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Gurth Hoyer Millar

Scottish rugby international and SAS officer

Scottish rugby international and SAS officer

Born: December 13, 1929; Died: March 6, 2014.

GURTH Hoyer Millar, who has died aged 84, was the sort of person who might have turned up in a John Buchan or Ian Fleming novel, such was the diversity of his interests and achievements in a life packed with action, adventure and no little contradiction.

He played rugby for Scotland, was an officer in the SAS, an accomplished all-round cricketer, the chairman of the famous Bonhams auction house and a fellow who latched on to the idea that DIY might be an untapped market for millions of Britons. Yet, in case that resume makes him sound like a typical Tory champion of the free market, Hoyer Millar also had a deep-rooted social conscience and belief in charitable causes which extended way beyond the normal practice of rich men flinging pennies after paupers.

Time after time, he stood for the Liberals as a parliamentary candidate in far-flung and inauspicious seats - everywhere in fact from Southend West to Aberdeenshire East. He lost on every occasion. But he kept bouncing back with fresh ideas and innovations, allied to the belief that complacency was one of the worst qualities in the human psyche. He would never have made any grandiose claims for himself, but his life was full of varied accomplishments and arcane exploits. In some respects, his CV has to be seen to be believed.

There was never any consistent pattern in Hoyer Millar's existence, beyond a belief that the world which he entered was too narrow, too ­parochial and fixed in its ways. But his whole family encompassed that contrarian spirit. Even while Hoyer Millar was at Harrow, where he became head of the school and hosted a visit by Winston Churchill, his father was fighting with Marshal Tito's partisan forces in Yugoslavia.

A natural-born sporting star, he attained the rare accolade of triple blood by gaining first-team colours in a trio of major sports - cricket, rugby and boxing - in three consecutive years. But, despite his skill and bravery in these pursuits, there was scant recognition from the authorities.

His one solitary Scotland rugby cap came in 1953 when, as hooker, he was part of the SRU collective which was trounced 26-8 by Ireland at Murrayfield (he was born in Chelsea but his family had Perthshire roots). And despite gaining myriad plaudits for his fistic and cricketing skills which were on offer for the Army even while he fought communist bandits in Malaya in the 1950s, there seemed to be a point beyond which Hoyer Millar could advance no further.

Other, lesser individuals might have been dispirited by that state of affairs, but not this redoubtable character. As the Swinging Sixties beckoned, be took his first steps into Liberal politics by suffering a comprehensive defeat in South Kensington, where he might as well have been a dead parrot, such was the impossibility of his task. But, at least when it came to business affairs, he gained the reputation of being a man with bold, brisk ideas and the breadth of vision to capitalise on the need for embracing radical concepts.

He worked with BP, then joined Sainsbury's as one of their first non-family board members, taking charge of their growing real estate portfolio. In the 1970s, he locked horns with Labour's environment secretary, Peter Shore, over the latter's refusal to grant ­planning permission for a number of large supermarkets across Britain, and subsequently became embroiled in an acrimonious tussle with Robert Maxwell, when the now-disgraced publishing panjandrum did his utmost to subsume the Sainsbury's pension scheme into a series of complex property deals, which were later exposed as a sham.

That summed up Hoyer Millar. He stood or fell on his powers of initiative and intuition and was frequently vindicated in his unorthodoxy. It worked less well at the polling booth, where he knew he was up against people who had already decided which way they were casting their votes.

"All I can do is argue my case and it is up to others to agree or disagree," he said. There was never any sense of negativity creeping into his mindset. Befitting somebody with family connections to the Black Watch, the WRNS and the Diplomatic Service, he was a beguiling mixture of tenacity, tenderness and tact.

In the 1980s, Hoyer Millar was instrumental in the expansion of the Thatcher-inspired new enthusiasm for home improvement. He disagreed with many of her policies, but recognised that the "right to buy" was an idea whose time had come. As a consequence, he was one of the founders of Homebase, of which he was the first chairman. His philosophy was straightforward; if people desired to spruce up their homes and test themselves with a sander or power-drill or create their own patios and conservatories, he and his colleagues would give them the tools to do the job. It sparked a revolution.

Hoyer Millar was a multi-faceted individual who loved sport and the arts and managed to combine a passion for cricket with support for the Northern Ballet Theatre. He could be as tough as old boots and crumple into tears at the sound of a cherished melody. Some might conclude: "They don't make them like that any more."

He is survived by his wife, Jane Aldington, and their two sons and a daughter.

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