Engineer, supporter of the arts in Scotland and a founder of the Edinburgh Book Festival

Born: January 6, 1927;

Died: September 18, 2019.

LORD Robert Balfour, who has died aged 92, had a remarkably varied life – involving business, the arts, India and public life in Scotland. He was a distinguished chancellor of Stirling University from 1988 to 98 and a campaigning chairman of the Scottish Arts Council but he will be most fondly remembered as a lynchpin in the co-founding of the Edinburgh Book Festival in 1983.

Typical of this modest man, when his portrait by Juliet Wood was commissioned to hang in Stirling University, he insisted that it depicted him wearing his engineer’s overalls rather than the chancellor’s official robes.

Robert Bruce, 12th Lord Balfour of Burleigh, succeeded his father in 1967 to one of the ancient titles in the Peerage of Scotland dating from 1607. He and his three sisters were brought up in Brucefield House near Clackmannan: the original family seat was Burleigh Castle near Kinross.

Balfour’s father was a military intelligence officer in the First World War. From his Paris office in the Rue St Roch, he ran an operation to recruit and train agents who then operated in Luxembourg monitoring the movement of German troop trains. He was much involved in politics and had served as secretary of state for Scotland and was a confidant of Queen Victoria.

Balfour attended Westminster School and in the last two years of the Second World War served in the Home Guard. He did his national service (1945-48) in the Royal Navy as a radio electrician’s mate.

He then joined English Electric as a graduate apprentice and worked his way up the management ladder. In 1957 he was appointed a manager of the company’s affairs in India and then, from 1960-64, general manager of their affairs throughout the subcontinent. His offices were in Madras and it was the beginning of his life-long passion for India and the Indians.

Balfour then returned to the UK and worked in various companies but on his father’s death in 1967 he decided to manage the estate at Burleigh. His expertise in business affairs made him a well-informed director of such leading Scottish companies as the Bank of Scotland, Scottish Investment Trust and William Lawson Distillers. Other commitments included as trustee of Bletchley Park, the decoding centre during the Second World War and of the John Muir Trust.

He was chairman of the Turing Institute at Strathclyde University which is internationally recognised for its research into Artificial Intelligence. Through the Institute’s sponsorship Balfour was much involved in the Robot Olympics in Glasgow in 1990. The opening ceremony included the carrying of a torch in Glasgow – inevitably by a robot - from a Greek restaurant in Sauchiehall Street.

Balfour was an enthusiast for Scotland and Scottish arts. He had many interests and was a hands-on director or chairman of such leading institutions as the Scottish Arts Council (1971-80), the Cappella Nova chamber choir and Canongate Press.

In 1983 the Edinburgh Festival’s director, John Drummond, wanted to expand the festival to include literature and a committee was formed under Balfour’s energetic chairmanship to organise a book festival. Centred in a marquee in the glories of Charlotte Square it was a success from that first year with 120 authors speaking (including Anita Desai, John Updike and Anthony Burges) and over 30,000 attending. It was a magnificent success and has continued to prosper over the years. The success in many ways, is thanks to Balfour’s inspiring initial foresight and enthusiasm. He remained a director until 2004.

He was proud of his family’s connections with Scottish history and his local community. In 2017 he wrote the forward to a bicentenary celebration of the local church – known as The Church on the Hill. He recalled that “my ancestors were heritors of the church and were for many years long-standing elders.”

In 1971 he married Jennifer Manasseh, former wife of John Brittain-Catlin, brother of the SDP politician Shirley Williams. They had two daughters, Victoria and Ishbel. The marriage was dissolved in 1993 and Balfour married Janet Morgan, the author of acclaimed biographies of Agatha Christie and Edwina Mountbatten.

He is survived by his wife and two children. Typical of Balfour in the announcement of his death it stated, “The arrangements for the funeral will be private; if you like, plant a tree.”

The title passes to his daughter the Hon. Laetitia Bruce-Winkler, the former Mistress of Burleigh. She is only the second female to possess the title in its 400-year-old history.

Alasdair Steven