Born: August 31, 1946; Died: July 27, 2012.
Shirley Harrison, who has died aged 65, had a spirit of adventure that defined her throughout her life. It took her from teenage secretary to the male-dominated domains of flying, sailing, rally driving and farming.
Wherever she went – from Nigeria to South Africa or Scotland – she was more than a match for anyone who doubted the 5ft powerhouse, unafraid to see off gun-toting soldiers in Ghana and single-handedly manage controversial genetically modified crop trials in the face of fierce opposition. She was determined, committed and courageous, giving her all to everything she did, though it occasionally landed her in hot water.
Born in Ewell, Surrey, she was the daughter of businessman John Hoof, who worked in Nigeria, and his wife Stevie. Young Shirley boarded at Ashtead's Parsons Mead School and completed a secretarial course before joining her parents in Lagos. Her first job, aged 18, was as a secretary at the British High Commission there and by 22 she had met and married quantity surveyor Derek Hurlstone-Jones. They settled in Lagos where she learned to fly, once piloting their light aircraft as a taxi to Ghana to collect a friend from America.
The trip coincided with unrest in Accra and armed soldiers greeted her arrival. Unable to credit that this slender slip of a girl had flown the plane, they demanded to know where her pilot was. It took her a tense 15 minutes to persuade them she was the pilot, an acknowledgement that earned her their respect and a personal escort by their captain.
The feisty bride also took up rally driving, a sport she shared with her husband, and helped sail a small yacht across the Atlantic from Lagos to Rio. The couple later moved to South Africa where they bought a farm at Wakkerstroom in the Transvaal. She was also working in the Nederland Bank but gave up the job after they bought a larger property outside Pietermaritzburg. She decided to devote her time to farming, took a particular interest in Aberdeen Angus cattle and qualified as a judge of the breed.
When her marriage broke up in the early 1980s she returned to England and met her second husband, Derek Harrison, after she took a yachting course to gain a sailing qualification.
He was a forestry consultant living in Sutherland, with a boat moored at Plockton, Ross-shire. He contacted the training school looking for a crew member and she volunteered. After that trip he asked her to crew again a few months later and they married in 1988. Home was a smallholding at Ardgay, Sutherland, which allowed the new Mrs Harrison to keep up her farming interests and she would buy, fatten and sell cattle. Although they had hoped to buy a large yacht and spend their retirement sailing the world, Derek died of leukaemia a few years after their wedding.
Mrs Harrison bought New Craig Farm near Daviot, outside Inverurie, and bred Aberdeen Angus cattle. She also decided to participate in Scotland's GM crop trials, giving over 12 acres of the land to the experiment. The move was a result of her passionate interest in world hunger. She had seen starvation first-hand in Africa and felt that GM crops could make a difference. She was also interested in biomedical companies and saw volunteering for the initiative as a natural progression. The trials with oilseed rape began in 2000 and led to a storm of protest, demonstrations and widespread media coverage. Protesters damaged some of the crops and Mrs Harrison, who was in the habit of patrolling her land with a shotgun, lost her firearms certificate for a time after angrily objecting to a cameraman being sent to film the destruction.
Despite the opposition, she succeeded in harvesting Scotland's first GM oilseed rape, and continued with further trials over the three-year initiative. She also made an audio diary of her experiences for Radio 4's It's My Story – Trial By GM. Always happy to debate the issue, she even invited the Soil Association, one of her most vehement critics, to the farm and was often asked to speak at international conferences.
Funny, feisty and fanatically tidy – her farm was arguably Aberdeenshire's cleanest – she was passionate about all she tackled. "If she went for something it was 100%, no half measures and she pulled out all the stops," said her father. "She took everything in her stride."
That included her cancer diagnosis two years ago. A fighter and determined to beat the disease she took part in a German drug trial and battled on with work. She rested in bed between completing duties on the farm before having to sell up and part with her beloved Aberdeen Angus herd in May.
She died at home, in the house she had built near her farm for her widowed father who cared for her latterly and who survives her.
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