At a round of golf sometime back in the 1960s, one of the group of players decided to share some apples he had brought along. They were good apples, recalled Tony Smith, one of the golfers, who worked in the accounts department of the then Glasgow Corporation Transport. But another of the golfers, the future Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden, then known as Norrie Macfarlane, thought otherwise. When he discovered said apples had been bought in the Co-op, he refused to eat his and threw it away. They may well have been good apples but they were socialist apples and he had no intention of compromising his Conservative principles by taking a bite.
Norman Somerville Macfarlane, who died on 5 November aged 95, was born on March 5 1926 in the Broomhill area of Glasgow, one of three sons born to Jessie and Daniel Macfarlane, a city councillor, a member of the Moderate or Progressive group, an alliance of Unionist and Liberal supporters – mainly business people – who opposed Labour in the years before the other national parties became active in Scottish local government. The Progressives succeeded the Moderates in Glasgow from 1936, morphing into the Conservatives towards the end of the 1960s and early 70s. Macfarlane imbibed his Conservatism from the very beginning of his life.
He and his brothers were educated at The High School of Glasgow, one of a small number of fee-paying selective schools operated by Glasgow Corporation Education Department. Admission to both primary and secondary was by entrance exam and the fees were modest compared with those at independent grant-aided schools like Glasgow Academy. The main winter sport for the boys (there was a separate high school for girls) was rugby and Macfarlane was a keen sportsman, playing rugby, football and cricket.
His older brother Richard served as a flying officer in the RAF during WWII and, having survived the Dambusters raid, was later shot down and killed over Belgium. Macfarlane described his brother as his 'hero' and later joined the Royal Artillery to undertake his national service. While serving in Palestine, he broke his neck diving into the sea and had to spend a year in hospital.
His father ran a firm supplying carbon paper and typewriter ribbons and, for a time, Macfarlane considered working in the business. In the end, he decided to go it alone and, in 1949, began supplying stationery, working as both salesman and delivery driver while studying business administration at Glasgow College of Commerce. It was here that he met his wife, Marguerite Campbell, always known as Greta. They married in June 1953 and went on to have five children. According to The Herald
, Greta initially thought he was 'very bossy and arrogant' while, in turn, he described her as 'a cheeky wee thing'. He would later rely on her judgement a great deal during his business life.
Macfarlane's business began to grow through supplying branded self-adhesive tape and packaging for commercial companies, including whisky manufacturers – with Johnnie Walker an early client. The Macfarlane Group, which became the UK's biggest packaging distribution business, was successfully floated on the Stock Exchange in 1973. Macfarlane stepped down as chief executive in 1990, becoming its chairman. He retired from that role in 1998. By this time, he had been knighted (in 1983) and was created a Conservative Life Peer – Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden – in 1991.
When, in the late 1980s, Macfarlane agreed to take on the chairmanship of Guinness and Distillers, rocked by the scandal created by Ernest Saunders and the other businessmen members of the 'Guinness Four' who attempted to manipulate the share price of the Guinness company to effect a takeover of Distillers, his wife was not impressed. But, according to The Times
, her husband was soon able to win her over, pointing out the consolations. 'One is that we own Gleneagles and I can get the tee times I want,' he told her. 'The second is that we own Gordon's gin, so that's you settled.'
Within two years, Distillers was voted the country's most popular company, Macfarlane having turned its fortunes round by his usual combination of hard business experience and charm, and he became honorary life president of its successor firm Diageo, whose chief executive Ivan Menezes described him as 'a towering figure in Scottish business and society'. He used the brand to sponsor events such as the Bell's Scottish Open and the Johnnie Walker Ryder Cup. He also supported Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera and Scottish football – he was patron of Queen's Park FC.
As an alumnus of The High School of Glasgow, he was also instrumental in saving his old school when its central location – in the city's Elmbank Street – meant it had no natural catchment area following the move to comprehensive education and it was threatened with closure. He drummed up support among fellow former pupils and found it a new home in Anniesland, transforming its fortunes.
He was a member of the Council CBI Scotland from 1975-81, a board member of the Scottish Development Agency from 1979-87 and a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission for Scotland from 1980-82. He won a clutch of awards throughout his life including the St Mungo Award in 2005 and Business and the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. He was also made a Knight of the Thistle in 1996.
But, undoubtedly, his greatest success was in personally raising almost £13 million to save and transform the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Bridget McConnell, chair of the council's cultural body and wife of former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, called him 'an old-fashioned Conservative, who believed in duty and in giving back to the city he grew up in. Not since the Victorian era has Glasgow known a philanthropist who did so much for it. He was the most open, kind and respectable of men'.
In 2007, the council awarded him the highest civic honour – the freedom of the City of Glasgow. In her address, Lord Provost Liz Cameron said: 'Lord Macfarlane has done so much for his home city in the fields of business, commerce, the arts and charity. He is one of our greatest Glaswegians'. There can be no finer obituary.