Sir Angus Grossart obituary

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Sir Angus Grossart, who has died aged 85, was one of the great panjandrums of Scottish public life; a successful and wealthy merchant banker who devoted much effort to promoting the arts and without whose imprimatur no major fundraising cause was seemingly complete.

As founder and head of Noble Grossart bank, he did much to make Edinburgh a global centre for investment trusts and acquired a reputation for backing winners, including some of the most successful Scottish businesses of the era, such as Wood Group, Kwik Fit and Stagecoach. As his status grew in financial circles, so too did his list of good works, particularly those associated with arts and heritage.

Grossart was chair of trustees at the National Galleries of Scotland and held similar roles in Scottish Opera, the Edinburgh international film festival, the Scottish National Orchestra, the National Museums of Scotland and many more.

One of his last legacies was as chair of Burrell Renaissance, which raised the funding to refurbish the home of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow – the museum reopened in March this year. He also secured a change to the trust deeds governing the astonishing collection amassed by the Glasgow shipowner, so that parts of it can be exhibited internationally.

In the fractious environments of Edinburgh business and Scottish politics, he floated above the fray, admired by most while resented for his success and ubiquity by a few. Anyone who inquired about his political allegiances would be told alternately that he supported the Grossart party or the Dinner party. He served governments of all complexions when the calls came – for example, as an early board member of the Scottish Development Agency under Labour in the 1970s and as chair from 2008 to 2016 of the Scottish Futures Trust, Scotland’s equivalent of the public finance initiative, set up by the SNP.

While widely identified as an Edinburgh grandee of business and the arts, Angus came from a west of Scotland background, growing up in the town of Carluke, Lanarkshire. He was the son of Mary (nee Gardiner) and William Grossart; his fathera draper, who for a time ran a modest hotel in Dalry, Ayrshire. Angus would travel by train each day to attend Glasgow academy.

He then studied law at Glasgow University, where his friends and contemporaries included the politicians John Smith, Donald Dewar and Menzies Campbell. Grossart’s passports to the wider world also included golf. In 1957, he was runner-up in the now defunct British Youth Championships and twice captained the Scottish junior team.

In 1963 he became an advocate specialising in tax law, often appearing as junior to James Mackay, later Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Margaret Thatcher’s lord chancellor, who became a lifelong friend.

Finding the bar “a little cloistered”, he was increasingly drawn to business and in 1969 formed a partnership with Iain Noble, whose family were landowners in Argyll, to launch Scotland’s first merchant bank.

It was an immediate success, aided by investments in the early days of North Sea oil. However, the partnership lasted only three years and Grossart bought out Noble’s share of the business.

By the mid-80s, he was involved in running many of Scotland’s key cultural heritage organisations, from festivals to galleries and orchestras. He was perhaps at his most influential as a dispenser of funding when he was chair in Scotland and deputy UK chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund between 1999 and 2005. One of Grossart’s strengths was that he appreciated small, community-based projects as well as large and expensive ones.

Similarly, in his business life, he was a great encourager and mentor of small companies while holding a vast portfolio of directorships outside his main business interests. He chaired BP’s Scottish board for 15 years and Trinity Mirror from 1998 to 2007. Noble Grossart remained his core business and he was still an active chair at the time of his death.

His reputation came closest to risk when, having been the long-standing vice-chair of the Royal Bank of Scotland during its expansionist years, he initially defended Fred Goodwin after the bank’s collapse in 2008 as a “scapegoat”. However, he later joined investors who sued to recoup losses.

In later years, Grossart put his address book to good use as a fundraiser for prestigious works of restoration. These included the Prince of Wales’s pet project at Dumfries House, a Palladian pile in Ayrshire, and the renovation of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

One of his most sustained commitments was to Glasgow Life, the organisation that holds the city’s cultural assets. He was a founder board member in 2014, and its former chief executive Bridget McConnell spoke of his “absolute loyalty, love of culture and willingness to make huge efforts on our behalf”. It was a description that many who benefited from his shrewd advice would have recognised.

One of Grossart’s final flourishes came in November when he organised a commemorative service and parade to recognise the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s birth. It was, of course, no ordinary parade as two pipe bands, high-ranking military and heraldic figures and the entire Edinburgh legal and political establishments processed along the Royal Mile and down the Mound to the Scott Monument.

Grossart was appointed CBE in 1990 and knighted in 1997. A genuine builder of bridges with Russia, and particularly cultural links between Edinburgh and St Petersburg, he was awarded the Medal of Pushkin in 2018. He returned it after the invasion of Ukraine.

He is survived by his wife, Gay (nee Dodd), a successful artist, whom he married in 1978, and their daughter, Flure.

• Angus Mcfarlane McLeod Grossart, merchant banker and patron of the arts, born 6 April 1937; died 13 May 2022

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