Duncan Martin, who has died at the age of 88, was a highly respected figure in Scottish business who spent most of his career away from the Western Isles, while maintaining a continuing connection through a range of roles, most notably in relation to the Harris Tweed industry.
His family background was in Harris though he was born in Uist, his parents John and Marion (née MacLeod) having moved there in the early 1930s because it was easier to secure a croft tenancy. His primary education was divided between Uist and Harris before he went to Portree High School and then National Service – which he loved – in the army.
Duncan’s parents returned to Leverburgh which became the family home and for a spell he worked for the Hydro Board in the early days of electricity before leaving to study accountancy at Glasgow University, living with his sister Joan and her family. He worked for several companies, including the Daily Record, before joining Transport Development Group (TDG) where he was to spend the rest of his business career.
In 1964, he married Margaret MacLean, a native of Scarp where her father was postmaster, who had come to Glasgow for nursing training. They had four children – Norman, John, Stuart and Marion. The family moved to Aberdeen in 1970, as Duncan progressed through TDG, and in 1982 to Edinburgh where Duncan ran the group’s operations in Scotland, the north of England and Irish Republic. He retired in 1993 after 28 years with TDG.
Prior to that, they bought a cottage in Bedarsaig in North Harris and would spend half the year there until old age brought that to an end. They loved being on Harris, knew a lot of people and had the language but even so it was remarkable that they made the transition so easily having for long had a working life that only allowed them two weeks a year for summer holidays.
As well as his role in Harris Tweed, Duncan was for a time a board member of Caledonian MacBrayne in the days when islanders were appointed. His son Norman recalls: “A couple of years ago, we got talking to one of the deckhands on the Tarbert ferry who asked if I was Duncan Martin’s son and then proceeded to tell us how the ferry staff loved when dad crossed with them because he would go out his way to talk to the most junior staff.
“Fair to say he had an easy manner and would be equally comfortable conversing with deckhands or fellow board directors and treating all the same”.
Throughout his life, Duncan was strongly influenced by his Christian commitment and upbringing. He was an elder within congregations in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, preached regularly and was a director/trustee of the Scottish Bible Society. When spending time in Harris, he remained closely involved in church life on the island.
Twelve years ago, Duncan was diagnosed with dementia. He remained entirely contented and his family say that though he could not answer other basic questions, he was great with anything they asked him about numbers! Throughout these difficult years, Margaret was his full-time and devoted carer, despite her own advancing years. A funeral service was held in Edinburgh and his remains were interred last Saturday at Borve cemetery.
IAN ANGUS MACKENZIE writes:
Duncan Martin was appointed as a director of the Harris Tweed Association in the late ‘80s. He was asked by the chairman, Dr Calum MacLeod, to lead the HT Development Working Party, a new group set up to plot the way forward for the industry which was struggling after the sudden collapse of the US market in 1986.
The group included all sectors of the industry, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, WIE/HIE, and, later, Lews Castle College. The DWP was responsible for the development and introduction of the double-width loom, overseeing training for weavers, and finding the financial assistance to enable the weavers to buy the new looms and build new sheds where necessary. It also contributed to the work being carried out to bring in the Harris Tweed Act, and was responsible for the new trademark regulations.
Duncan gave his time and energy to the DWP over several years, attending monthly meetings and dealing with the multitude of difficulties that cropped up during this very complicated process. All this was done on a voluntary basis. All who sat round the table greatly admired and respected Duncan for the way he chaired the group. He was fully committed from the start and patiently, yet firmly, worked through every issue until it was resolved.
There were many points at which the whole process could have collapsed but, largely due to Duncan’s chairmanship, it never did. The DWP fulfilled its remit with the introduction of the new loom and the recent revival of the industry owes much to the decisions taken by the DWP in the early ‘90s. Duncan Martin was a huge part of that.
When the HTA came into existence in 1993, Duncan was natural choice for chair. His standing allied to his integrity and commitment meant his appointment was greatly welcomed. He had earned the respect of all sectors of the industry with his work on the DWP and brought with him the experience of a very successful business career.
He gave the new HTA a stature that was invaluable during the difficult years that followed the major changes. Duncan served two four-year terms as chairman. He was fully involved, always willing to attend meetings and help in any way he could. His leadership was exemplary and he was greatly respected and liked by all those working with him.
I first came in contact with Duncan as a member of the DWP. It was immediately apparent he was a thorough, professional, and very able person. I came to greatly respect him and admire his patience in dealing with a sometimes difficult group of people! I worked closely with him as chief executive of the HTA during his chairmanship and will always be grateful for the support and encouragement he gave me.
There was no problem that wasn’t eased by a quick call and his willingness to become involved. Duncan had many qualities which made him an excellent chairman but I will also remember him as a very friendly and hugely likeable individual who made a difference to whatever he was involved in.
The events which changed the Harris Tweed Industry forever are now fading into history but the contribution made by Duncan Martin should be remembered as very significant.