James Ogilvie Blair-Cunynghame

Sir James Ogilvie Blair-Cunynghame (1913-90) was a director and chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Williams & Glyn’s Bank and National & Commercial Banking Group.

Background and education

James Ogilvie Blair-Cunynghame (known as Hamish Blair-Cunynghame) was born on 28 February 1913, the second son of Edwin Blair-Cunynghame, an Edinburgh stockbroker, and his wife Anne Tod. He was educated at Sedbergh School before reading economics at King’s College, Cambridge.

From 1935 to 1938 he worked for Unilever, before returning to Cambridge, where he undertook research on behalf of the University Appointments Board into the recruitment of graduates to industry. He thus became an early leader in the field of personnel management. In the 1930s, growing industries were beginning to see improved staff benefits and training as a valuable tool for driving better company performance, and thus personnel management was becoming a distinct specialism for the first time. In later years, after Blair-Cunynghame had become a bank director, he observed, ‘I am learning to be a banker…but my interests have always been very much on the human side.’

While in Cambridge in the late 1930s, he also worked extensively for the Workers’ Educational Association, lecturing for them on economics, social problems, the history of organised labour and the trades unions movement.

He was elected a fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge in 1939.

Second World War

Blair-Cunynghame served throughout the Second World War in the Royal Artillery and Intelligence Corps, initially as a captain and later as a lieutenant colonel. He worked in Sixta at Bletchley Park, undertaking traffic analysis on intercepted German messages. He later served in the Middle East before returning to Bletchley Park as a liaison officer in 1944.

Career in personnel management

After the end of the war Blair-Cunynghame worked briefly at the Foreign Office before returning to his specialism in the burgeoning field of personnel management. During the war years, staff welfare and personnel work had become more entrenched in the British workplace, as the government had organised its own war work operations with separate personnel functions. By 1943, there were over 5,000 people employed specifically in personnel roles. Blair-Cunynghame became chief personnel officer of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1947.

In 1955 the Flack report into the organisation of the National Coal Board recommended the creation of a staff department. Blair-Cunynghame was appointed director general of the new department. Two years later, he became the National Coal Board’s member for staff. He held that post until 1959.

He was a companion of the British Institute of Management and of the Institute of Personnel Management. In the course of his career he published various articles on aspects of personnel management.

His interest in personnel management and employee training led him to become involved in several business schools and related bodies, including:

  • member of the Council of Manchester Business School, 1965-72, and president of the Manchester Business School Association, 1971-7
  • member of the advisory committee on business studies at Edinburgh University
  • member of the court of governors of London School of Economics and Political Science
  • member of the Council of Industry for Management Education
  • member of the Scottish Business School Council, 1972-6
  • governor of British Transport Staff College, 1963-73

The Royal Bank of Scotland

In 1960 Blair-Cunynghame was appointed to the board of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He became vice chairman the following year, and chairman in 1965.

He was extensively involved in negotiations for the merger between the Royal Bank of Scotland and National Commercial Bank of Scotland, completed in 1969. The merged bank introduced a new Group structure, in which both the Royal Bank of Scotland in Scotland and Williams & Glyn’s Bank in England and Wales were overseen by a holding company, National & Commercial Banking Group. Blair-Cunynghame became chairman of the Group, while National Commercial's pre-merger chairman Ian MacDonald became chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

In 1971, upon the retirement of Ian MacDonald, Blair-Cunynghame additionally became chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He held this post until 1976.

From 1976 to 1978 he was chairman of Group subsidiary Williams & Glyn’s Bank.

In 1978 he retired from the chairmanship of both Williams & Glyn’s Bank and National & Commercial Banking Group, but he continued as a director of the Group until 1982.

He was a member of the Committee of London Clearing Bankers, 1976-8, and of the general council of the British Bankers’ Association, 1976-8. He became a fellow of the Institute of Bankers in 1977.

Other directorships

James Ogilvie Blair-Cunynghame also served on the boards of The Scottish Mortgage Trust Co Ltd, 1967-83; Lloyds & Scottish Ltd; Provincial Insurance Co Ltd; Provincial Life Assurance Co Ltd; and Culter Guard Bridge Holdings Ltd.

He served on the Scottish Economic Council, 1965-74, and on the executive committee of the Scottish Council (Development & Industry).


James Ogilvie Blair-Cunynghame was awarded an MBE in 1943 and an OBE in 1945. He was knighted in 1976.

He was awarded an honorary LLD from St Andrews University in 1965, and an honorary DSc (social science) from Edinburgh University in 1969. He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1978.

Family life and death

James Ogilvie Blair-Cunynghame never married. He died on 4 January 1990 after a long illness. He was 76 years old.