Obituary: Douglas Laird, architect and organ designer

Born: 30 September, 1932 in Edinburgh. Died: 9 December, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 83

By The Newsroom
Monday, 11th January 2016, 12:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th January 2016, 1:41 pm
Douglas Laird, architect and organ designer. Picture: Contributed
Douglas Laird, architect and organ designer. Picture: Contributed

As one of the group of architects known as Basil’s Bairns, Douglas Laird has left a built legacy across Edinburgh and East Lothian and a lasting memorial within the capital’s St Giles Cathedral.

A protégé of the renowned Sir Basil, whose practice was responsible for a vast array of buildings, he went on to become a director of Campbell and Arnott where his final major project was the design of a new church organ for the famed church on the Royal Mile.

From then he became even busier still in retirement, undertaking commissions to design organs around the world, including a prestigious project for a church in Los Angeles.

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His passion for the built environment was evident from a young age and he was just 17 when he embarked on his studies at Edinburgh College of Art. He had had to grow up swiftly following the death of his father David, who owned a stationers and printing shop, when he was 11, and he became the man of the household, supporting his mother Anne, and his brother Donnie as she raised her sons in Beresford Gardens, Trinity.

There he attended the local school Trinity Primary – where he first met the girl who would become his wife – and developed an early interest in astronomy, once scaling the exterior of neighbour’s property to watch a solar eclipse from the roof.

At art school he was noted for his fluent sketching style and the considered thought he put into all his work. It was after graduating in 1955 that he began working for Sir Basil Spence. Following a brief spell with Michael Laird Architects, he decided he wanted to practice in East Lothian and joined Campbell and Arnott in the early 1960s.

His real interest was in residential properties, in the essence of the house as a home, and his designs were assiduously planned to take into account how each activity related to the other as well as the setting and environment. He designed many individual homes throughout the area, ranging from the traditional to modernist, and oversaw a major programme to upgrade local authority houses in Dunbar.

He built his own home, Lairds House in Dunbar, in the late 1950s after marrying his wife Margaret, his fellow former Trinity Primary pupil, in Inverleith Church in 1958.

They settled in the town where he actively participated in the community, becoming a church elder in 1964 and a member of the town council from 1973-75. He continued to take a keen interest in the welfare of his “Dunbar buildings”, including Kirklands Care Home, in his role as chairman of the Abbeyfield Society, an office he held for 20 years.

After a disastrous fire in January 1987, which all but destroyed Dunbar Parish Church and left only the shell standing, he re-designed the building with the community raising almost £1million to bring it back to life.

And during his time with Campbell and Arnott, of which he became a director latterly, the firm was responsible for a number of significant developments, including Edinburgh’s Saltire Court, a Royal Botanic Gardens pavilion at Inverleith, Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre and the restoration of Castellan Library, Dunbar. He also designed Lammermuir House, in Dunbar, a retirement home for the Civil Service, which was opened by the Queen in 1986.

The St Giles organ project fired his imagination and he thoroughly enjoyed the new challenge, embracing it with his unique blend of energy, fun, attention to detail and consideration of others. The instrument, which stands in the south transept, was built in Austrian oak by an Austrian firm. He retired after completing the project in 1992 and continued to focus on designing organs around the world, including one in California for the United Church of Christ in Los Angeles. It was an ideal occupation, allowing him to pick and choose the most interesting projects and often to take Margaret with him on the more interesting international commissions.

After being widowed in 2003 he continued to draw and sketch and grasped new challenges and opportunities. His zest for life returned anew when he found a new partner in Norma Mills in 2005 and together they enjoyed travelling to both new and familiar destinations. Although ill health forced him to step down as an elder after more than 40 years, he remained a member of the town’s 20 Club and was made a life time honorary member.

He is survived by Norma, his daughter Gillian and sons Donald and David, five grandchildren and his brother Donnie.