Obituary: Pilmar Smith

The Times

Gregarious former Hearts vice-chairman and boss of Lothian Buses who has a youth football cup named after him.

Pilmar Smith loved the Labour Party almost as much as he loved Hearts, the football club he supported since childhood and served as vice-chairman for 13 years.

It was a lively time for the colourful man they called “the Great Waldo”, though not as turbulent as the many years this former bookmaker spent as a chairman of Lothian Buses, where under his watch the council-owned company developed the night buses, introduced a dedicated airport service, standardised fares and acquired hundreds of new vehicles.

“What the travelling public probably don’t quite grasp is the size of the operation, the role it plays in their daily life,” said this staunch trade unionist, who in 2005 wrote to his bus drivers pleading with them not to strike during the Edinburgh Festival.

“Writing that letter was difficult and I took a lot of criticism for it from the union guys,” he admitted. “But at the end of the day I represent the company and I have to do what is best for the employees and the shareholders.”

In 2008 he landed in hot water by comparing bus passengers’ babies to “wet dogs” when asked about the company’s policy for allowing prams on to buses. It was, he said, a matter for individual drivers to use their professional judgment, adding: “While one passenger who boards with a small dog may be perfectly acceptable, another who wishes to board with two wet muddy Great Danes may be refused.”

Pilmar Smith was born the middle of three children in the Lawnmarket, in the Old Town of Edinburgh, in 1931. Pilmar was his mother Isabella’s family name. His father, David, was a salesman and a staunch Hearts fan, a tradition that Smith continued. He was educated at Castlehill School. When the family moved to a new flat in Dalry he transferred to Tynecastle High School, just around the corner from the home of his beloved team.

A keen footballer himself, he played on the right wing for Merchiston Thistle and other youth teams. He was offered a trial by Wolverhampton Wanderers, but declined because he had heard a rumour that he was about to be signed by Hearts. That never materialised, although his support for the club remained unshakeable.

Training as an electrician, Smith served an apprenticeship with the Co-op in Leith, although he never worked in the trade. Instead, he chose to avoid the call-up by becoming a miner, a reserved occupation. “It was as well I didn’t do national service,” he said. “I couldn’t take orders.”

He recalled his first day at Lady Victoria pit at Newtongrange. “It was horrific, like a nightmare journey into the the bowels of hell,” he said. “It was incredibly dangerous, but the people I worked with there were among the finest I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.” It was there that he developed an interest in politics, becoming a youth delegate to the mining union and a member of the Labour Party, later serving as chairman of the East Lothian constituency.

Moving on, his attention turned to one of his favourite pastimes. “I had always been interested in bookmaking, calculating odds, and so I got a job with a local company,” he recalled. After five years as the bookie’s clerk he decided to go it alone. “I set up a pitch at Powderhall [stadium] taking bets on the dogs,” he said. For a while he owned several dogs himself. His business expanded to include two betting shops in Edinburgh, one in Balerno and another in Dalry. In 1976 he was approached by six local First World War veterans asking for odds on which of them would live the longest.

When his friend Wallace Mercer became chairman of Hearts in 1981 Smith agreed to become vice-chairman, effectively acting as a “bridge” between the board and the club’s fans. He was behind the revival of the annual Heart of Midlothian remembrance service at the war memorial in Haymarket. Despite stepping down in 1994 after a change of ownership, he remained an ardent supporter. Meanwhile, the Pilmar Smith Cup is contested each year by under-14 teams in the South East Region Youth Football Association.

He joined Lothian Buses as a non-executive director in 1992 and five years later was appointed chairman, crediting the company’s profitability under his regime to his ability to delegate. “You can’t get involved in where the number 13 should go or how often it should run,” he said. “You need to look at the bigger picture and let the people you appoint run the company.” In 2009 he was dismayed to be removed by the council. “I did not retire,” he growled. “I got retired”

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, a former Jambos’ chairman, said that Smith, who never married, had been due to receive a surprise lifetime achievement award at a hall of fame dinner this weekend. He enjoyed his golf at Archerfield in East Lothian and in nearby North Berwick, where the gregarious Smith lived, it would take him half an hour to walk down the high street because everyone knew him and he would always take the time to talk with them.

Pilmar Smith, businessman, was born on August 6, 1931. He died from lymphatic cancer on November 20, 2018, aged 87