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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'