Lord Sutherland of Houndwood

Academic who led the way on reforms to social care in Scotland

Born: February 25, 1941;

Died: January 29, 2018

LORD Sutherland of Houndwood, who has died aged 76, was a distinguished academic and public servant who brought about a radical reform of Edinburgh University and recommended fundamental changes in care for the elderly.

He was recognised as one of those rare individuals who combined a lifelong commitment to intellectual academic life with public service. He chaired, for example, the far-reaching Royal Commission on Long-Term Care of the Elderly in 1999 which recommended that nursing and personal care should be provided free by the government. Critics considered such proposals beyond the public purse and that the cost would be prohibitive.

The London government quietly let the report gather dust and took no action but Lord Sutherland continued to champion the Commission’s proposals and was encouraged when the Scottish executive implemented many of the core proposals. He was also amongst the first to call for the alignment of health and social care budgets together with social security benefits, especially for the elderly. Lord Sutherland was a passionate advocate for equality and providing a fair and dignified lifestyle for the elderly.

In a far ranging academic career, Lord Sutherland held posts at Stirling University, King’s College, London and was principal and vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University. His knowledge and political astuteness ensured he was often asked to chair enquiries into complex social matters.

Stewart Ross Sutherland was brought up in Aberdeenshire, the son of George Sutherland, a drapery salesman, and his wife, Ethel. He attended Robert Gordon’s College and then graduated from Aberdeen University with a first-class MA in philosophy, and two years later received an MA in philosophy of religion from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

He held teaching posts at Bangor University and in 1969 was appointed a lecturer at Stirling University. There he established Religious Studies which focused on the importance of understanding the place of religion in a secular society. The department gained an international reputation and Lord Sutherland was recognised as a theological philosopher with an original and keenly astute mind.

In 1977 he was appointed Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College, London, and was subsequently appointed vice-principal and principal there in 1981 and 1985.

From 1994 -2004 he returned to Scotland as vice-principal and then principal at Edinburgh University. The university was financially under considerable pressure with a sizeable deficit. Lord Sutherland set about the task of reforming both the finances and the university’s structure. He arranged for outside sponsorship to stabilise the financial position and proposed far-reaching plans for the reorganisation of the university into three colleges.

“Stewart spotted the entire administration had to be changed and knew what had to be done,” Professor Mike Anderson, current senior vice-principal and formerly Lord Sutherland’s deputy, told The Herald. “He had a very clear vision and proved phenomenally persuasive in getting things done. The system he put in place empowered those in authority to get on with the job.

“Once at a Senate meeting someone asked Stewart ‘And what is Plan B?’ Calmly Stewart replied, ‘There is no Plan B.’ He was a good listener and an excellent picker of people who he then let get on with the job. He was wonderful to work for.”

In 2002 he stepped down from the Edinburgh chancellorship and that year was made a Knight of the Thistle. The year before he had been ennobled taking as his title Lord Sutherland of Houndwood – the village to which he and his family had a house in the Borders.

In recognition of his achievements, Lord Sutherland received numerous distinctions, including 10 honorary degrees from European and American universities. He was a Fellow of the British Academy, president of the Saltire Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He served as most active presidents of Alzheimer Scotland and of the Christian Education Movement in Scotland.

Lord Sutherland wrote widely on various subjects. He made many speeches in the House of Lords – where he sat as a crossbencher – which were delivered with an informed authority and gaining much respect from all sides of the House.

Despite his academic renown he remained a modest and humble man – never losing sight of his Aberdeenshire roots. He loved the hills of the Borders and the Highlands and retained his keen sense of humour. Once when asked what he thought of the idea of Scottish independence, he replied: “I don’t think the English are yet ready for self-government.”

He was both a theatre and jazz enthusiast and had a considerable collection of miniature medallions made by the 18th-century Glasgow gem engraver James Tassie which portrayed many of the prominent citizens of the city.

In 1964 Lord Sutherland married Sheena Robertson, a clinical virologist who became a director of the Scottish Cancer Foundation. The couple had met at the University of Aberdeen. His wife and their three children survive him.