Obituary: Dr Alastair MacFadyen, historian and Scottish country dancer

Dr Alastair MacFadyen: Historian and popular leading light in the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society
Dr Alastair MacFadyen: Historian and popular leading light in the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society
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Born: 27 May, 1936, in Carlisle. Died: 20 July, 2015, Glasgow, aged 79

There will be heartfelt sorrow in the branches of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, from mid-Argyll to Moscow, at the passing, in his 80th year, of Dr Alastair MacFadyen, dance teacher, holder of the highest office in the society, and friend with an international address book of admirers.

In the family home in Carlisle, Alastair, aged six, and his brother Ian were ushered into the room to greet two visitors, their paternal grandfather and Aunt Ina. When Ina had settled at the piano, their grandfather began striking his stick on the floor, instructing his two grandchildren: “And step, 2, 3…and step, 2, 3,” the boys’ first lesson in the timing of the pas de basque, the step fundamental to Scottish country dancing.

Though born in Carlisle, Dr MacFadyen had a Lochfyneside heritage through his paternal grandfather. This very early introduction to Scottish dance and its garb, the kilt, instilled in the boy a love of the ancestral country and its rich history.

In 1954, at the age of 18, he first made the journey to St Andrews, to the annual Summer School of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, where he encountered Miss Jean Milligan. Those who fancied themselves as dancers were apt to be quelled by her rather loud and public criticisms of footwork and timing. She called Dr MacFadyen “that boy” because of his age, but when he displayed his dancing skills he soon became one of her favourites.

Dr MacFadyen would repay Miss Milligan’s encouragement and friendship by becoming her biographer (along with Miss Florence Adams) in the book Dance With Your Soul. He was the sole biographer in An Album for Mrs Stewart of the co-founder, with Miss Milligan, of the society in 1923.

A graduate of Liverpool University, in 1966 he was appointed a lecturer in history at Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow. Miss Dorothy Paterson, a former administrator at the college, and, like Dr MacFadyen, a dance teacher, testifies to the popularity of her colleague among staff and students. She recalls that when he took a Jordanhill class to Russia, “Alastair’s luggage contained nylon tights and soap as barter items, as well as half a dozen hard boiled eggs in case he didn’t take to Soviet fare”.

Having studied old archives in Spain in the preparation for his doctoral thesis, Dr MacFadyen relished the invitation to create and augment an archive for the RSCDS, thereby making a major contribution to the history of dance in Scotland.

He served with grace, tact, wisdom and wit at all levels of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. He was chairman of the Glasgow branch; elected to the Executive Council in 1975; appointed first honorary archivist in 1978; chairman of the society from 1985 to 1988; director of the St Andrews Summer School from 1994 to 1998; and honorary president of the society in 2007, until ill health forced him to resign in 2013.

His itineraries included Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America as an ambassador and teacher of Scottish country dancing. Sociable and a fascinating conversationalist, he loved to join a ceilidh after the last dance.

But though his extensive travels and many friendships brought him much fulfilment and pleasure, he liked the comfort and solitude of the family house which he had renovated with great taste on Loch Fyneside, and where he cultivated a fragrant and colourful garden. To be served his home produce, along with dancing anecdotes, was a feast.

Dr MacFadyen was interested in, and supportive of, other forms of dance. He became a trustee of the Russian Ballet Society from 1986, and was a founder member of the Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust.

As a historian deeply interested in traditional skills, he was active in Strachur Smiddy Museum. He made frequent contributions to television and radio programmes on Scottish country dancing, and lectured on the subject. In 2007 he was invited to a royal reception at Holyrood as one who had made “a significant contribution to Scottish life and culture”.

In September 2013 Dr MacFadyen endured a terrifying experience when his car crashed 30 feet down a steep ravine in wild countryside near Glenbranter in Argyll, on his way back from a shopping trip. The vehicle landed on its side, half submerged in the river and hidden from the road.

He recalled: “It was about 4pm when I went off the road. I tried shouting for help but it didn’t work. The food I had just bought was in the boot along with my mobile, but I couldn’t get to them. I was able to dip a handkerchief into raindrops on the outside of the vehicle to moisten my lips.

“Every evening as it got dark I made sure I was in a position well clear of the water just in case. But then the river rose a bit so that was worrying.” He lay in the car for more than three days until rescued by a local man who was out picking mushrooms.

The pews at Strathlachlan Church were well filled by Scottish country dancers who had travelled distances to attend Dr MacFadyen’s funeral out of esteem and affection. It seemed fitting that his interment in the ancestral territory of Lochfyneside which he loved so much was taking place at the same time as the morning dance classes were getting under way in the first week of the RSCDS’s Summer School at St Andrews, another great love.

Those of us privileged to have known Alastair as a friend, and fellow dancer enhancing a set in the Younger Hall, St Andrews, among dancers from many lands, will miss his buoyant personality and his insistence that joy was paramount, even before technique, in Scottish country dancing.

Dr MacFadyen, the consummate Scot by commitment, is remembered in a timely film about his life as a dancer made by Stuart and Anita Mackenzie in October 2914, and which is on the RSCDS Archive website. A bachelor, Dr MacFadyen is survived by his nephews Alasdair and Duncan, and his niece Morag.