Hugh Montgomery
A tribute by Lesley Le Claire


We are here today to make our farewells to my brother Hugh Montgomery and to share our memories of him. A few months before he was born in 1931, our parents had paused on a journey through Northumberland and the Borders at Otterburn. They re-read the famous ballad and when they came to the verse where proud Percy declares:
I will not yield to a bracken bush
Nor yet will I yield to a briar
But I would yield to Earl Douglas
Or Sir Hugh the Montgomery if he were here
they agreed that if the expected child was a boy, they would call him Hugh.

Hugh’s ancestry was Highland Scots on his father’s side and Lowland Scots on his mother’s, but his childhood and early youth were spent in Yorkshire. Looking back, I realise that we were given a remarkably good start in life. We were the children of a very happy marriage and grew up in a house filled with books, good talk, fairy stories and snatches of poetry, ‘laughter and the love of friends’. Hugh was quite a solitary child and in those happier days when children could safely have more freedom of movement, loved wandering off on his own – a tendency which remained with him all his life. He was not, at first, regarded as particularly bright at school – he was very slow, for example, in learning to read. His mother, understandably, worried about this, but his father, a wise physician and psychiatrist, was more sanguine because at the age of eight, Hugh showed him some notes he had made about arithmetic which he called ‘rootamatics’ and Dad realised that what the child had done was to work out the theory of surds and indeces for himself. To his amusement the youthful sceptic told him ‘I did show them to Mummy and Lesley, but I had the sense not to ask them if they understood’! It is interesting that the intellectual rapport between father and son which was to continue throughout their lives was established thus early. Hugh inherited his passion for ideas from his father – and from his mother a streak of charming daftness that endeared both of them to children. Later, of course, like everyone else, we were affected by the war but again we were lucky in that we lived in the country and were young enough not to be directly involved.

By the time he was 17, it had become apparent that Hugh was rather clever and in 1949 he went up to Oxford with flying colours. He was to take a brilliant first in physics and then was elected to a junior research fellowship at Merton College. And there he might well have stayed. But although many aspects of Oxford delighted him – not least his lovely rooms overlooking Christ Church meadow - he was not happy with the state of physics in the university. So, much to the surprise of his Oxford contemporaries, he resigned his fellowship and went to work at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell and completed his doctorate there. The group he joined was directed by my future husband, Alan Le Claire. Today, sadly, little real research is now done at Harwell but in the fifties and sixties it was a place of great intellectual excitement. It was said that science teachers at schools in Berkshire used to dread some bright little lad putting up his hand and saying ‘please sir, that’s not what my Dad told me last night’. My husband’s group attracted physicists from all over the world and several of Hugh’s colleagues from that time became life-long friends.

But Hugh was a born teacher, so after Harwell and an interesting year at the similar American research establishment, Argonne, near Chicago, he returned to the university world here in Edinburgh. The more socially inclusive character of a Scottish university appealed to him and the professor of Physics at that time was Bill Cochran, a man for whom he had a great affection and respect. Moreover, at a deeper level he had returned to his roots. He was soaked in Scottish history, and understood very well the six centuries love-hate relationship between England and Scotland. By upbringing and by inclination he had what Stevenson called ‘a Scots accent of the mind’. But this did not make him a Scottish nationalist. I once said to him that I felt he was a romantic Jacobite in his heart but with his head realised the Hanoverian union of the two countries was probably the best solution for both of them.

Of course Edinburgh was also a good place for him because he was within reach of the sort of wild and lonely country he always loved – Greenland’s icy mountains for example had entranced him on the various expeditions he made there. He would never have claimed to be a skilled technical climber but he walked the hills the length and breadth of Scotland. With just a cheap little camera he caught the mood of those mountain landscapes in quite marvellous photographs. I had great fun climbing some of those hills with him – though there was one occasion when his brotherly candour made me furious. We were climbing Suillven and as some of this company are doubtless aware, the approach to the mountain is a long walk over rough ground before the climb proper begins. I was evidently making heavy weather of it and at one point Hugh turned round and said through gritted teeth, ‘I know what Hannibal felt like when he got those elephants over the Alps’.

But his greatest love of all was for the Borders and it is there that I shall always remember him. I shall remember how we walked the path over the Minchmoor that Montrose took after his defeat at Philiphaugh. I shall remember how we explored every inch of Moffatdale and shivered at the thought of the covenanters desperately seeking refuge in those hills during the killing times. I shall remember how as youngsters on bicycles we blissfully free-wheeled down the long descent from Birkhill to St Mary’s Loch and Tibbie Shiels inn and thought of Sir Walter and the Ettrick Shepherd crying ‘Bring in the loch, Tibbie’ when they had drunk the pub dry.

However, Hugh was a border man in more senses than one. He was at home in intellectual as well as geographical border lands. He was primarily a physicist, and his mind was filled with ideas about physics to the very end of his life: Richard, his stepson, and I were moved almost to tears by his determination, within days of his death, to continue a discussion with a professor in Cambridge whom he had never met and who had no idea how ill he was, but who had admired one of the last papers Hugh had written. On the other hand, he was always conscious of physics in relation to other areas of thought. He was very sad when the Scottish universities abandoned the old name for the subject of ‘natural philosophy’ – as distinct from moral philosophy - which meant one could no longer tell the nice story of the lassie who, panic-struck at finding herself in the wrong examination, explained to the invigilator ‘I’m so sorry – I’m not moral, I’m natural’! So as he grew older, it was increasingly the history and philosophy of science which absorbed him. Similarly, as a committed Christian, he thought long and hard about the relationship of physics to religion. He wrote about these matters in a beautifully clear and elegant prose – but he did not write nearly enough. He was a perfectionist and too often felt defeated by ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’. He was the sort of academic who must have been the despair of a research assessment exercise pursuing its vain task of trying to quantify the unquantifiable. How does one assess an article on space and time which begins with T.S.Eliot’s treatment of the subject in The Four Quartets and ends with an imaginary conversation between Archimedes and Euclid ?

But although Hugh lived inside his head a great deal, he also had a quite remarkable talent for making friends. He touched the lives of all sorts and conditions of men and women and enriched the lives of all of them. He was an absolute Pied Piper to children – I often felt his friends who were the parents of small children were amazingly tolerant; parental discipline simply flew out of the window with the appearance of Uncle Hugh. The truth was that he was always something of a bad wee boy himself. He loved a party and was usually the life and soul of it because, like Falstaff, he was ‘not only witty in himself but the cause that wit is in other men’. A few days before he died, he was discussing with Richard and me some of the arrangements he would like for this service and there was a sudden flash of the old Hugh. ‘Dear me’, he said, ‘this all sounds rather fun – I’m really cross that I shall miss it !’ One of the good things he brought with him from Oxford was the gift of closing the gap between teacher and taught, so his students loved him. I wonder how many Directors of Studies have had a letter beginning ‘Dear, darling DoS …’. He had many delightful women friends. I lost count of the times when I hoped one or other them would become my sister-in-law. But he saved the best until last. His marriage to Jeanne was based on long years of friendship and very rarely can the phrase ‘the marriage of true minds’ have been so apt. Her last sad illness distressed him greatly and we watched with aching admiration the loving care he took of her. But his extended family also brought him great joy. As he said himself, in a very short space of time, he not only acquired a marvellous wife in Jeanne, and two splendid step-sons in Richard and Paul, but also two lovely daughters-in-law in Julie and Fran and two delightful grandchildren in Samuel and Anna. Their loss today is very great indeed and we give them all our sympathy.

When last I saw him, his consciousness was beginning to fade and talking was becoming difficult. I told him I was exasperated that I could not remember all the names of the Moffat hills. He had not forgotten. He whispered ‘Hart Fell, White Coomb, Saddle Yoke, Bodsbeck Law…’ It was a beautiful litany. We had returned to his beloved Borders. And as I sat with him, I remembered the Ballad of Otterburn that had given him his name. He used to say he was sure that the historical Sir Hugh Montgomery was as brutal a reiver as any of that bloodthirsty gang. This may well be true but in the ballad he belongs to the ancient world of chivalry. When the Percy realised his opponent was Sir Hugh
He stuck his sword’s point in the gronde
And the Montgomery was a courteous knight
And took him by the honed
And I think it is as ‘a courteous knight’ that we shall remember the modern bearer of his name and we shall rejoice that we knew and loved him.

Lesley Le Claire              
Blows the wind today, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors today and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!

Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,
And winds, austere and pure:

Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
Hills of home! And to hear the call;
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
And hear no more at all.

To S. R. Crockett
R. L. Stevenson

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