Sir Angus Grossart, who has died aged 85, was Edinburgh’s pre-eminent financier and a pillar of the Scottish cultural scene, both as chairman of the National Galleries and National Museums of Scotland and as a patron of the decorative arts in his own right.
Grossart’s business interests were multitudinous and far-reaching, but his permanent base of operations was the boutique merchant bank Noble Grossart which he co-founded in 1968 after a short first career in the law.
In his own words, Noble Grossart was “the craft workshop of the merchant banking sector”, focused on identifying up-and-coming companies, raising capital for them and advising them in mergers and acquisitions.
His preference was to back ventures in which “the downside is limited and the upside can be stimulated”, avoiding those that were labour-intensive or overly bureaucratic.
Early winners in his portfolio included Pict Petroleum, which exploited oil and gas finds in the North Sea and North America, while Noble Grossart made its first mark as a competitor to the established London merchant banks in 1974 when it advised the Kuwait Investment Office on the takeover of a UK property company.
Noble Grossart’s growth path was not without mishaps, but it achieved full recognition by the Bank of England in 1980 and went on to be associated with a roll-call of Scottish entrepreneurial success – including the likes of Kwikfit founder Sir Tom Farmer, Aberdeen oilman Sir Ian Wood, transport tycoon Sir Brian Souter and supermarket takeover player James Gulliver.
Grossart himself was, according to one observer, “living proof of the old adage that the quieter someone is, the more power they wield”. He preferred to keep Noble Grossart small, nimble and private, rarely gave interviews, and declared no political affiliation: “The only establishment I am a member of is an establishment of one.”
His personal fortune was estimated at £270 million, and his greatest expense was his passion for the restoration of ancient buildings, including his own castle. It was, he said, “one of the interesting ways of losing money”.
One of three sons of a Lanarkshire tailor, Angus McFarlane McLeod Grossart was born on April 6 1937 and brought up in modest circumstances when his father’s business struggled in the post-war years.
Educated at Glasgow Academy and Glasgow University, where he took an LLB in law after an MA in arts subjects, Angus’s notable early talent was for golf: he captained the Scottish junior team for two years and was runner-up in the 1957 British youth championships.
Meanwhile he developed his business skills selling cut-price confectionery on a stall in Glasgow’s Barrowland market: “Stuff that had gone a little wonky in the making… decapitated jelly babies or tablet [a Scottish version of fudge] that was either extraordinarily hard or slightly soft. It was like a business school class in getting off your backside and actually doing something.”
He qualified as a chartered accountant in 1962 before being called to the Scottish Bar and specialising in corporate tax law – often appearing as junior to James Mackay QC (later, as Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Margaret Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor) whom he regarded as an inspirational figure.
Grossart enjoyed advocacy but found the Bar “a little cloistered”. In 1969 he left to create Noble Grossart, in partnership with the landowning entrepreneur and Gaelic language activist (Sir) Iain Noble. The beginnings of the North Sea oil boom made the timing propitious and business rapidly took off, but Iain Noble withdrew in 1972 to pursue his own projects, leaving Grossart in full command.
In later years Grossart’s outside directorships included Royal Bank of Scotland, where he was vice chairman from 1996 to 2005; after the bank’s collapse in 2008, Grossart initially defended its chief executive Fred Goodwin as a “scapegoat”, but later aligned himself with investors who were suing to recoup losses.
He was also on boards of the insurance broking giant Alexander & Alexander, the brewer Scottish & Newcastle, and the newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror.
He was chairman of Scotland’s oldest auction house, Lyon & Turnbull, where he had backed a buyout by a group of auctioneers, and a long-serving chairman or director of several Edinburgh-based investment trusts – where he sometimes met objections from institutional investors who felt he had been in situ far longer than complied with modern corporate governance.
In parallel with his business career, Grossart acquired many public roles in the cultural arena and beyond that made him, according to one profile, “arguably the most influential man in Scotland”.
He chaired the trustees of National Galleries of Scotland from 1988 to 1997 and of National Museums Scotland from 2006 to 2012; he was also deputy chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Scottish Civic Trust; at various times he was a vice president of Scottish Opera, and a director of Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Scottish National Orchestra.
In 2013 he took on the chairmanship of Burrell Renaissance, a project to refurbish the Glasgow gallery that hosts the eclectic Burrell Collection; and in 2014 he chaired the Edinburgh International Cultural Summit.
A notable Grossart brainchild in a different sphere was the Scottish Futures Trust, an arm’s length agency of the Scottish government which he chaired from 2008 to 2012 and which was designed to generate value-for-money investment in public infrastructure such as social housing and new schools by attracting private capital in innovative ways – improving on discredited earlier public-private finance models.
Grossart compared his first encounters with doubting local authority leaders to “Lenin stepping out of the train at St Petersburg”.
Meanwhile, he was deeply engaged in the painstaking restoration of the tower house of Pitcullo, dating from the 12th century, on a small hilltop in Fife with a distant view of St Andrews and the sea.
Having bought it as a ruin in 1977, his first challenge was to repair the crumbling structure and give it a new roof. But the project was highly therapeutic: “When the financial sector undergoes a major hiccup and you’re up a scaffolding helping to lay the stones of a turret that will last 400 years, it doesn’t seem too important.”
In the mid 1990s, he was also able to buy the “steadings and policies” [barns and surrounding land] of Pitcullo and embark on a restoration of three walled gardens representing different eras of the house’s history.
Inside the house, he commissioned the muralist Michael Pinfold – who worked there for seven years – to paint motifs of flowers, animals and Celtic symbolism.
The ceiling of the great hall was decorated with wild flowers of Fife, while above Grossart’s own bed, a set of wooden panels depicted “eight deadly sins”.
When asked which new sin had been added to the customary seven, Grossart’s reply was “curiosity”. It was indeed part of his make-up, and he was celebrated for declaring that “my plan is to die of exhaustion, not of boredom”.
After he finished restoring the castle he enjoyed practicing his swing by chipping golf balls over it, observing that “it costs you in windows if you don’t get it right”. Golf also provided a metaphor for his business philosophy, which was to “keep out the rough and be happy to score 74”.
Angus Grossart was appointed CBE in 1990, and knighted in 1997. He married Gay Thomson, a well-known Scottish contemporary painter, in 1978, and they had a daughter, Flure.
Sir Angus Grossart, born April 6 1937, died May 13 2022