Real Lives: Public relations officer helped university grow

Obit pic of Donald MacDonald.
Obit pic of Donald MacDonald.
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A well-loved public relations officer from Edinburgh has died at the age of 80.

Tributes have been paid to Heriot-Watt University’s Donald MacDonald, who lost a battle with cancer last month.

The New Town man made a huge impression in his role at the institution, and rubbed shoulders with royalty from various countries as a result.

He worked as Heriot-Watt’s publicity officer for more than two decades and was ultimately awarded an MBE for his services to education.

He even received official recognition from the King of Norway in the 1970s, who was grateful for his work in not only attracting Scandinavian students to the Edinburgh university, but making sure that once they arrived they were adequately supported.

Born in Elgin in 1931 to a highly respected GP, he attended the town’s Academy and was the captain when the school won the legendary BBC radio quiz show Top of the Form.

After national service in the Royal Artillery, stationed in Libya, he went on to study English language and literature at Aberdeen University.

After that he became heavily involved in a range of organisations, including the Scottish Union of Students.

It was perhaps here that his appetite for political life grew, and – as a lifelong Liberal – he stood for election in a north of Scotland constituency that was heavily Conservative.

He did not win, but he still managed to attract more than one-fifth of the overall vote, an astonishing achievement given the political demographic in the then Moray and Nairn seat. He was the first party member to even bother standing in more than 20 years.

But his political involvement did not always produce a positive result.

He was so immersed in that way of life that he failed to be awarded a degree at the end of his course, derailing his career ambitions and meaning he had to instead seek full-time employment with the union he had volunteered so actively for. His association with the Capital and Heriot-Watt came in 1968 when he joined the administration team, before moving up to PR officer several years later, a role he kept until his retirement in 1995.

He never married, but friends often remarked on how hospitable he was at his Northumberland Street home.

Ill-health began to introduce itself, and in his 50s Donald was diagnosed as a diabetic. When he was 70 he underwent surgery for bowel cancer and in his latter years he relied upon a hearing aid and his sight deteriorated.

These ailments did not detract from his zest for life and vibrant company.

But when the cancer returned in September he was unable to fight it, and he passed away on October 31, only ten days after he celebrated his 80th birthday.