Campaigner who blew whistle on HIDB scandal

PHIL Durham, who died last week at the age of 80, survived for only about two weeks after the publication of his book Highland Whistle Blower.

The successful publication of his account of what became known as the Durham affair prompted him to contemplate his own demise with the comment: ''I'll die a relieved man. I will depart satisfied.''

Durham had been a lifelong campaigner. The fact that he had to use a wheelchair, the legacy from contracting polio at the age of 26, did not deter him from travelling widely throughout the Highlands to support whatever cause he had decided to espouse.

His cause celebre - the Durham affair - dates back to the 1960s when the Highlands and Islands Development Board was the bright hope for bringing jobs, enterprise, and an economic future to communities in the north and west Highlands.

Phil Durham was at that time a junior (and part-time) employee of the HIDB. He adopted the whistle-blower role over the activities of Frank Thomson, a flamboyant businessman and HIDB board member.

Thomson had business interests in Invergordon, including the largest grain distillery in Europe. He was also an enthusiastic proponent of an ambitious scheme to establish a petrochemical project near the town.

Durham flagged up the perceived conflict of interest to the then Scottish Secretary Willie Ross. When that provoked no response he copied his memo to the Times. The Times investigation led to a top-level meeting between its then editor, William Rees-Mogg, and a senior member of the HIDB. The following day Durham was sacked. He had been, he felt, betrayed.

Durham insisted that the publication of his book, which details the incident and the subsequent controversy, was not an act of revenge. ''I just needed to set the record straight. I could only do that when the official papers were released.

''What should you do if you discover that the quasi-government body for whom you work is paying the substantial research and development costs for a possible foreign-owned multimillion-dollar petro-chemical complex promoted

by the private company of one of its members, which could profit hugely should it proceed but need not repay any of its costs should it not?''

Durham pointed out that his wife's family, as local farmers, had stood to make a considerable financial gain if the project went ahead and their land was bought out.

Even without the HIDB experience, Durham had a fuller life than most. He was 18 when the Second World War broke out and he joined the Royal Navy. He was a dashing, bearded submarine officer before polio struck. His wartime experiences, including the capture of a German U-boat, were chronicled in his 1996 book The Fuhrer Led But We Overtook Him. A plaque from the captured U-boat, which was sailed in triumph up the Thames and under London Bridge, was a treasured souvenir in the Durham household at Scotsburn in the Easter Ross hills.

After his dismissal from the HIDB, Phil Durham and his wife Jane ran the 1300-acre livestock farm at Scotsburn. Jane was killed in a road accident in 1977 and the farm was handed over to their son, Richard. Phil then took command of the Citizens' Advice Bureau branches in Ross-shire. With that came the opportunity to put much of his previous experience of building a case to good use as he represented members of the public at employment tribunals and

other forums.

When a drinks party was held at Scotsburn last month to mark the publication of his whistleblower book, he confessed: ''I am pretty feeble and really I am not long for this world.''

HIghland Whistle Blower: The True Story of the Phil Durham Affair is published by Northern Books from Famedram.