• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Alexander Ross Sutherland

Second World War veteran.

Born: August 19, 1922; Died: April 16, 2014.

ALEC Sutherland, who has died aged 91, was a Second World War air veteran who went on to become a highly respected swimming coach and successful mountaineer. An avid sportsman, he maintained a remarkable standard of fitness well into old age and was still swimming in senior competition when he was well into his eighties.

Mr Sutherland served with distinction in RAF Bomber Command during the latter half of the war. A wireless operator, he flew missions across Europe on board Vickers Wellington and Avro Lancasters.

On one occasion, his aircraft flew over the top of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. As he gazed out over its snow-capped peak, he swore to himself that if he survived the war he would return one day and climb to the summit.

In 1947, he did. He and a friend, Ian Mackenzie, motor-cycled from the Highlands to Chamonix in France and scaled the 15,781ft mountain.

From an early age, Mr Sutherland had been a keen swimmer and, later, a water polo player. He was also a much in-demand swimming coach who helped train youngsters many of whom went on to become successful in the sport. These included Scottish internationalists Eddie Riach and Myles Mackintosh.

Alexander Ross Sutherland was born in Inverness, the first of three children to William and Jessie Sutherland. His father was chief clerk at the city's railway station.

He was educated at Merkinch Primary School and then Inverness Technical School. Leaving school at 14, he worked for three years in a variety of jobs until finally settling as an assistant librarian with Inverness County Library. Having just passed his driving test, he was given the task of delivering books to the country's school libraries. The experience helped him develop a lifelong passion for reading.

His interest in swimming developed in childhood through his uncle, a considerable swimmer and football player.

As a young teenager, Alec was a founding member of the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish Railway) Swimming Club, set up when the town's new baths opened in 1937. Indeed, he swam in the pool's first competitive event: a children's balloon race.

In 1941, aged 18, he also helped to establish 161 Squadron (Inverness) of the Air Training Corps. By then, of course, Britain was in the midst of war and the RAF was keen to secure new recruits. Thus, the ATC unit was awash with professional instructors and the youngsters gained plenty of flying experience aboard training aircraft at nearby RAF bases.

Mr Sutherland enlisted in the RAF and, after basic training, was selected for aircrew. Unable to qualify for pilot training because his sight had been below average as a result of mild snow blindness which he had contracted while mountaineering, he became a wireless operator and completed his specialist training in Canada.

In November,1944, he was serving on Avro Ansons reconnaissance aircraft with Coastal Command. Then in March 1945 he switched to Bomber Command, flying in Wellington and Lancaster bombers.

After the war, Mr Sutherland helped ferry surplus aircraft to scrapyards all over the UK, making his last flight before demob in June 1946.

He returned to Inverness and resumed his job with the library service.

He also began coaching swimming again and took up water polo, a game he played competitively for 15 years.

His other great love was mountaineering and in 1950 he was a founding member of Inverness Mountaineering Club. He developed a vast knowledge of the majestic Highland peaks, scaling the heights of the Cullins, the Cairngorms and Glen Affric.

On one occasion, he and a friend were caught in a 1000ft avalanche in the Cairngorms. Discovering that he had lost his ice axe - a treasured possession which he had used in his ascent of Mont Blanc - Mr Sutherland insisted on going down the crevasse to retrieve it.

He considered one of his greatest honours to have been the custodianship of the remote bothy at Shenevall at the foot of An Tealach, describing it as the most beautiful house in Britain.

Mr Sutherland met his wife, Rhoda Milne, at a dance in the Inverness Caledonian Hotel Ballroom in 1951. They married in 1952 and had two sons.

After local government re-organisation in the mid 1970s, he left the library and transferred to Inverness District Housing Department from where he retired in 1987.

Over the years, he received many awards. Among these were the Inverness Sports Personality (Senior) Award for services to swimming (1989) and BBC Scotland Sports Personality of the Year's Unsung Hero Award (2007). Inverness Leisure also named its executive room in his honour.

In 2009, he was awarded an MBE for services to swimming which was presented to him by the Queen at Holyrood Palace.

Until his health started to decline in recent years, Mr Sutherland was still taking part in swimming masters competitions.

He is survived by his wife Rhoda, sons Graham and Lawrence and grandchildren Lauren and Fraser.

Contextual targeting label: 
Sport

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

230772