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Significant Scots
Sir Ian Noble


Obituary by Phil Davison

Sir Iain Noble, 3rd Baronet of Ardkinglas and Eilean Iarmain.

Born: 8 September, 1935, in Berlin.

Died: 25 December, 2010, Isle Ornsay, on the Isle of Skye, aged 75.

SIR Iain Noble, whose formal title was 3rd Baronet of Ardkinglas and Eilean Iarmain, was a major landowner on the Isle of Skye, a banker and businessman, a hotelier and distillery owner, and a passionate activist on behalf of the Gaelic language.

He famously courted controversy by admitting he was a "racialist," in that he wanted to preserve the genetic purity of the Skye by discouraging incomers from England. "I don't have any English blood in my veins, a thing which I am inordinately proud of," he told a 2003 conference of the Scottish Countryside Alliance in Edinburgh's Sheraton Hotel.

In remarks that sparked a furore in Scotland and England alike, he went on: "I am parochial and I enjoy it … it's wonderful. It's so much more interesting than being homogenous with the rest of the world … look at all these English people … buying up all the houses and forcing the prices up out of the reach of the local people."

Although that speech brought him more publicity than anything else in his life, Sir Iain was a highly respected man of many parts. Brought up travelling the world as the son of a Whitehall diplomat, he went on to set up a Scottish merchant bank, Noble Grossart of Edinburgh, in 1969, and to found the Gaelic College, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, in Sleat on Skye, in 1973. The college, in a restored farm building, is the world's only higher education institute to teach exclusively in Gaelic and has been critical in keeping the language alive.

"If you revive your language," Sir Iain said recently, "you have a greater chance of reviving your community."

Before the college opened, Gaelic on Skye was essentially a language of farmers, often little-educated. It has now become something of an engine for economic growth, attracting academics and tourists from around the world.

Sir Ian was also the driving force behind the erection of the first Gaelic-language road signs in Scotland - although many criticised it as a waste of taxpayers' money - and was the first man to use a Gaelic cheque book, issued specifically for him by the Bank of Scotland.

He was not a native Gaelic speaker although he did speak several other languages quite well. From a landowning family of bankers originally from Argyllshire, he became fascinated by Gaelic when he heard ghillies speaking it while he was already in his thirties, vowed to learn it and became almost-fanatical in its defence.

In 1982, he was named Scotsman of the Year by the Knights Templar and in 2000 was Keeper of the Quaich.

He did, however, spark controversy during the construction and after the building of the Skye Road Bridge when he was chairman of the Skye Bridge Company, the private firm that collected what islanders and others considered exorbitant tolls. Some also accused him of buying land he knew the bridge would have to pass over, in order to gain compensation, something he denied.

Iain Andrew Noble was born in 1935 in Berlin, where his father, Sir Andrew Napier Noble, was a British diplomat during the rise of Adolf Hitler. Iain would inherit the baronetcy after his father's death in 1987. By the time he was two, his father by then ambassador to China, Iain found himself imprisoned with his parents - his mother was Norwegian - in a Shanghai hotel for nine months because of the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. He had never seen so much of his parents, having been looked after by nannies and governesses until then.

He had most of his education in Buenos Aires, after his father was posted to Argentina, returning to the UK to attend Eton, and then University College, Oxford. He did his national service from 1954 to 1956 and stayed in the army for three years as a lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps, and later in the Territorial Army as a lieutenant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

In 1969 he co-founded the merchant bank Noble Grossart in Edinburgh - it later became the Noble Group. When he was bought out in 1972, he bought the 23,000-acre Eilean Iarmain estate on Skye, where he also purchased the Eilean Iarmain Hotel, now a popular, upmarket romantic getaway for couples from around the world and where Gaelic is the first language. He also founded, in 1976, the "Gaelic whisky" company PrÓban na Linne, which produces the award-winning malt Poit Dhubh and the blends TÚ Bheag and MacNaMara.

In all his ventures, Sir Iain practised "positive discrimination" on behalf of Gaelic speakers and encouraged his staff to learn the language, including a Polish woman who was manager of his hotel. Hence his 2003 speech at the Edinburgh Sheraton, which thrust him into prominence around the UK, even around the world. Suggesting to the Scottish Countryside Alliance and distinguished guests that the English should be prevented from settling on Skye, he said: "Does that mean I must be a racialist? I think I have to confess that I am.

"It doesn't mean I don't like foreigners. I love them, all colours. I have many Indian friends and even one or two black ones. But I don't want them to settle and create ghettos in my patch of the country.

"People thought tourism was the easiest industry to start in these areas. But, damn it, prostitution is the easiest thing for a woman to do who wants to earn a bob. It doesn't mean it's the best."

Noting that the Scottish Natural Heritage tries to ensure trees are grown from local seeds, he urged it to adopt the same policy when employing staff. "They've got an office with ten people in Portree and there's only Scotsmen there," he said to laughter.

Sir Iain was a former trustee of the National Museums of Scotland and past president of the Saltire Society.

For the past ten years, after his retirement, he was chairman and chief executive of Sir Iain Noble & Partners, financial advisers of Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh.

He died peacefully at his home in Isle Ornsay, Skye, on Christmas Day and is survived by his wife of 20 years, Lady Lucilla.

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