Obituary: Archibald Herbert Bevan MBE, teacher

BORN: 27 June, 1925, in Lewisham, London. Died: 23 February, 2015, in Stromness, Orkney, aged 89.

Co-founder of the St Magnus International Festival and stalwart of Orkney public life
Co-founder of the St Magnus International Festival and stalwart of Orkney public life

A serendipitous ­series of encounters set ­Archie Bevan on the road to founding one of the UK’s most distinctive arts festivals.

Along with Scots poet George Mackay Brown and composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, he was part of the triumvirate that led to the genesis of Orkney’s St Magnus International Festival – hatched over mugs of homebrew in Bevan’s home.

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And since those early days, almost 40 years ago, the event has hosted a galaxy of global stars, including violinist Nicola ­Benedetti and conductor Andre Previn and earned Bevan the MBE for services to the festival.

Yet, had it not been for a strange coincidence, the trio’s initial introduction may not have occurred one dreich summer day in 1970.

The poet and Bevan’s family had been on holiday on the island of Hoy when Sir Peter first visited Orkney. In a bookshop in Stromness, the composer had come across George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry and reportedly sat up all night reading it, entranced. The following day, on a ferry to Hoy, he encountered a stranger who noticed him with the book. The man announced he was on his way to visit the writer and his friends and invited Sir Peter and his manager along.

The three hit it off from the start and developed a deep friendship and long working relationship after Sir Peter subsequently moved to Orkney. The composer later turned another of George Mackay Brown’s work, Magnus, into an opera and when the question of where to premiere the piece arose, the seeds of the St Magnus festival were sown. Over those mugs, around the kitchen table in Bevan’s home, Hopedale, the plan was formed for it to be held in Orkney’s St Magnus Cathedral and so the first festival took place in 1977.

Bevan, a schoolteacher, later became its chairman, co-artistic director and, finally, honorary president, honoured by the Queen for his contribution to the festival. But his roots were many hundreds of miles away in Lewisham, London, where he was born to Herbert Bevan, from Shropshire, and his wife Margarita, from Tobermory on Mull.

His parents had met at the British training camp in Etaples during the Great War. They married and settled in London, where young Archie was their third child. However, he never knew his father, as he died before his birth. The baby was only a few months old when the family headed north to Stromness to stay with his mother’s sister, whose husband ran a shop and bakery. When his aunt and uncle moved to Hopedale, his mother took over the running of the shop and young Archie spent his early years running errands and carrying trays of rolls on his head from the bakery.

In 1938, when he was 13, he joined his uncle’s family on a sailing expedition around Cape Wrath and down the west coast to Glasgow to see the Empire Exhibition. On a visit to Clydebank, he stood under the bow of the Queen Elizabeth liner, then under construction. The following year the voyage was repeated, but it wasn’t until many years later that he put the tale of the trips into print for a family book, Westward Ho.

In 1942 and still a teenager, he joined the Royal Artillery and was posted to India, where he served on the Western Frontier. After the war he remained in the army until being demobbed in 1947, when he started his studies at Edinburgh University. He graduated with an honours degree in English and completed a teacher training qualification at Edinburgh’s Moray House, before returning to Orkney, where he took up his first teaching post at Finstown.

He had already met his future wife, Elizabeth, and they married in 1952. Heavily involved in local life, he became a member of Stromness Town Council, a founding member of the Stromness Debating Society – of which he was later president – and an officer in the Boys’ Brigade. 

A lifelong socialist and member of the Labour Party, in the early 1960s he took part in marches for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was a member of the local Labour candidate’s campaign team for the 1966 general election. 

By the mid-1960s the family – by now he and Elizabeth had three children – were resident at Hopedale, where George Mackay Brown was a frequent visitor. In 1968 Bevan was a founding member of the Orkney Heritage Society and two years later came the meeting with Peter Maxwell Davies which would prove a huge influence on his life.

Once the St Magnus Festival was up and running, Hopedale became the equivalent of its base camp: Bevan and Sir Peter were the leaders and Elizabeth acted as manager, arranging accommodation and food for the arrival of squads of performers and family. But he still had his day job to fulfil and was appointed deputy rector of Stromness Academy, the post he retired from in 1988.

Not one to be idle, he then hosted a show, Moot Point, on Radio Orkney, worked in his garden and took up cycling. In 1996, following the death of George Mackay Brown, Bevan was appointed his literary executor and began working with a friend to get the writer’s body of unpublished work into print. Many new publications followed, culminating in 2005 with the book Collected Poems, which he co-edited.

Bevan, who had also served as a member of the Hoy Trust and vice chairman of Orkney Health Board, was awarded the MBE in 2000 and in 2012 was made an honorary fellow of the Association of Literary Studies, by which time he was suffering increasingly from Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to attend the award ceremony. 

He died, as he had lived, at Hopedale with his wife by his side, and at his funeral the triumvirate was there in spirit again with a reading of his friend, George Mackay Brown’s poem “Hamnavoe Man” and a recital by Sir Peter of “Farewell to Stromness”. 

Bevan is survived by his wife Elizabeth, children Peter, Anne and Graham, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.