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By David Porter

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Aberdeenshire farmer, Jack Sleigh, West Fingask, Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire, who saw active wartime service on the Russian convoys and later became chairman of the Royal Highland Show, has died at the age of 95.

Although in a reserved occupation working on his father’s farm of Newseat of Tolquhon, Tarves, Aberdeenshire, Mr Sleigh enlisted as a volunteer in 1942, joining the Royal Navy after being advised by a chief petty officer that his first choice of the Royal Marines would give him very short life expectancy.

Following training at Chatham, London, and Campbelltown, Argyll, he was posted to Londonderry to join a pool of sailors on stand-by as replacements for the crews of passing battleships.

His first mission was on the flower-class corvette, HMS Pennywort, accompanying a convoy to Gibralter, followed by a spell with the destroyer, HMS Duncan (one of seven Royal Navy ships named after Admiral Adam Duncan), prowling for German U-boats in the North Atlantic.

He later served with the battleship, HMS Anson, including six months at Scapa Flow in Orkney.

Anson’s main role was to keep the German Baltic fleet at bay, including the dreaded flagship of the fleet, Tirpitz, from their west coast sanctuaries in German-occupied Norway, which threatened British convoys (described by Churchill at the “worst journey in hell”), shipping food and other essential supplies from their Loch Ewe assembly point to Britain’s beleaguered ally, Russia.

Following the end of hostilities in Europe, he was posted to the Far East with the frigate, HMS Taff, serving behind enemy lines in Burma to round-up Japanese prisoners of war who were shipped to remote islands – provided water was available - to fend for themselves.

On demobilisation in 1946, he returned to the north-east to start farming on the 220 acres farm of West Fingask, the tenancy of which had been acquired by his father during his absence abroad, and back to paraffin lamps and no central heating after the comforts of the Far East.

But his travels weren’t over and through his father, who was involved in the export of pedigree cattle to North America, he and his friend and best man, the late Bill Maitland, East Balhalgardy, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, took a consignment of Aberdeen-Angus and Beef Shorthorn bulls, along with a number of collie dogs to Canada in 1948, followed by a tour of the USA by train to take in the stockyards of Chicago and Denver.

He built up a successful farming business at West Fingask, Newseat and Netherton of Mounie, now farmed by his sons, Patrick, Andrew and Philip, specialising in beef cattle (finishing stores bought in Orkney), sheep (building up a strong trade for gimmers at the autumn sales), arable and seed potatoes, and hosted the Royal Northern Agricultural Society’s first ever on-farm arable event at West Fingask in 1988.

For a time in the 1960s, the family owned Presly’s butcher’s shop in Oldmeldrum, and Jack greatly enjoyed working behind the counter and serving his customers, with whom he built up a great rapport, later acquiring the paper shop next door which was run by his late wife, Mary.

The story is told that he reprimanded one of his long-serving members of staff, Dugald Winton, for over-charging a customer but Dugald explained that he had spotted the customer slipping some vegetables in to her bag without paying so he made it up by charging her extra for her butcher meat!

He played an active part in the Oldmeldrum community over many years, becoming chairman of the local branch of NFU Scotland, a long-time leader of the Sunday school and elder of Oldmeldrum Parish Church, a Baillie of Bennachie and serving as chairman of the Oldmeldrum Sports, where he welcomed many famous show business stars who came to open the annual event, including the television actress, Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner of Coronation Street) and the singer, Frankie Vaughan.

He was also instrumental in the reinstatement of the golf course in Oldmeldrum and the building of two club houses, both of which he was asked to officially open and for which he was also made an honorary member of the club.

In the 1980s he was elected to the board of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, organisers of the Royal Highland Show, becoming chairman in 1991 and 1992 and leading the development of the Scottish Food Exhibition, which is now such an important part of the show and proposing the current Thursday to Sunday format which has seen attendance at the show soar to almost 200,000 over the four days.

During his two years as chairman, he hosted visits to the show by the Queen and the Princess Royal.

It was Jack who had the bold idea of inviting the prominent millionaire American businessman, Malcolm Forbes, son of North-east born, Bertie Forbes, founder of the renowned Forbes business magazine, and at the time the beau of English-born film star, Elizabeth Taylor (who was twice married to Richard Burton), to become president of the show in the North-east’s year to provide the presidential team.

The Forbes family were generous benefactors of Bertie’s home village of Whitehills and Bertie hosted a picnic for villagers every summer at Whitehills School, a tradition maintained by Malcolm. The prospect of Malcolm walking down the avenue from the “Big Hoose” at Ingliston during the Highland Show with Miss Taylor on his arm very much appealed to Jack’s sense of occasion.

Contact was made through north-east journalist, Jack Webster, who has always maintained close contact with the Forbes family, but Malcolm sadly died before what would have been his year of office.

However, one of his sons, Steve, a director of Forbes Magazine and later to become a contender for the USA presidency, was able to take on the role in 1992.

He flew in for the show on the family jet, Capitalist Tool, and proved an outstanding president, triggering extensive press coverage for the show and taking a keen interest in all the show’s activities.

That same year Mr Sleigh’s contribution to north-east agriculture was recognised with the presentation of the Royal Northern Agricultural Society’s annual Press and Journal Award for outstanding service to the industry.

It was not until more recent times and the ending of the Cold War that servicemen involved in the Arctic conveys received the honours they richly deserved and Jack was proud to be presented with the Ushakov Medal from the Government of Russia which recognised “bravery and contribution to the defeat of Nazism” to add to his Atlantic Star, Arctic Star and Burma Star from the UK Government in recognition of his service in the North Atlantic, the Norway patrols and Burma.

As recently as last May, he attended the annual reunion at Loch Ewe for veterans of the Arctic convoys.

Educated at Tarves School, Aberdeen Grammar School and the North of Scotland College of Agriculture (now part of SRUC) before embarking on his colourful career, Mr Sleigh had a great sense of humour and a story for every occasion.

Despite failing health, he continued to take a keen interest in his sons’ farming activities right to the end.

He was predeceased by Mary, his wife of 64 years, in September, 2016, at the age of 88, and is survived by his three sons, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren, as well as two of his four siblings, Mrs Margaret Campbell, and David Sleigh in Canada.

His first son, John, tragically lost his life in a farm accident in 1955 at the age of five.

His funeral will took place at Oldmeldrum Parish Church on Monday, December 30.

John (Jack) Sleigh – born September 5, 1924, Aberdeen

Died December 20, 2019, West Fingask, Oldmeldrum

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