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Obituary: Portsoy mariner Robert Mair was made honorary chief of South Pacific island

He also oversaw the construction of the MSV Tharos which played a firefighting role after the Piper Alpha disaster.

Retired mariner Robert Mair of Portsoy has died aged 90.
Retired mariner Robert Mair of Portsoy has died aged 90.

Robert MacDonald Mair, who has died aged 90, was a master mariner who spent much of his life in the Merchant Navy before working as a harbour pilot and harbourmaster around the world.

He was born at the family home, 74 Church Street, Portsoy, on September 6 1933. His father Joe was a fisherman who also served in the RNVR, and his mother Barbara was a herring girl who travelled the east coast of Britain gutting and salting the migratory “silver darlings” as the menfolk caught them. Robert’s brother Joe was born in 1939.

As a boy during the Second World War, Robert made the most of the adventure offered by living close to RAF Banff with its Mosquitoes and Beaufighters roaring through the sky.

Many hours were spent cycling to watch the aircraft, and attending crash sites in the hope of finding a souvenir. Thirty years later Robert would join Banff Flying Club, flying Cessnas from the same airfield.

With a family of seafaring ancestors, it might be expected that Robert would follow suit. His parents tried to discourage this, and instilled in him the need to at least learn a trade as backup.

Accomplished footballer

He attended Fordyce Academy, doing well academically, and starred in the school football team. His love of football would follow him through life as he signed for Portsoy Athletic and then played for ships’ teams down the years.

As he was approaching his Highers, Robert’s head was turned by the opportunity of becoming an apprentice millwright at Boyne Mills.

He learned of the job on the Friday, had an interview the next day, and started on the Monday, much to the dismay of the rector of the academy and his parents.

He cycled the three miles to and from his work daily in all weathers for the next two years until the company went under as the industry around it modernised.

National Service

Robert moved to Jones Shipyard in Buckie, helping to build minesweepers for the Royal Navy and graduating back towards the sea. He completed his apprenticeship before being called up for National Service.

Joining the RNVR, Robert’s initial posting was to HMS Ocean before being assigned to the frigate HMS Urania which was off to the Mediterranean to take part in exercises and to escort the Royal Yacht Britannia with Prince Philip on board.

Robert would have liked to stay in the navy and continue training as a diver, but this couldn’t be guaranteed so he opted instead for a career in the merchant fleet.

He joined the Edinburgh-based Ben Line and made his first voyage on the SS Bencruachan in December 1956, spending Christmas in Rotterdam and New Year in Antwerp. He also sailed on the Benvenue and Bencleuch and then spent some time on British coasters before transferring to the New Zealand Shipping Company in June 1960.

Career progression

This was to be a defining period in Robert’s life as he sailed from Liverpool to New Zealand many times over six years on vessels such as the MS Rangitata, MS Ruahine, and MV Huntingdon, working his way up the deck officer ladder.

It was during this time that Robert met Carol Walker, a young stewardess on the Ruahine. Despite it being forbidden for officers to mix with crew, they made time for a date on an overnight stop in Tahiti in August 1963.

Robert proposed when they reached New Zealand, and they were married in November 1963 on their return to Scotland.

In an effort to come ashore to be with his young children, Angus, born 1966, and Iain 1968, Robert took up a job at Scottish Seafoods in Inverbervie.

Return to sea

But by 1969 he was back at sea, marking and repairing cables in the sub-Arctic aboard CS Alert before joining BP and serving on large tankers such as MV British Ivy before making his last deep-sea trip, to Cape Town aboard aboard SS La Loma, and coming ashore in July 1974.

Later that year, Robert took up a position as harbour pilot with AGECO in Tobruk, Libya.

From Libya, Robert moved to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia as cargo superintendent at the port, and then in 1977 to Port Kamsar in Guinea, West Africa.

The boys, meantime, went off as boarders to Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen for educational continuity.


While in Guinea, Robert was offered a job as harbourmaster in Western Samoa, and the whole family flew out there in July 1977.

This return to the South Pacific became another defining time in Robert’s life – one he looked back on with much fondness, despite the marine ministry not being as appreciative of his forward-thinking ideas as he’d hoped.

Robert was made an honorary chieftain of the island of Apolima after overseeing the building of a landing jetty there.

In mid-1979, the family’s time in Samoa came to an end, and Robert was soon to be found overseeing the construction of MSV Tharos in Hiroshima.

This vessel was built as a North Sea fire-fighting rig, and eventually took part in extinguishing the Piper Alpha fire. Robert oversaw its construction in Japan and supervised its journey around the world as far as Tenerife before it finally made it to the North Sea.

Saudi Arabia

Between 1980 and 1982, Robert returned to Jeddah as a harbour pilot, guiding over 1000 ships into and out of the port, before moving to a similar position in Abu Dhabi.

Finally, coming home, he worked as a marine consultant in the North Sea taking various OIM and OIS positions for the next 10 years before retiring in 1992.

He and Carol made the most of their retirement, taking regular holidays abroad but they regretted never making it back to Tahiti or New Zealand.

After Carol passed away in December 2019, Robert was sustained by nightly phone calls from his brother Joe and son Angus, and weekly visits by Angus and his wife Indy.

Robert is survived by his brother Joe in Bristol, his sons Angus and Iain, his step-son Tony, grandchildren Rob, Thomas, Callum, Seonaidh, Liam, and Yura, and several great-grandchildren.

You can read the family’s announcement here.