ONE of the most flamboyantly colourful characters ever to flash across the Scottish business scene passed away on Monday. Randolph Fields finally succumbed to cancer. He was just 44. His wife had given birth to their first child at the end of last year.

Fields first burst on the Scottish business community late in 1984 with ambitious plans for a cheap Laker-style scheduled transatlantic service between Prestwick and New York. The one-way fare was to be set at #115. A Prestwick-Toronto service was promised to follow. But it was to be the best part of another three years before he managed to raise the necessary finance and prise a licence out of the Civil Aviation Authority to get Highland Express's one and only Boeing 747 into service.

Within months the dream lay in expensive tatters. Highland Express crash landed with debts of more than #8m, one of a whole series of Scottish aviation launches down that decade, from Chieftain to Scottish European Airways, which prematurely fell out of the sky and bit the dust.

When Randolph Fields first came to Prestwick, promising jobs by the hundred, at least he came with some kind of track record in the industry. Hearing of the Laker collapse in 1982 in his kitchen in California, Fields had seen only opportunity, a chance to launch an airline of his own that appealed to youth and offered real in-flight entertainment.

He called it British Atlantic. But two years on, when he approached Richard Branson for backing, British Atlantic quickly changed its name to Virgin Atlantic, an airline which would eventually form one strand of a business which today boasts one of the most powerful brand names to emerge out of post-war Britain.

Back then Virgin Atlantic wasn't big enough to accommodate two such hyperactive personalities. Fields left within months, selling his stake to Branson for more than #1m. It emerged this week that Fields, a corporate lawyer by training, had also negotiated a clause in his severance deal ensuring free first-class travel, ad-lib for life, on Virgin services for himself and two other guests.

He had apparently used that perk - to Branson's expense and chagrin to the tune of some #300,000 a year - ever since. But the million he got for his equity stake was rapidly ploughed into Highland Express, where Fields persuaded the former British Steel and British Coal chairman Sir Ian MacGregor to join the board. But all the frenetic energy and elite business connections in the world couldn't keep Highland Express aloft.

Fields had many of the characteristics of the out-and-out entrepreneur. By that I mean he broke most of the conventional moulds. He was the product of a broken home in Santa Monica. He moved to London at nine with his mother. Dropped out of school at 16 without a single O-level. Joined a dance group commune called Exploding Galaxy. Sold ice cream at London Zoo.

Eventually he ''got serious about life'', found education, and enrolled in a law course at the Polytechnic of Central London where contemporaries described him as a charming shyster, a bit of a rascal. Shyster or not, in time Fields qualified as a lawyer both here and in the States, and went on to build up a very lucrative practice in Los Angeles specialising in insurance law. But that wasn't enough for him. A man who once boasted of his modest lifestyle - a giveaway Swatch watch, a $200 stereo system - wanted his own airline. After the Highland collapse, he was to make plenty of money out of the legal consequences of the Lloyds debacle and, at his death, was planning a PhD, with a scholarly analysis of the London insurance market's financial resources.

One thing I never knew about Randolph Fields, until I read an obituary in the Times this week, was his love affair with professional gambling. He was not averse, apparently, to luring other passengers in the first-class cabin into impromptu card schools. He was a habitue of the Nevada casinos and was well-known on the professional poker circuit, regularly playing the world championships in Las Vagas and opening his own card room in Jersey.

There is, I suppose, a grey, indeterminate border where business risk shades into the kind of risk which can equate only with the throw of a dice or the turn of a card. Randolph Fields, I now realise, criss-crossed that border at will. What I don't know - and what Fields' premature death prompts me to wonder - is the extent to which the risk- taking which lies at the heart of any competitive market economy needs those with the true gambler's instincts to drive things forward.

Those anodyne health warnings attached to every piece of regulated financial advice about the risk of your investment going down in value as well as up may seem a million miles away from the dynamics of the blackjack table or the roulette wheel. But hunches, instincts, gut feelings - whatever you want to call them - and the determination to back them so often lie at the core of people with a burning business idea and the compulsion to turn them into money-making ventures.

Some successful business executives point to other drivers. Andy Grove, one of the founders and now the president and chief executive officer of Intel, the American multinational chip manufacturer which dominates the PC market-place, believes, according to his new book, that paranoia is what sorts out the survivors from the victims in business today. But the willingness to take serious risks - to bet home and security against a new business project - features high in the literature of entrepreneurship.

Perhaps Fields, the gambler, when he launched Highland Express, was pushing at risks well beyond his power to control. But, there again, Virgin is still flying and prospering. Perhaps the real challenge in modern business is to temper the instincts of the out-and-out risk taker with the complementary skills of those who know how to run the show professionally and profitably, once the aircraft is off the runway.