Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden, KT

Born: March 5, 1926;

Died: November 5, 2021.

LORD Macfarlane of Bearsden, who has died aged 95, was a titan of Scottish business who built his own highly successful firm from scratch, and a stalwart and long-serving supporter of a huge range of Scottish institutions and charities, especially in the arts and sport. He was most prominently in the public eye as chairman of Guinness and United Distillers, charged with clearing up the aftermath of the scandal surrounding the merger of the firms.

Guinness had acquired Distillers, a much larger concern, by fraudulently inflating its own share price and with a commitment to move its headquarters to Scotland; when the scheme was exposed, Ernest Saunders, the former boss, was jailed. The company, without a finance director or chief executive, was at risk of going under and its reputation was in tatters. Macfarlane, who was widely admired for his acumen and probity, was hauled in to take the job.

His wife Greta, alert to the hazards and huge public attention the role would bring, tried to dissuade him, but Macfarlane – as he later explained in a well-worn anecdote – was able to list consolations: “We own Gleneagles so I can get the tee-off times I want,” he told her. “And secondly we own Gordon’s Gin, so that’s you settled.”

In the event, Macfarlane fought through a difficult couple of years to restore the firm’s reputation and financial stability. He was actually able to recover a portion of the money Saunders had distributed to manipulate the share price, by the simple expedient of ring up and politely asking for it back; he embarked on a programme of sponsorship deals that covered everything from football and ballet to the Ryder Cup and Glasgow University Union’s 1989 bid for the World Debating Championships.

His hardest task was to resist huge public and media pressure in Scotland that the headquarters be moved, something he judged wrong for the business. “Bringing the headquarters to Edinburgh was not the best thing for Scotland and I had to take the blows for two years,” he told The Herald’s Ken Smith.

His commitment to public service encompassed a dizzying range of posts: he was at one time or another involved in the running or support of Scottish Ballet, the Scottish National Orchestra, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow School of Art, the High School, the National Art Collections Fund, the Scottish Football League, the Boys’ Brigade, the National Galleries of Scotland, and the Glasgow Development Agency. He served three stints as High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Norman Somerville Macfarlane was born on March 5, 1926, the son of Daniel Macfarlane, a businessman who dealt in typewriter products, and his wife Jessie. He was educated at Glasgow High School, but the family suffered a huge blow during the war when his older brother Richard, a Flying Officer who had been in the Dambuster raids, was shot down and killed.

Norman, who had idolized him, went from school straight into the Army, where he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery and served in Palestine from 1945-47. His military career was ended by a diving accident in which he broke his neck and was shipped home, spending a year recovering in hospital in Cowglen.

He decided against joining his father’s firm, and with his £200 Army severance set up on his own, supplying stationery to firms in the newly-built industrial estate at Hillington. He also attended the Commercial College in Pitt Street, where he met his wife, who was to be a stalwart support through his career.

Macfarlane assiduously built up his business from selling paper from a van into a packaging conglomerate with strong links to the drinks trade (making, among other things, inserts for whisky bottles); in 1973, it went public as the Macfarlane Group (Clansman) PLC, and he remained managing director until 1990.

He went on to acquire further directorships: at Clydesdale Bank in 1980, where he became Deputy Chairman (1993-96), and Edinburgh Fund Managers and General Accident (1984-96). He joined the council of CBI Scotland (1975-81) and the board of the Scottish Development Agency (1979-87), was director of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce (1976-79) and chairman of Glasgow Development Agency (1985-92).

His enormous range of contacts, bolstered by his affability, straightforward manner and enthusiasm for the golf course, enabled him to enlist support for causes and cultural and sporting activities from beyond his own companies. He was friendly with Denis Thatcher, whose wife, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, called on him for the awkward Guinness role and enlisted him to advise on the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

This later meant that Macfarlane, as the sole Scottish member, had a huge influence on the distribution of lottery funding north of the border.

He was knighted in 1983, created a peer in 1991, and joined the Order of the Thistle in 1996. His chief sporting interests were golf and cricket, but during his involvement with Scottish football (when Bells sponsored the leagues), Macfarlane and his wife took the trouble to attend every Scottish football ground to meet club officials – an achievement commemorated by his being awarded a gold sculpture of a Scotch pie.

It was typical of the personal interest that he took in all the institutions he supported; he turned up to wave the GUU debating team off to Princeton, and, as a longstanding collector of paintings – particularly by the Glasgow Boys – took a close and informed interest in the work of the various fine arts groups on which he served.

One of the major projects of his later life was chairing the committee that raised the funding for and oversaw the triumphant restoration of the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. He was asked to obtain £5 million from the private sector; in the end, he secured £13.5m.

He broke his neck for a second time in a bad car crash in 2005, and stood down from the Lords in 2016, but remained alert and active well into old age.

Norman Macfarlane married, in 1953, Marguerite Campbell, with whom he had a son, Hamish, and four daughters – Fiona, Gail, Marjorie and Marguerite.