fyne. He had a close relationship with his uncle Michael, sheep farmer on a grand scale, MP for Argyll, Secretary of State for Scotland and later Trade Minister. Iain toyed with the idea of standingas a Liberal MP in Scotland; Michael encouraged him.

Noble's early life contained a series of adventures. His father was serving in China, and at the outset of war with Japan was swapped with Japanese diplomats, which meant that as a young boy Iain was bundled off to South Africa for a brief period. Subsequently his father became Counsellor at the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, where Iain went to school at St Andrews College, the élite school of the 100,000-strong Anglo-Argentine community. In 1982 he expressed his great sadness that somehow we had got into a war with the Argentina, of whom he had so many happy memories.

At Eton he was good neither at games nor academically, and disappointed his family by not being commissioned and serving instead as a private during his National Service with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. But at University College, Oxford he blossomed. His contemporary Sir David Miers, later Ambassador to the Netherlands, recollected to me that Noble was lively and had many jolly ideas for enjoying himself. He was a moving spirit in the Oxford University Caledonian Club and president of the Shakespeare Society, a University College dining club.

Miers told me that Noble, the organiser of the Commemoration Ball, took the view "let's have a fabulous commem", before fabulous became a much-used word. Myers thought that he was a promoter of flamboyant affairs without in any way boasting about it.

Another contemporary, now Lord Butler of Brockwell, former Cabinet Secretary and Master of University College, was one of a group of lifelong friends in which Noble was prominent. When I phoned Robin Butler, he said that it was coincidence that he was wearing an Isle of Skye tweed jacket bought in the shop when he and hiswife Gill were visiting Noble and his dynamic wife Lucilla three years ago. Lord Butler was full of admiration for Noble, whose crowning achievement was the advancement of Gaelic language and culture. "My friend was a man whose life was characterised by Skye," Butler said.

After leaving university Noble worked for Wrightson's stockbrokers and accountants in London, andreturned to Scotland to work for the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. As president of SCDI from 2003 to 2006 I gathered fromthe records – and from Dr William Robertson, a charismatic director of the SCDI – that Noble had been theireconomic guru from 1964 to 1969. At that time he had strongly advocated a bridge to link the mainland with Skye and subsequently had changed his mind, only to alter his opinion again when economic development began to take precedence over the protection of Skye culture.

In 1969 there was a central event. Noble and Angus Grossart were fellow members of the two-centuries oldEdinburgh Speculative Society. On their summer outing, to Loch Leven, they had a very good dinner. On the bus back to Edinburgh the two got talking about the decline of the Scottish economy and the terrible lack, as they saw it, of enterprise. The great industries with which Scotland had been associated had been overtaken by developments elsewhere. They agreed that there was a terrible gap between finance and economic development. Part of the problem, as they said to each other, was the absence of a merchant bank based in Scotland.

Grossart was a very clever accountant and Noble was a man of many ideas and huge drive. They came together and formed Noble Grossart, an institution that led econ development. As Grossart told me years later, the idea of Noble Grossart was "consummated in the back of a bus after a good drink of champagne."

The bank went from strength to strength, believing in expansion rather than allowing the pessimistic atmosphere of the time to diminish economic growth. Noble and Grossart were to part company, though Grossart remembers Noble with considerable affection and is grateful to him for all his enthusiasm in the early days.

Noble devoted himself not only to Skye but also to the National Museum of Scotland. My wife, as one of hisfellow Trustees, had a high regard for his work over many years. Perhaps the truth was spotted by a mutual friend who said, "Iain didn't have a bee in his bonnet – he had a whole hive in hisbonnet. Out of some of the bees came real, pure honey." It certainly did in relation to Gaeldom.

Let the last word be with his friend and solicitor, Sir Charles Fraser: "I saw Iain in many business situations at close quarters, such as the founding of Adams Bank. No creative or inventive man was more resilient when things did not go quite according to plan. Scotland and Skye owe him."

Tam Dalyell

Sir Iain Andrew Noble, businessman and entrepreneur, historian and writer: born Berlin 8 September 1935; educated St Andrews School, Buenos Aires; Eton; University College, Oxford; Scottish Council for Development and Industry 1964-69; founder, merchant bank of Noble Grossart; proprietor, Fearann Eilean Iarmain estate, Isle of Skye, and Hotel Eilean Iarmain, 1972-; OBE 1988; married 1990 Lucilla Mackenzie; died Sleat, Isle of Skye 25 December 2010.