John Harbottle obituary

Other lives: Mud engineer whose expertise took him to drilling sites around the world

As a student in the late 1960s, my friend John Harbottle was uninspired by his metallurgy course at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, and the massive expansion of the Aberdeen-based oil and gas industries provided the perfect opportunity for him. In no time John, who has died aged 70, became a qualified mud engineer, a role that was fundamental to both the safety and the profitability of the rigs.

The “mud”, or drilling fluid, lubricates and cools the drill, brings the cuttings to the surface and stabilises the hole. It is important to prevent dangerous, damaging and highly expensive blowouts – only by getting the mud right can drilling continue uninterrupted. John’s expertise and commitment came to be universally respected and his career would take him to every corner of the globe.

Born in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, he was the son of Moira (nee Young) and Harry Harbottle. Shortly after John’s birth the family moved to Kampala, Uganda, to begin challenging new posts, Harry as government chemist and Moira as a trainer of mathematics teachers at Kampala University. They might have emigrated sooner but Moira remained to ensure that were she to give birth to a boy he would qualify to play cricket for Yorkshire.

John loved living in Africa: the place, people and fabulous wildlife. Family social life revolved around cricket and rugby clubs and they frequently welcomed members of first-class UK touring sides as guests.

His parents stayed in Uganda until the 70s, but John returned to the UK to attend Morrison’s academy, Crieff, Perthshire, staying with Moira’s parents in Carstairs, South Lanarkshire, where his grandfather was the local GP, during the shorter school holidays and returning to Uganda for the summers. He spent several happy years from 1967 to 1975 in Glasgow, making many good friends.

Based successively in Silverton, near Exeter, and Oxford between “hitches” on the rigs, John readily made countless more friends. He loved the sociability of a good old-fashioned pub, where he was the most delightful companion. In Devon (his father settled in Paignton) and Oxford, and in Cornwall (where his mother lived), John relished opening the batting for Thorverton, Willows, Old Wolseyans, Trevone and Balliol College cricket clubs.

In the 80s, Africa beckoned again. He was especially drawn towards the coast near Mombasa, and after some false starts, including a disastrous venture into large-scale poultry-farming, John ended up building a wonderful home on Diani beach.

He loved good music, live and recorded. Particular favourites were reggae, the early Stones, the Incredible String Band, Little Feat, Gillian Welch, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris and Stornoway. John had a remarkable ear and could identify one backing vocalist among many without the benefit of sleeve-notes.

He was an optimist: an enthusiast with an altruistic inclination to offer opportunities to others. He was also the best of companions when we were fielding in a cricket match and in the bar afterwards, but also an opening bat who could reduce a bowling attack to jelly. Unaccountably, the call from Headingley never came.

John’s parents and his sister, Ann, predeceased him.

Charlie Duncan

The GuardianTramp

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