An appreciation

DONALD Clark, who has died aged 75 after a short illness, was for 50 years the convivial, larger-than-life host at the George Hotel in the 18th-century conservation town of Inveraray, and one of the most colourful characters in Argyll. His was the fifth generation of the Clark family to run the establishment, a baton which has now passed to the sixth.

Latterly, his mobility hampered by injury and an elbow crutch, he would sit in the corner of The George public bar on an over-sized carved wooden stool. From his throne he dispensed news, advice and anecdotes – albeit not always historically accurate. His inimitable irony, perfectly-timed humour and the occasional reprimand to a wayward customer were all fuelled by a generous glass.

As former president of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association and Keeper of the Quaich, he knew the intricacies of the business intimately. His taste was eclectic and his appetite substantial, extending from Saint-Émilion Grand Cru and Dom Perignon to Tennent’s Lager and GlenDronach single malt. On a hot day he would have an icy Martini or a gin and tonic, proportionately scaled up in a pint glass. When asked if he had time for a surreptitious ‘small one’, he would reply: “I’ll decide the size for myself, if you don’t mind.”

The records suggest that his frequent claim to be Scottish Slimmer of the Year, after getting his weight down from 30 stone to 26 stone, was fanciful.

He was fastidious about standards in the little public bar, training his regulars to clear tables of empty glasses and plates promptly, and to keep the log fire stoked on winter evenings. If one of his regulars turned up uncharacteristically well-dressed, Donald, registering mild surprise, would ask: “What’s the occasion? A funeral? Your latest marriage? Or has your court case come up?”

In summer, an erratic stream of foreign tourists would have their first encounter with a Scottish pub, standing in the doorway bewildered as to what happens next – sit or stand? Fight their way to the mobbed bar or go to a table and expect a waitress? Donald would call them over to his corner and was soon plying them with drinks, food and conversation, not infrequently paying the entire bill for his astonished guests.

Donald, a Francophile, loved his summers in Collioure, where “Le Grand Ecossais” was almost as well-known as in Argyll. A fixture of the local bars and restaurants, and frequently crossing the border to patronise Spanish hostelries, he revelled in the region’s seafood, wine and culture.

His hobbies included cooking, opera, reading, and lively conversation on a sweeping range of topics from local history to civil engineering. His knowledge was genuinely wide, but when occasionally encountering someone with a superior command of the topic in question, he would quickly change the subject and admonish: “Ach, you’re showing off now.”

Donald Clark was born on July 18, 1944, in Rottenrow Hospital, Glasgow, the youngest child of Donald Clark and Elizabeth Inglis, following by nine years his only sibling, Fiona. His early years were spent in Inveraray where family life revolved around his parents’ hotel in the little white-washed town.

He was schooled locally and in Helensburgh, then Strathallan (1958-1963) where he acquired his love of sports. Contrary to what his dimensions in later life would suggest, he was athletic when young, excelling at rugby and playing for his school and West of Scotland First XV and the old boys’ 4As. He also enjoyed curling, motor-boating, snow skiing and water-skiing, where his party piece was to mono-ski down Loch Fyne while drinking a pint.

He started to pursue a naval career, perhaps influenced by the many raucous submariners who visited The George during sonar testing under the quiet waters of Loch Fyne – the collection of Royal Navy vessel badges displayed in the hotel’s lounge bar is said to be the best outside of Portsmouth. But his plans were cut short by the death of his father in 1964, when he returned to Inveraray to help his mother run the family business.

A trip to Gretna Green in 1969 soon resulted in his wedding in Glasgow to Jennifer ‘Jimpy’ Waddell, with British Lion Sandy Carmichael as best man. Sons Donald John and Christopher soon followed. Although the couple separated when the boys were teenagers, the couple later resumed an amicable friendship. Donald cheerfully celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary in March 2019, remarking as a minor aside that he had been divorced for 35 of those years.

After several weeks of illness Donald died in Oban hospital, where he slowly sipped his last mouthfuls of Dom Perignon from a sponge despite the notice that read Nil by Mouth. His funeral was one of the biggest held in Inveraray. Interment was in a gale at Glen Shira, with the A83 Rest And Be Thankful road ironically blocked by one of the landslides for whose solution he so vociferously campaigned.

He leaves sons Donald and Kris, grand-daughters Anouk, Manon and Lola, his long-term partner Jane Somerville, and his former wife, Jimpy.

Certainly a man of large stature, he was a giant in so many other ways – personality, sociability, generosity, knowledge – and a friend, helper, adviser and host to many. To quote his own frequent remark upon parting: “We’ll see you around the parish.”