Obituary: George Donald MBE, comic and teacher

George Donald, centre, with his Scotland the What co-stars Bill Hardie, left, and Steve Robertson. Picture: TSPL
George Donald, centre, with his Scotland the What co-stars Bill Hardie, left, and Steve Robertson. Picture: TSPL
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Born: 1934, in Huntly. Died: 30 September, 2013, in Perth, aged 79

For most of his adult life, George Donald was a teacher, and a distinguished one at that, ending his career as assistant rector of Perth Academy.

In his “other” life, however, Donald was one third of that celebrated trio who became eponymous through the name of their show, Scotland the What.

Along with the late Steve Robertson and William “Buff” Hardie, Donald took the patois of the north-east of Scotland, mixed it with a dose of situation comedy sketches, and added his own unique musical talent to create a concoction that entertained thousands over five decades.

He often played up his credentials as a “Huntly loon” as he was raised in the Aberdeenshire town and attended Huntly Gordon Schools. He was proud of his home town, even if he poked gentle fun at it, and proud of his school, being an honorary vice-president of its Former Pupils Association for many years until his death.

Though he gave concerts and appeared in solo shows before and after his “retirement” from the stage, Scotland the What was Donald’s zenith, and it lasted a long time.

It has long been forgotten that the original title of the show was Scotland the What? with a question mark, and was billed simply as “three semi-literate Scots taking an irreverent look at their country’s institutions”.

The first production contained no Doric accents or Aberdonian epithets at all – “We were aiming for an international audience,” Hardie later recalled with a laugh.

It seems bizarre to recall now that the first show which made them famous was in fact to be something of a farewell performance.

All three had been students at Aberdeen University in the 1950s where Hardie and Robertson excelled as writers and performers, while Donald contributed the musical elements to several of the Aberdeen Student Shows, as they were known.

The three former students and other university alumni and friends came together in the 1960s in the Aberdeen Revue Group, which was in effect an amateur dramatic society dedicated to “intimate revue” of the kind that had died out elsewhere in the post-war years.

Their producer was James Logan, who would become Scotland the What’s producer and promoter rolled into one.

In the late 1960s, Donald had family and teaching commitments – he was a language teacher at Robert Gordon’s College – while Hardie was rising in the Health Service and would become secretary of Grampian Health Board, with Robertson an ever-busy lawyer.

They decided to put together a final show and what became a national treasure made its debut in September 1969, on the Edinburgh Fringe. Billed as the Nova Scotia Revue Group, the trio presented their show late at night at St Mary’s Hall.

It was an instant hit, helped by rave reviews from the late Neville Garden of the Scottish Daily Express and The Scotsman’s legendary arts editor Allen Wright, who remained a supporter throughout his career.

They returned to the Fringe in triumph the following year, added some North-east material, and a phenomenon was born, confirmed when Jimmy Donald, owner of His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen and no relation to George, offered the trio a one night show which grew from the Fringe productions.

From the start, the trio relied on wit and humour of the pawky kind as well as Donald’s brilliant music, rather than outright satire. Hardie and Donald collaborated on the comic songs which were such an essential part of the mix, with their targets being pomposity and priggishness.

The humour was very much that of the North-east, and they made no concessions to lowland ears when cracking jokes and acting out sketches in the full panoply of the Doric.

The mythical town of Auchterturra, peopled by glorious eccentrics, featured largely throughout a format that varied little – sketch, song, solo by Donald at the piano, and repeat until the applause was deafening.

With Donald having relocated to Perth Academy where he taught German, rising to become deputy rector, the trio of professionals faced the crucial decision about turning full-time, and to the great joy of the comedy-appreciating Scottish public, they did so in 1983.

For the next 12 years they toured Scotland with a new show every other year, as well as taking over Hogmanay broadcasts on television, touring to Canada and generally becoming seen as ambassadors for all that was good-humoured in Scotland, their jokes and stories defiantly rendered mostly in the Doric to the end. In 1995, their Final Fling tour played to packed houses across Scotland before ending on their “home” stage of His Majesty’s Theatre. They were each promptly awarded the MBE.

The trio did one final show almost as a favour to the city, performing in cabaret at the Beach Ballroom after former Aberdeen manager Sir Alex Ferguson was awarded the Freedom of the City in 1999.

The same honour was subsequently given to the Scotland the What trio in 2008. The City Council is currently flying its flag at half-mast as a mark of respect to Donald, who with his colleagues greatly appreciated the Freemen citation “for makin’ a’body laugh”.

Buff Hardie always maintained that Donald was first and foremost an accomplished musician and indeed Donald was part of the Music Box ensemble with opera singers David Maxwell and Linda Ormiston that performed a cabaret-style show for many years. Hardie now survives as the sole remaining member of the Scotland the What trio, Steve Robertson having passed away in 2011.

George Donald is survived by his wife Isabelle, his children Stephen, Marianne and Claire, his six grandchildren and sister Mrs Margaret Smith.