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