Obituary: Sir Robert Cowan

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The Independent Online
Robert Cowan, businessman and public servant, born Edinburgh 27 July 1932, Fisons Ltd 1958-62, Wolsey Ltd 1962-64, PA Management Consultants Ltd 1965-82, Chairman Highlands and Islands Enterprise (formerly Highlands and Islands Development Board) 1982- 92, Kt 1989, married 1959 Margaret Morton (nee Dewar; two daughters), died Inverness 7 January 1993.

ROBERT COWAN was a widely respected champion of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland whose record of public service to the area over the last 10 years was outstanding. He was Chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board - and latterly of its successor body, Highlands and Islands Enterprise - from 1982 until his retirement last August; the fifth person to hold the post since the board was set up in 1965 and the only one to serve two terms.

Cowan was brought up in Edinburgh and was educated at Edinburgh Academy and Edinburgh University, where he graduated in economics. His father, a distinguished botanist, was on the staff of the Royal Botanic Garden and later curator of the National Trust for Scotland's garden at Inverewe in Wester Ross.

After national service in the RAF, Cowan worked for Fisons in Felixstowe and in London and for Wolsey at Leicester before joining PA Management Consultants in 1965. He was with PA for 17 years, first in Birmingham and later as head of the company's operation in Hong Kong. The experience he gained there of a wide range of industrial problems, and particularly that of marketing, were to stand him in good stead for the rest of his career.

In 1982 he was appointed Chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the body charged with the improvement of economic and social conditions in a vast sparsely populated area comprising nearly half of Scotland's land mass and stretching from the Mull of Kintyre to the northern tip of Shetland. Rather surprisingly, he was the first chairman to come to the job from a career in business.

He took over the job at a difficult time. The recession of the early 1980s had hit the Highlands hard, already causing the closure of the pulp-mill at Fort William and the large aluminium smelter at Invergordon. This together with the fact that, after his years in England and abroad, he was not known in the area, did not give him an easy start. But it was not long before the people of the Highlands warmed to his genial personality, the depth of his experience, his genuine concern and his commitment.

As chairman he proved outstanding in the high-profile public role which the job entailed. Widely respected as an ambassador for the board and for the Highlands, he had a gift for getting on with people whatever their background - he was equally at home at a reception in Edinburgh, talking to a crofter in Wester Ross or at a salmon farm in Shetland. His stamina enabled him to keep up a punishing schedule of visits throughout the area which enabled him to understand its problems at first hand. His willingness to listen, combined with his integrity and humour won him many friends, while his informal but effective management style won him the loyalty of his staff. And no one, either in the Highlands or elsewhere, could doubt his attachment to the area or willingness to fight hard for its interests.

The work of the board was principally concerned with a large number of small projects. But he will be especially remembered for the impetus he gave to marketing the area's products, for the developments in salmon farming and in skiing, and for the board's contribution to the huge telecommunications project which has put the Highlands and Islands ahead of other rural areas in Europe and is greatly to the advantage of local business in an electronic age. In his latter years he worked hard for the establishment of a University of the Highlands which he rightly saw as of immense importance for the future of the area.

In addition to his chairmanship, he was a member of the Court of Aberdeen University, from which he received an honorary LLD, of the BBC Broadcasting Council for Scotland, of the Post Office Board for Scotland and of the Board of the Scottish Development Agency.

He will be remembered not only for his outstanding contribution to an area he loved but for his incredible courage and determination to carry on in the face of the cancer which clouded his last five years.

(Photograph omitted)

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