Obituary: Ian McCrorie, Inspirational teacher, accomplished musician and Clyde Steamer enthusiast

Ian McCrorie, teacher, chorus master and Clyde maritime historian. Born: 6 May, 1941 in Greenock. Died: 5 December, 2019 aged 78

Ian McCrorie has died at the age of 78. Picture: Jeremy Burrows

Ian McCrorie, who has died at the age of 78, was a force of nature.

To former pupils of Greenock Academy he was a long-standing chemistry and guidance teacher whose involvement in the wider aspects of school life touched their lives in so many meaningful ways.

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To choristers from all over Scotland he was a choirmaster of rare energy and inspiration. To Clyde Steamer enthusiasts his intimate knowledge and prolific writings on the subject were second to none as records of the area’s great maritime cruising history.

Add to that McCrorie’s industrious commitment to the Church of Scotland as an organist and musical adviser, and his loyalty to the cultural life of his native Inverclyde as a hands-on member of the historic Greenock Burns Club and past president of the 230-year-old Innerkip Society, and the clear picture of a ceaseless polymath emerges.

Ian McCrorie was born in Greenock in 1941 on the night of the Greenock blitz. His father, also a teacher at Greenock Academy, recognised his son’s early enthusiasm for music and despatched him to piano lessons at the tender age of four. By the end of his schooling he had transferred that interest to playing the church organ. But his appointment as the school’s head boy in 1958 was already indicative of the parallel passions and abilities that were to symbolise his later life.

He chose to study chemistry at Glasgow University. After graduating and completing teaching studies at Jordanhill College, he found himself back at Greenock Academy as a member of staff. By 1979 he had risen to become head of guidance, social and leisure, before his final promotion to assistant rector.

Speak to former pupils, and their memories are not so much of McCrorie’s laboratory-based pedagogy, reportedly “routine”, as his shaping and opening of young minds through his tireless activity in wider curricular matters. What started as the school’s Scientific Society, set up by McCrorie, soon expanded into the Philosophical Society. Teaching about life’s wider curiosities mattered to him.

Most former pupils count as the highlight McCrorie’s meticulous organisation of the adventurous summer outings, 100 pupils at a time setting off to various historical Highlands destinations. McCrorie insisted on being called “Ian” on such occasions. “He had a gift for creating bonds among young people, a pied piper character”, recalls former pupil and close friend Elliott McKelvie. Evenings on these trips inevitably turned into rousing musical soirees.

His founding of the Toad Choir in the 1960s was, to some extent, an extension of that school activity, drawing not only colleagues and former pupils into its ranks, but the wider Inverclyde singing public too. Its name, often cited as an affectionate allusion to the jovial and portly McCrorie, soon became synonymous with the very best in Scottish choral singing.

McKelvie, who joined the Toads in 1972, pins the secret of its success on McCrorie’s uncompromising insistence on high standards. “He was a strict disciplinarian, a perfectionist when it came to rehearsals. The only time he got tetchy was when people turned up late.”

The 1970s brought the choir success, through regular television appearances, including the BBC Hogmanay Show, and the ultimate prize in 1975 of category winners at London’s Royal Albert Hall in the UK National Choral Competition, precursor to the BBC Choir of the Year competition. But Greenock remained its root base, not least for its massively popular annual Christmas Carol Service accompanied by such professional ensembles as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

McCrorie spied opportunities beyond Greenock for the Toads, spurred on by his own experience singing with Arthur Oldham’s Edinburgh Festival Chorus, also as the legendary chorus master’s assistant. In 1975, when the newly-formed Scottish Chamber Orchestra found the need to align itself with a chorus, McCrorie offered the Toad Choir as the embryo of a brand new choir, recruiting additional voices from Edinburgh where the SCO is based, and renaming it the Scottish Philharmonic Singers.

McCrorie was now preparing his singers for major performances with such conducting royalty as Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Simon Rattle, Raymond Leppard and Sir John Elliot Gardiner. And not just for SCO performances. An allegiance with the BBC SSO added to the choir’s international profile, with prestigious appearances at the Aldeburgh, Edinburgh and Aix-en-Provence Festivals, in Poland in 1984, at the BBC Proms in London, and in Israel under maestro Zubin Mehta. The 1980s produced landmark recordings for the SPS, among them the first UK version of Rachmaninov’s Vespers.

When the SCO decided in the 1990s that it needed its own exclusive chorus – what would become the current SCO Chorus – McCrorie stepped aside, but kept his own choir independently operating as the Scottish Festival Singers, with further notable performances that included Britten’s War Requiem in a Govan shipyard in 1995 with the BBC SSO, marking the 50th anniversary of VE Day, and the completion of a 45-year run of Greenock Town Hall carol concerts, which ended in December 2005.

Retired from teaching and from his choir, McCrorie continued to operate as a church organist within the Greenock Presbytery, having also, in his wider musical involvement with the Church of Scotland, served on the committee entrusted with producing the Church Hymnary Fourth Edition.

He also found time to add to the long list of publications, around 20 in all dating back to the 1960s, on what many considered his truest passion, the history of Clyde Steamers. A noted expert on the subject - a lifelong member of the Clyde River Steamer Club, serving as president in both 1965 and 1992 – McCrorie’s interest had stemmed from boyhood, and the familial legacy of a great grandfather who had been the first stationmaster and piermaster at Wemyss Bay.

McCrorie died following a short illness. He is survived by his wife Olive, a fellow musician whom he married in 1965, and by his sons Roderick and Douglas, and grandson Finlay.