Ambassador to Zaire and Sweden

Born: August 29, 1935;

Died: October 26, 2019

ROBERT Cormack, who has died aged 84, had a distinguished career as a diplomat during which his tact and calmness under pressure were challenged on testing foreign assignments, especially on two occasions.

Firstly, at the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and a decade later in Zaire during the civil unrest and guerilla warfare. Typically, he displayed his customary resolute tact even when he was refused access to the weekly briefings at the British Embassy in Zaire. Cormack simply refused to be refused entry.

Robert Linklater Burke Cormack was born in Assam, where his father, Freddy, was an engineer. His mother, Elspeth Linklater, was the sister of the author Eric Linklater. The Linklater family’s connection with Orkney went back many years and the Cormacks regularly returned for holidays in the family home.

Cormack’s childhood in Assam was typical of the era. He had his own ayah (nanny) and a syce (groom) to tend the horses. When he rode into the governor’s residence, the Gurkha sentries presented arms. He became fluent in Hindustani.

He started his education in Shillong but after the war he and his sister returned to Scotland where he attended Ardvreck prep school and then Trinity College, Glenalmond (now Glenalmond College). He was a member of the victorious team that won the Ashburton Shield in 1952 at Bisley. He scored the highest equal score for the Glenalmond team and after their resounding victory they upheld a Glenalmond tradition by celebrating at a smart roadhouse in Surrey called Pantiles.

Keith Grant was also a member of the V111. He remembers the excitement of winning the Ashburton. “After our jolly evening at Pantiles we got the overnight train to Perth to be greeted by the entire school. We returned our rifles and were carried shoulder high: the captain and Robert took the Shield up to Hall where it proudly hung for a year.”

Cormack did his national service with the Black Watch (1954-56) serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in British Guiana. It was a taxing assignment as an uprising by the People’s Progressive Party had caused deep unrest throughout the area.

He went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, read agriculture and stayed on to learn Swahili. Cormack sat the entrance exam for the Foreign Office and came second top. He visited several former colonies as they gained independence and was then posted to Vietnam as a press officer attached to the Embassy. He flew on many hazardous US helicopter missions accompanying leading war reporters including the BBC’s Martin Bell.

There followed a similarly dangerous posting to Kenya (now Zaire) in 1976. Zaire was in turmoil – both socially and economically – and the guerilla warfare put great strains on all the diplomats – especially during the Katanga uprisings. Cormack became involved in the medical crisis that broke out as the first cases of Ebola virus were found spreading rapidly. The epidemic was officially declared an emergency by the World Health Organization.

Food and medical supplies were restricted and despite gangs of roaming mercenaries, Cormack travelled around the remotest parts in his Land Rover distributing vital equipment. In a remote jungle area, Cormack called a meeting of village elders but no one turned up. Cormack arrested the village headmen and put them in the local jail for the night. He supplied them with a hearty meal and calm was restored. He was reprimanded by his superiors at the colonial office.

After postings at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London and a brief time in Sweden he returned as ambassador in Zaire (1987-1991). His years (1991-95) as ambassador to Sweden were particularly memorable as Sweden joined the European Union. He also hosted a memorable evening at the embassy to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Nobel Prize which was attended by all the surviving winners.

Cormack retired to his native Orkney, where he had bought the 18th century Westness House on the island of Rousay. He planted over 2000 trees and he and his wife became active in the community.

Wetness’s former farm offices had been converted into a chapel in the 1920s which was regularly used for Sunday service by the islanders. After the service, “all the congregation shared lunch hosted by Mr and Mrs Cormack.”

Cormack married Eivor Kumlin, who was Swedish in 1962. She and their three children survive him.