Donald Clark – a tribute

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Donald Clark was for 50 years the convivial, larger-than-life host at The George Hotel in Inveraray, a notable bon viveur and one of the most colourful characters in Argyll. He died aged 75 on January 19 after a short illness.

Latterly, his mobility hampered by a leg injury, he would sit in the corner of The George public bar on an over-sized carved wooden stool. From his throne he dispensed news, advice and anecdotes – albeit not always historically accurate. His inimitable irony, perfectly-timed humour and the occasional reprimand to a wayward customer were all fuelled by a generous glass.

As former president of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association and Keeper of the Quaich, Donald knew the intricacies of the business intimately from personal experience. His taste was eclectic and his appetite substantial, extending from Dom Perignon and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru to Tennent’s lager and Glen Dronach single malt. On a hot day he’d have an icy Martini or a gin and tonic, proportionately scaled up in a pint glass. Being asked if he had time for a quick ‘small one’, he would reply: ‘I’ll decide the size for myself, if you don’t mind.’

The records suggest that his frequent claim to be Scottish Slimmer of the Year, after getting his weight down from 30 stone to 26 stone, was fanciful.

Big D, as he was often called, was fastidious about standards in the little public bar, training his regulars to clear tables of empty glasses and plates promptly, and to keep the log fire stoked on winter evenings.

If one of his regulars turned up untypically well-dressed, Donald would raise an eyebrow in mild surprise:  ‘What’s the occasion for the suit?  A funeral?  Your latest marriage?  Or has your court case come up?’

In summer, an erratic stream of foreign tourists would have their first encounter with a Scottish pub, standing in the doorway bewildered as to what happens next – sit or stand? Fight their way to the mobbed bar or go to a table and wait for the non-existent waitress? Donald would call them over to his corner and was soon plying them with drinks, food and conversation, not infrequently paying the entire bill for his astonished guests.

When a tourist asked him about the quaint red GPO telephone box in Church Square, he told them: ‘We have the fastest modern communications here – telephone, teletext and tell Donald.’

Donald was a Francophile and loved his summers in Collioure, where ‘Le Grand Ecossais’ was almost as well-known as in Argyll. A fixture of the local bars and restaurants, and frequently crossing the border to patronise Spanish hostelries, he revelled in the region’s seafood, wine and culture.

His hobbies included cooking, opera, reading and lively conversation on a sweeping range of topics from local history to civil engineering. His knowledge was genuinely wide, but when occasionally encountering someone with a superior command of the topic in question, he would quickly change the subject and admonish: “Och, you’re showing off now.”

Donald Clark was born on 18 July 1944, in Rotten Row hospital, Glasgow. He was the youngest child of Donald Clark and Elizabeth Inglis, following by nine years his only sibling, Fiona.

His early years were spent in Inveraray where family life revolved around his parents’ hotel in the little white-washed town.

He was schooled at Inveraray Primary and Larchfield in Helensburgh, then Strathallan from 1958 to 1963 where he acquired his love of sports. Contrary to what his dimensions in later life would suggest, he was athletic when young, excelling at rugby and playing for his school and West of Scotland First XV and the old boys’ 4As.

Donald also enjoyed curling, motor boating, snow skiing and water-skiing, where his party piece was to mono-ski down Loch Fyne while drinking a pint of beer.

Although not a shinty player, he used his sports experience to coach the Inveraray team in the 1960s and like his father chaired the club. In 2002, he flamboyantly arrived in Inverness by helicopter for Inveraray’s Camanachd Final against Kingussie.

He started to pursue a naval career, perhaps influenced by the many raucous submariners who visited The George during sonar testing under the quiet waters of Loch Fyne – the collection of Royal Navy vessel badges displayed in the hotel’s lounge bar is said to be the best outside Portsmouth. But his plans were cut short by the death of his father in 1964, and he returned to Inveraray to help his mother run the family business. He also took on the Loch Fyne Hotel in 1968 for the next 15 years.

He married Jennifer ‘Jimpy’ Waddell in Glasgow, with British Lion Sandy Carmichael as best man. Sons Donald John and Christopher were soon born. Although they separated when the boys were teenagers, the couple later resumed an amicable friendship. Donald cheerfully celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary in March 2019, remarking as a minor aside that he had been divorced for 35 of those years.

After several weeks of illness Donald died in Oban hospital, where he slowly sucked his last mouthfuls of Dom Perignon from a sponge despite the notice that read Nil by Mouth.

His funeral was one of the biggest held in Inveraray. Over 600 mourners, all requested to wear something colourful, filled to capacity the Church of Scotland in Main Street, and over-flowed into the church hall. The flags of Scotland, France and Catalonia flew from The George Hotel, piper Stuart Liddell played Leaving Port Askaig, and La Marseillaise accompanied the retiral of mourners.

Interment was in a gale at Glen Shira, with the A83 Rest-and-be-Thankful road ironically blocked by one of the landslides for whose solution he so vigorously campaigned.

Donald was the fifth generation of the Clark family to run the establishment, a baton which has now passed to the sixth. He leaves sons Donald and Kris, grand-daughters Anouk, Manon and Lola, his long-term partner Jane Somerville, and ex-wife Jimpy Mitchell.

Certainly a man of large stature, he was a giant in so many other ways – personality, sociability, generosity, knowledge – and a friend, helper, adviser and host to many. To quote his own frequent remark upon parting: ‘We’ll see you around the parish.’

Ken MacTaggart