Obituary: Mary Riggans, actress

Born: 19 July, 1935, in Clydebank. Died: 2 December, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 78

Mary Riggans: Scottish actress best known to many for her role in Take the High Road
Mary Riggans: Scottish actress best known to many for her role in Take the High Road
Mary Riggans: Scottish actress best known to many for her role in Take the High Road

Mary Riggans was an ebullient actress who graced many Scottish theatres for over half a century. Her wide smile and kindly personality were first seen on television in 1954 and she went on to create one of television’s iconic characters – Effie Macinnes (later McDonald) in STV’s long running soap Take the High Road. From the early 1980s to the show’s demise in 2003 she played the local busybody with immense gusto.

Riggans was an early star of the voiceover, specialising in children’s voices from crying babies to teenage boys. She also did a cool line in animal imitations. She was one of the most talented radio actresses of her generation and her keen ear for accents made her adept at switching voices to take in all parts of Scotland.

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But it was her 20 years in Take the High Road that endeared Riggans to so many avid viewers of the soap. She made the gossipy housewife a real gem of a character with a heart of gold. Riggans brought an air of humorous sensitivity to the character that gave Effie a sympathetic and understanding personality. Riggans made Effie real.

Her co-star on Take the High Road was Eileen McCallum, who played Isla Blair. They had known each other as child actors on Children’s Hour.

“Yes,” McCallum recalls with warmth. “Mary had the ideal voice for little boys and she led our pack. She became the consummate character actress with a string of excellent performances on television and stage. She gave Effie a real vulnerability with a sunny glint in the eye.

“Effie was loveable and warm-hearted and Mary brought much of her own character to the part.

“As a person Mary had a genuine and kindly nature – she was a wonderful friend. I knew her both professionally and personally since we were teenagers.”

McCallum adds: “Mary was always an exciting person to be with.”

Riggans herself once recalled playing Effie with much affection. “When first asked to consider the part I loved the idea of a woman being allowed to fancy guys of all ages – the comedy and tragedy that that entails. Effie is a fully rounded warm, young at heart character with a lovely air of vulnerability about her. I loved playing her.”

Mary Patton Riggans was the eldest of two daughters born to Matthew and Elizabeth Riggans. She started acting professionally at the age of ten on Children’s Hour. Years later Riggans won the 1983 Sony Award as Radio Actress of the Year for her role as Jean Armour in Till a’ the Seas Run Dry; which told of the women who featured in the life of Robert Burns.

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Riggans attended North Kelvinside Academy and then read English at Glasgow University, graduating in 1959. She did a year at Perth Repertory Theatre and worked with a puppet company. When not working on the stage she worked as a supply teacher.

Over the years Riggans made many appearances on prestigious television shows and dramas in Scotland. Her first was in a TV play called A Nest of Singing Birds in the 1950s, then came the first run of Dr Finlay’s Casebook in the 1960s, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the 1970s, Taggart in the 1980s, and Still Game, Balamory and Dear Frankie a decade ago.

Of her many stage performances in Scotland particularly memorable were those at the Royal Lyceum in Molière’s Le Bourgois Gentilhome in 1989, Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and Alexander Ostrovosky’s A Family Affair. She appeared with Jimmy Logan in comedies and toured the farce Run For Your Wife throughout Scotland.

Riggans was a regular in pantomimes – fondly remembered were Cinderella and Lenny the Lion at the Pavilion, Glasgow and Mother Goose at the Gaiety, Ayr. She also toured a musical Salon Jeanette in 2001.

In 2003 Riggans read the poems of the Kirkcaldy child poet Marjory Fleming at Edinburgh’s Netherbow Theatre. The evening also used the music of Richard Rodney Bennett, who had set some of the poems to music.

Riggans said she had only recently become aware of Fleming’s poems and commented: “She was a wee genius. Her observations about the people she knew are incredible – because children can see right through you. They can see you for what you are.”

Riggans worked on behalf of many Scottish charities and in 1993 appeared at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh in a concert to raise funds for Scotland’s first children’s hospice. Andy Stewart led the stars – Riggans and McCallum were joined by Johnny Beattie. It was a glorious evening but also sad as Stewart died the following day in Arbroath.

Mary Riggans was a corner-stone of Scottish theatre for more than half a century. Her contribution to the profession was immense and her gracious manner and broad, gleaming smile will linger in many people’s memory. She used to call her fans “herooties”, which stood for “there’s her oot ae Take The High Road.”

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For more than a year, Riggans had been in the Findlay House home in Edinburgh, where she was tended with much care and affection. She is survived by her daughter Samantha.