Robert Hugh Stannus Robertson, the son of Sir Robert Robertson, one-time Government Chemist, and Lady Robertson, was born on 17 June 1911 in Greenwich; he died on 7 July 1999 in Perth. He was educated at Rugby School where he read classics, briefly attended the University of Frankfurt-am-Main in 1928, and then gained an MA in geology, mineralogy and chemistry at Cambridge. After graduating, he spent several months mapping Dicksonland in Spitsbergen, and has a glacier, Robertsonbreen, named after him.
In 1933 he was appointed chief chemist to the Fuller's Earth Union Ltd in Surrey, where he spent nine very successful years. He devoted all his working life to applying science to industry and specialised in the creation of new processes and new industries.
He moved to Glasgow in 1944 and, 14 years later, to Pitlochry, which he regarded as his spiritual home since many previous generations of his family hailed from the Parish of Moulin and Pitlochry. This was where he remained for the rest of his life.
A world authority
Working as a consultant, he rapidly became a highly respected world authority on the uses of clay minerals; the methodology of raw material development and the management of innovation. His work was varied and worldwide, including, for example, fieldwork in France, Spain, Greece and the US, as well as the United Kingdom. His activities contributed to the success of industries as diverse as ceramics, cat-litter, a number of catalytic processes and North Sea oil extraction, to name but a few.
Yet this was but one aspect of his work. His interests and knowledge ranged widely, from linguistics to the rise and fall of civilisations; from Scottish dancing to reform of the economic system; from Scottish politics to the arrival of the Saxons in Kent. A legacy of his time at Rugby, he remained fluent in Latin and classical Greek.
In science alone he could and did comment knowledgeably and pertinently on almost any field. He was a very concrete and practically oriented man, although, perhaps surprisingly, he did not seem particularly to enjoy the exercise of practical skills. He never learnt to drive, for example, and he did not appear to feel anything comparable to my own nostalgia, as a one-time synthetic chemist, for "hands-on" work no longer practised. Nor, on the other hand, was he altogether comfortable discussing philosophy, or other abstract topics. Nevertheless, he was indeed one of a dwindling band of true polymaths.
A far-seeing document
To provide a platform for the original work he and a number of friends were performing in the field of raw material development and industry creation, Robert set up the Resource Use Institute in 1969. This is a company limited by guarantee, based in Highland Perthshire, but with members who are widely scattered. Signatories to the original document, and other members, included Sir Robert Watson-Watt, Dr Neville Woodward, the Duke of Atholl, Alec Barbour, Lord Ritchie-Calder and others among well-wishers of the venture. It was a far-seeing document which included reference to a hoped-for University of the Highlands which now, almost 30 years later, is about to come into being.
He wrote many scientific and technological papers and was the author or co-author of five books. He served a term as chairman of the British Clay Minerals Group. He was a member of many learned and scientific societies, including the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of Chemical Industry, and was a Fellow of the Geological Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh (elected 1970). He was also a member of the Athenaeum Club, where he loved to engage in debate with people from all kinds of intellectual backgrounds.
Politically, he wass too intelligent and idiosyncratic a man to fit comfortable into any one single party, and he would seek to encourage what seemed to him good thinking wherever he found it. However, the Scottish National Party remained the nearest to a political home for him, for he had campaigned for greater Scottish autonomy long before it became fashionable, and he served terms as president of both the Scottish Patriots (he succeeded Sir Compton Mackenzie) and the Atholl Branch of the SNP. All his life, Robert was passionate about Scotland and he was extremely knowledgeable about the geography and natural history of his country.
Setting ethical goals
I knew him for the last 30 years of his life and he very soon became a dep friend as well as a colleague. One episode of his earlier life which he related to me more than once - for it was an experience that obviously influenced the whole of his adult life - was a holiday visit home to Fife with his father, in what must have been the late Twenties or early Thirties. Out walking by the coast they had come across a farmer tipping potatoes into the sea, because they were unsaleable during the Depression, at almost the same moment that a catch of fish was being dumped on land as free fertiliser for exactly the same reason. From that moment his ethical goals were set, and he vowed to work towards somehow trying to end that kind of economic obscenity.
Probably this accounted for what sometimes seemed a rather driven nature. In 1976, as his 65th birthday approached, he told me hat he was definitely going to retire, and he seemed to relish a bottle of champagne left by his doorstep on the day. But the day afterwards - and on all the days afterwards - there was no discernible difference to his work patterns!
In later life, freed of the need to consult for money, the focus of his study was on cultural identity and the pattern of history, particularly of Scotland and other ancient cultures of Western Europe. He was always interested in linguistics and although not a Gaelic speaker he contributed to the creation of English-Gaelic scientific word lists. His tireless reading and research on a plethora of topics led him to correspond with a great many people around the world.
Right to the end
A close and loving family life was very significant to Robert. It was in Pitlochry that he met Anne-Lise, who was on a visit to Scoland at he time, and they were married near her home town of Rolie in Switzerland in 1962. He is survived by her; by children Alison, Malcolm and Duncan; and grandchildren Róisín and Liam.
A sadness to family and close friends is that, right to the end, Robert was so conscious of what he had not achieved in life that he could never totally relax and be happy with all that he had done. He lived a fine and varied life and did make many valuable contributions to technology and the economic life of the country; but not the least of his achievements was the vast range and diversity of people that he touched and stimulated, and the many friends he made from all walks of life, all of whom feel the poorer for the passing of this remarkable man - but proud and privileged to have known him.
Edward Kirby, Year Book of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 2000