Professor Sir Robert Grieve

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The Independent Online
"And sitting over there is 20th-century Edinburgh's answer to the famous polymaths of the 18th-century Enlightenment." Thus, Wilfred Taylor, doyen of Scottish columnists, author of "A Scotsman's Log", a remarkable five-day-a-week column which lasted in the Scotsman newspaper for more than three decades, as he pointed to a lean, athletic, aquiline member sitting, as he often did, in the lounge of the Scottish Arts Club in Rutland Place, Edinburgh. Taylor did not exaggerate. Robert Grieve, engineer, planner, academic, mountaineer and poet, measured up to the description.

Ronnie Cramond, a senior official at the Scottish Office, said of Grieve: "He was a man of action - but also a thinker, philosopher, raconteur and visionary, with poetry and romance in his soul. Imbued with the spirit of public service, and with a deep, visceral love of his native land . . . courteous, willing to listen but then decisive . . . He was quite simply one of the great Scotsmen of his generation."

Grieve was the pivotal figure in two of the most significant post-war developments in Scotland - the Clyde Valley Regional Plan, which regenerated a depressed west of Scotland of the 1930s into an attractive infrastructure for industry, and the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which simply transformed the north of Scotland and created facilities for its people befitting the 20th century.

Bob Grieve was born in a tenement in Glasgow Maryhill. Touchingly, he told his friends that, early in his life as a student, he kept quiet about his origins but, as he became older, he realised that his ascent from those origins was a matter for pride, not awkward embarrassment. His father was a boilermaker in the shipyards who seemed to have little to do with the family, other than dump the wage packet regularly on the table. His mother was a staunch and caring Roman Catholic, who was distressed that she did not have the cash to send Robert to St Aloysius or other Roman Catholic fee-paying schools, having to be content with North Kelvinside School.

Some of the teachers, however, took their pupils at weekends and during holidays out into the nearby countryside. Like another tenement boy, Sir Monty Finniston, who was to rise to the chairmanship of British Steel and much else and who also made for the Campsies, Loch Lomondside, the Trossachs or the west coast at every opportunity, Grieve found the habit of looking in at his city rather than being immersed by it. This was the seed of a determination to improve and alter the life of city dwellers.

At the Royal College of Science and Technology, now the University of Strathclyde, he trained and qualified as a civil engineer. His Glasgow Corporation bosses and senior colleagues, to whom he was ever grateful, encouraged him to take evening classes and to gain additional qualifications in town planning.

However Grieve's real professional breakthrough came in 1940 when he devised a novel strategy for air-raid shelters before the dreadful blitz on Clydebank. Rather than lay out rows of standard air-raid shelters as had hitherto been the practice, Grieve applied his engineering expertise to the construction of the safest form of shelter but took trouble over calculating the density of population in all the most vulnerable areas of Clydeside and situated the shelters so that people could reach the protection from their homes in the shortest possible time. He is credited with having saved a significant number of civilian lives during the German bombing.

From 1944 he was deeply immersed in the Clyde Valley Regional Plan. As his colleague Alec Kerr recollects, "He was always involved in seminal works, and he was the person to ask the searching question which simulated reasonable thought and forced people to think in depth about what they were proposing."

Grieve's concern was particularly with properly balanced communities: the conservation of villages on the one hand - the preservation of the exquisite scheduled village of Eaglesham, in north Ayrshire, as a conservation area was Grieve's imaginative doing - and the concept of East Kilbride New Town, on the other hand, fitted into a pattern.

Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the renowned architect, got his name to the Clyde Valley plan, but Bob Grieve and the lawyer Hugh McCalman did much of the day-to-day work. The history is that Grieve had been asked to contribute to the plan the chapter on recreation. It was so good that Sir Robert Matthew, an intellectual planner and the mastermind of planning in the Scottish Office from 1945, asked Grieve to contribute more and more. Grieve gave priority to the social aspects of such planning and its effect on people. This brought him into sometimes edgy conflict with his friend James McGuinness, another intellectual heavyweight who was the head of the Scottish Economic Planning Department.

From 1960 to 1964 Grieve was Chief Planning Officer at the Scottish Office. As an example of the kind of effective, searching question which was Grieve's hallmark, in 1962 he challenged the received wisdom of the Glasgow Corporation in wanting to build 650 high-rise blocks to keep people in the centre of the city. Only the first few - the notorious Red Road blocks which had to be dynamited in the early Eighties - were ever built. Grieve argued passionately that it was a social mistake, and from his childhood he knew that the Glasgow people wanted the children to be able to play in the gardens, if not in the streets. (Albeit, to be fair to the corporation, they said that no young family should be brought up above the fourth storey.) The idea of a "pincushion" city, as he put it, appalled him.

In those far-off days when parliamentary questions were taken at face value and seriously by ministers and civil servants even from the most newly arrived junior MP, Jack Maclay (later Viscount Muirshiel) responded to three parliamentary questions on the demise of the shale oil industry by fixing up for me to see Grieve. I recorded the meeting. He was intensely concerned about people and the social aspects of the changes, warning me that McGuinness would look at the problem from a hard economic point of view. The result was what Harold Wilson would have called "creative tension", but the double act Grieve/McGuinness was good for Scotland.

The next time I saw him was in very different circumstances, in the autumn of 1964. Such was his reputation in planning circles that Dame Evelyn Sharp thought she might recruit Grieve for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Dick Crossman, whose PPS I was, took to him over a meal and agreed with the Dame that he was just the planner that they wanted. Grieve demurred.

This visceral love of Scotland pinpointed by Cramond was one factor. Another was the feeling, which years later he confided to me, that there were a lot of wolves in Whitehall and Westminster who might bite an unprotected and vulnerable incoming Scot set in a pinnacle position. But the paramount consideration was that his supportive and close wife Mary, a powerful and charming lady, did not want to uproot and leave her beloved Scotland.

Often technical civil servants or outsiders fall foul of the mainstream civil servants with whom they are obliged to work. Not so Grieve. Sir William Kerr Fraser, until recently Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow University and previously Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office for a decade, was Willie Ross's Principal Private Secretary and could not recollect any trace of resentment when Grieve was appointed as the first Chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board. "The Secretary of State wanted a man of radical approach who both knew the Highlands and was well known in the Highlands." Grieve was his first choice. Kerr Fraser said, "He dreamed dreams and was almost fey - but converted them into reality. He saw things against a large canvas. Above all, Bob Grieve did not keep his head below the parapet."

In the Highlands Grieve had many successes and, it has to be said, one project which was to go terribly wrong. It was thought to be a brilliant idea to pay many millions of pounds to persuade the Canadian company Alcan to establish an aluminium smelter at Invergordon and to promote the concept of the Moray and Cromarty Firths as a development area for heavy industry with the additional expectation of growth in the 1980s of petrochemical schemes. Alas, to Grieve's sorrow these schemes crumbled and he blamed himself for having championed them.

One of the reasons why Grieve was so popular in the Highlands was that he was recognised not only as President of the Scottish Mountaineering Council and the Scottish Mountaineering Club but also as a superb mountaineer himself.

The Cuillin are the most challenging mountains in Scotland, with airy crests surrounded with precipices, and only a few walking routes to their tops. Climbing these mountains in Skye is very different from the perfectly simple hill-walking which is involved in the ascent of all but three or four of the mainland Munros. Grieve's skill in tackling Sgurr nan Gillean (Peak of the young men), Bruach na Frithe (Slope of the deer forest), Am Basteir (The executioner), Sgurr a' Mhadaidh (Peak of the fox), Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh (Peak of torment and anxiety) and the "Inaccessible Pinnacle" - Sgurr na Banachdich - gave him considerable authority among the many Highlanders who admired such prowess.

His contemporary Alastair Dunnett, a former editor of the Scotsman, praised him for his initiative in going to Norway and introducing cross-country skiing to the Cairngorms.

The Highlanders also admired any man who could recite poetry with elan and at enormous length, even if it was Samson Agonistes or other works from Grieve's most beloved Milton - not exactly the staple diet of ceilidh nights in rural Inverness-shire.

At the Scottish Royal Fine Art Commission Charles Prosser, the Secretary, remembers Grieve as a marvellous Chairman. He reminded me yesterday of paragraph 4.10 of the 1982 Royal Commission Report to the Queen:

The design for the British National Oil Corporation headquarters in St Vincent Street, Glasgow, was strongly opposed by us and to a greater or lesser extent by all the voluntary amenity bodies who studied it. The chairman of BNOC wrote to the effect that he and his corporation are as well able to assess design quality as we are. We think this opinion to be no more pertinent than any opinions we might have on how to run an oil company.

That was pure Grieve. And the city of Glasgow was spared an excrescence with which it might otherwise have been landed.

Perhaps Bob Grieve's life is encapsulated by the phrase used by his son William in his father's death notice, borrowing the thought from Burns's "Ode to a Mouse": "Throughout his life he exchanged the unexceptionable sentiment for the terror of action."

Tam Dalyell

Robert Grieve, engineer and town planner: born Maryhill, Glasgow 11 December 1910; Chief Planner, Scottish Office 1960-64; Professor of Town and Regional Planning, Glasgow University 1964-74 (Emeritus); Chairman, Highlands and Islands Development Board 1965-70; Kt 1969; Chairman, Highlands and Islands Development Consultative Council 1978-86; Chairman, Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland 1978-83; married 1933 Mary Blackburn (two sons, two daughters); died Edinburgh 25 October 1995.