An appreciation

DR Harold Mills, who has died aged 81, was, in a life of distinguished public service, a scientist, local politician and senior civil servant. Following his retirement, he served as chair and board member of many public and charitable bodies, perhaps most notably Caledonian MacBrayne, which he chaired between 1999 and 2006.

He was born in Greenock, and more than a small part of Harold never left the town. After attending Greenock High School, he completed a first-class degree and PhD at Glasgow University – his PhD focusing on the field of X-ray crystallography. He then worked at the Roswell Park Memorial Institute in the US, focusing on cancer research and, particularly, the structure of proteins.

Head-hunted back to Scotland, where his heart lay, he spent the next five years as a lecturer in chemistry at Glasgow University, where he continued to be very active in research. Living again in Greenock he decided, with some friends, to challenge the Labour Party’s hegemony by standing for the local council as a Liberal in 1965. To his surprise he won a seat and in due course became Town Treasurer.

His time on the council whetted his appetite for public service and he applied to join the Scottish Office as a direct-entry Principal. In a 30-year career he worked on many causes that were important to him throughout his life – the environment, housing and transport. But there was much else besides.

He headed the team which was charged with devising, from scratch, plans for a Scottish Assembly prior to the 1979 referendum. He spent two years heading up the office of Cecil Parkinson, at that time Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. When the Falklands War began in 1983, he found himself as the senior civil servant supporting a member of the War Cabinet.

On returning to Scotland, he continued to climb the civil service ladder. He was Principal Finance Officer at the Scottish Office, then the the Secretary of the Scottish Development Department (SDD), which oversaw housing, transport, the environment, and historic buildings, all of which had engaged Harold throughout his adult life. And then, on his watch, he found himself deeply involved in three major disasters – Lockerbie, Chernobyl and its impact on the environment and food supply, and the Braer oil tanker disaster off Shetland.

Common to all these was the need to provide Ministers with everything they needed to handle the situations politically; to manage international press interest; and above all, to create the conditions in which front-line responders could do their jobs effectively. These were tough challenges but Harold was not just a safe pair of hands but also a leader in developing the Government’s responses.

Key to that was that he was a man who always wanted fully to understand things. Possibly because of his scientific training, he was meticulous in seeking to know everything about a particular situation and its possible solutions. Superficial knowledge leading to poor decisions was not for him. These were qualities which won him great respect from his colleagues and from politicians alike.

In his professional life, Harold never took his many, weighty responsibilities lightly, but he often had a twinkle in his eye. And all who knew him responded to that side of him.

When he retired from the civil service in 1998 this allowed him to devote his talents and energies to many other projects dear to his heart. He became Chair of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and Chair of Home in Scotland. He had a long association with the Viewpoint Trust, served 19 years on the Board of the Maritime Museum in Irvine, was Board member of the Waterways Trust Scotland, and Chair of Land Trust.

But in a sense, the role he was destined for was to become Chair of Caledonian MacBrayne – a job he loved and for which, it could be said, he had been born. Notwithstanding some initial controversy at the time of his appointment, his commitment to the West Coast and, above all, his lifelong love of Scotland’s ferries fitted him ideally for the role, and he was never happier than when travelling on the company’s ferries and meeting staff across the Highlands and Islands. His time at the company saw the introduction of new routes and five new vessels, including the MV Hebrides, launched by the Queen - the first CalMac ferry to be named by a reigning monarch.

The other constants in his life included his long association with St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, where he served as an Elder for many years. He was for a time the Cathedral’s Treasurer, and he took on the challenging role of organising the great state and city services which the Cathedral regularly hosts. The other constant was his family - Marion, his wife, and Margaret, his sister, plus a much wider network of relations scattered around the globe.

Harold was a quiet and modest man who nevertheless, through a dedication to public service achieved great things. He has left Scotland and the world a better place. He will be missed.