AN URGENT safety probe has been launched after a church elder plunged to his death from a cliff as his wife looked on.
Robert Gordon Harkess was walking his dog with his wife, Mabel, at Whitberry Point near Dunbar yesterday morning when he slipped and plummeted 20 feet to rocks below.
The 69-year-old from East Linton was airlifted to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary with severe head injuries, but doctors were unable to save him and he died hours later.
It is understood Mrs Harkess was also rushed to hospital and treated for shock.
It took nearly three hours to rescue Mr Harkess, with two helicopters, police, ambulance and coastguard struggling to reach him in the steep, wooded area.
Council bosses in East Lothian said that an investigation into the tragedy would take place over the coming days.
Devastated villagers told of their shock and paid tribute to a cheerful, sociable man who gave nearly four decades of service to the Church of Scotland as an elder.
David Scott, minister of the parish of Traprain, said: “He was someone who made a very valuable contribution to our congregation and in his life lived with integrity and grace.
“For 11 years here and 27 years at Mayfield Church in Edinburgh he took responsibility for church property and was very diligent. It was an enormous level of commitment.
“We are really shocked to hear about his sudden death and we feel for his family at this time.”
Michelle Ross, 48, a neighbour, said: “I would see them maybe once a week to say hello to. He was always a very pleasant man, and his wife too.”
Investigations have begun at the site, with council officials due to receive reports within days.
Another dog walker, Fiona Mains, 70, from East Linton, said the terrain was dangerous underfoot. She said: “I walk my dog here three times a week and it doesn’t surprise me to hear about the accident. It’s very windy here and the edge is very slippery.”
Councillor Norman Hampshire, environment leader at East Lothian Council, said: “We have a ranger service and they will be asked to go and look at the site. They will report back to senior officers and they will consider whether any action can be taken to improve the safety at that location.”
He added that the council had already adopted a range of safety measures to protect people walking along the coast, from extensive signage to fencing and vegetation designed to discourage walkers from venturing too close to the cliff face.
But he added: “There is a limit to what the council can do on the coast. If we want to keep the pathways open, there will always be risks.”
Councillor Paul McLennan, SNP group leader at East Lothian Council, said: “Our sympathies go out to the family of this man and we ask people to take as much care as possible when walking on the cliffs.”