Obituary: James Weir OBE, Scot who helped Rutland regain county status

James Matheson Knight Weir OBE, businessman, soldier, rugby player and county councillor. Born: 3 March 1931 in Aberdeen. Died: 11 September, 2020, aged 89

Thursday, 24th September 2020, 7:30 am
James Weir OBE
James Weir OBE

James Matheson Knight Weir OBE of Oakham, who has died after a year-long battle with cancer, will be remembered in England’s smallest county of Rutland for his tireless commitment to almost every area of public life in the county and the wider East Midlands. Champion of an independent Rutland, Weir was the first Chairman of the newly independent Rutland County Council and Vice Lord Lieutenant of Rutland. During his life, and whilst also running a successful construction firm, he was Commandant of the Army Cadets, President of Rutland Scouts and Rutland Sailing Club, Governor of a handful of Rutland’s schools, Trustee of Peterborough Cathedral Trust, and Committee member and former county chairman of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. He remained an active member of the Rutland Conservative Association until his illness took hold only months ago.

A Scot, born in Aberdeen, Weir was already in his forties when he moved to the Midlands with his young family. At five, James and younger sister Wilma left Aberdeen with their parents to move to Edinburgh, where his father took up a post in the accounts department of LNER. However, he would return to Aberdeen during his school holidays to spend time with his grandparents in the village of Woodside, spending most of his time exploring the banks of his beloved River Don.

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Weir showed a flair for sport, becoming sports champion at Wardie Primary School, and later at the competitive George Heriot’s School, and gained his “colours” for athletics. On leaving Heriot’s, he became an articled pupil in a firm of chartered quantity surveyors in Edinburgh, attending Heriot-Watt University two days and four evenings a week.

Weir had a lifelong passion for rugby. During the 1950s, he was one of the top try scorers in Scottish club rugby. His rugby career began in the under-20s Sevens for Heriot’s Former Pupils Rugby Club, winning the District Competition. He was spotted for his speed and skills, and was selected to play for Heriot’s First Fifteen as right wing three-quarter. He was a regular with Edinburgh District and the Co-Optimists, played in two Scottish International trials, and in 1958, played for the Combined Cities of Scotland against Australia.

Throughout the 1950s Weir played in the Sevens tournaments in Murrayfield, Melrose, Hawick, Langham and Jedburgh, winning medals in all venues.

In 1954 he met the girl who was to become his wife at a dance in Edinburgh. He said he knew he would marry Mary the moment he set eyes on her. Theirs was to be a long-lasting, supportive and happy partnership, a great source of strength to Weir. That same year, Weir was called up for National Service, being first posted to Malvern for basic training and then onto No. 3 Training Regiment, Royal Engineers at Aldershot, where he revelled in engineering tasks such as building Bailey and Pontoon bridges. He continued to play rugby for Aldershot Services and his regiment.

Weir was selected for officer training at the Royal College of Military Engineering after which, in 1955, he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers, with postings in Dusseldorf and Antwerp. His demobilisation in early 1957 was delayed by the Suez Crisis.

On his return from National Service he took up a position with Wimpey, but was later headhunted by Laidlaw of Rutherglen, and latterly joined Mitchell Construction Kinnear Moodie (MCKM), to set up their operations in Scotland. He rose quickly through the ranks and set up a subsidiary which produced and erected some of the first pre-cast concrete system buildings in central Scotland.

In 1973, as MCKM was in the process of acquisition, he was approached by the Corby Development Corporation (CDC) to take on a substantial house-building contract in the growing Northamptonshire steel town. James invited a trusted colleague, John Jeakins, to join him and they set up Jeakins Weir Ltd in Corby, building housing and industrial buildings for both CDC and the Commission for New Towns. The company is now run by Weir’s sons, Jamie and Alistair.

Weir’s had a long involvement with the Territorial Army. As a young man in Edinburgh, he served in 71 (Scottish) Engineer Regiment, becoming Squadron Commander of 585 Field Squadron. He later commanded 102 (Clyde Field Squadron) in Paisley, which built many Bailey Bridges and also demolished a nine-arch viaduct near Greenock, where the use of micro-delay detonators by the Army for the first time ensured a smooth demolition, with no damage to nearby properties. When he moved to the Midlands in 1973, Weir was attached to 4 Armoured Division in Germany, and in the midst of the Cold War, during their annual exercise near the East German border, he liaised with the West German WBK (local kommando). He was also appointed Brevet Lieutenant Colonel at annual camp in Germany, where he was engaged in building a floating bridge across the Rhine.

In the 1980s, whilst chairman of the Oakham Branch of the Conservative Association, Weir represented Rutland on Leicestershire County Council, which had absorbed the tiny county of Rutland as part of its 1974 boundary review. Weir responded to a Mori Poll indicating that around 95 per cent of Rutlanders wished to regain their county status, despite the threat of higher taxes. He took on the fight to regain county status, visiting the Houses of Commons and Lords whenever local members of these houses spoke in support of the campaign. Fittingly, on the return of county status in 1997, he was appointed as first chairman of the new Rutland County Council.

Weir was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Leicestershire in 1984, then Deputy Lieutenant of Rutland in 1997 when the Rutland’s Lieutenancy was re-established. He was later appointed Vice Lord Lieutenant of the County – a position he held until 2006.

In 1983, Weir began a long involvement with the Army Cadet Force. Whilst a member of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Association (RFA) in the East Midlands, he became County Commandant (in the rank of Colonel) of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Army Cadet Force, which comprised 40 separate detachments. With no experience of Army Cadets, Weir took the unorthodox decision to run it on a military basis – a move so popular with young people in the two counties that recruits rose by nearly 50 per cent over a short period. What’s more, his cadet force became the first in the Midlands to have girl cadets. For his service to the Territorial Army and Army Cadet Force, Weir was Awarded the Territorial Army Decoration and clasp, and in 1987 was appointed an Officer of the Military Division of the most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Weir lived by his grandfather’s motto “Bide weel thegither” (roughly, “May you live well together”) in private and public life. He will be remembered by family and friends as the consummate gentleman – a generous host and loving family man, who delighted in playing golf and kicking a ball with his grandchildren. He is survived by wife Mary, sons Jamie and Alistair, and four grandchildren.

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