Obituary: Norman Marr, architect, planner and church organist

Born: 19 May, 1937 in Aberdeen. Died: 21 June, 2015, in Aberdeen, aged 78

Norman Marr: Civil servant helped the sick and elderly and served in Tony Blairs strategy unit

It was the head of French at Aberdeen Grammar School, the redoubtable William Cunningham, who declared with his customary acuity: “Marr, you are a fouter!” Norman later granted the truth of it. Not put forward for higher French, he worked so hard for the Prelims on his own that he managed to pass; and having done so, he fell to fouterin again, not for the last time.

At Aberdeen’s Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, he felt he did not fit in and did not complete the course. Instead, he went into architectural practice and gained his diploma after private study, the main fruits of his short career as an architect being the design of two North-east schools for Aberdeen County Council: those at Midmar and Finzean.

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Subsequently, he became senior research assistant in the Planning Department of Aberdeen City, then principal development assistant.

As director of planning and development for Kincardine and Deeside District Council (1975-92), it fell to him to supervise the production of a local plan for the Suburban Area of that authority. During his tenure, he had meetings with Prince Charles (and, on one occasion, with Prince Philip) on projects concerning Deeside planning, including the course of the Cairn o Mounth road. Of council work in general, he confessed, in retrospect, to frustration when a professional report was put before councillors and they made “either the wrong decisions or the right decisions for the wrong reasons”.

In retirement, Norman prepared monthly reports on planning applications for Aberdeen Civic Society and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (both of which organisations he had chaired), making use of his expertise and enjoying the new-found freedom to exercise his incisive critical faculty on development in his native city.

Giving credit where due, he also opposed such significant planning proposals as the pedestrianisation of Union Street, the creation of a central square in Union Terrace Gardens and the “crazy” transfer of the city’s administrative headquarters from St Nicholas House to Marischal College across the road, St Nicholas House having been built, he felt, to last longer than 40 years.

Much of his active private life centred on his church, Gilcomston St Colms, known from 1976 as Denburn. As organist, choirmaster, elder and property convener, he played a full part in the life of the church, as well as serving on Church of Scotland committees. As choirmaster, he presided with characteristic charisma over a large group of singers. A hilarious mimic, he would address them, as he was wont, in a mixture of English and Scots to their undoubted amusement and once startled an elderly soprano by quoting an expression of his grandmother’s: “I’ll tak doon yir breeks and scone yir doke.”

In 1959, he added a boys section to the church choir, recruiting volunteers from the Boys Brigade and Sunday School. They started at the age of seven, while girls began at 13. In this way, the choir grew to over 40, more than half of them under 23. Known as Marrzie to the boys, Norman worked them uncommonly hard. In addition to the main choir practice on Friday, their Sunday timetable included bible class, two services, boys club and a first practice of the music for the following Sunday. Small wonder the boys wrote in the dust of his car “Marrzie is a slave-driver”.

Later, as church numbers dwindled nationally and congregations were forced into unions, Norman had the melancholy task of acting both as arbiter and as architectural adviser to arbiters. Most sadly of all, he fought, in vain, the closure of his own church in 2006. This brought to a temporary halt 50 years of organ-playing, which affected him deeply, though, after a time, he resumed playing at the Kirk of St Nicholas United. His “best fun”, he said, had been playing hymns, at which, according to a minister’s wife, he made “the organ speak”. Yet he maintained, tongue in cheek, that “organists are not musicians”, meaning that their knowledge was often limited to church music.

Particular about what he played, he had a strong dislike of the new hymn-book, CH4, and was known to have refused to play material from Mission Praise. Unexpectedly perhaps, given his plain, no-nonsense approach to life, he was closely associated with that now somewhat ethereal order of chivalry, the Order of St John, becoming one of its knights and Cross Bearer of the Priory. An international Christian organisation, it observes religious rites as well as having charitable function: once running a nursing-home in Aberdeen, now financing mountain rescue vehicles. An elder of the Kirk, Norman surprised even himself, when, at the annual festival of the Order, held one year at St Machar’s Cathedral, he found himself carrying the cross behind Bishop Mario Conti of the Roman Catholic Church.

A reluctant motorist, Norman hardly ever drove his car; and no less rarely travelled by bus. Instead, dressed in kilt, he made a kenspeckle figure, tramping the streets of Aberdeen in deference, he claimed, to that affirmation of the poet, Horace, Odi profanum vulgus et arceo: “I hate the common people and ward them off”. This should not be taken too seriously, as most of his activities, apart from Munro-bagging, were thoroughly gregarious. A marathon runner and swimmer (He was treasurer of the Aberdeen Grammar School Former Pupils’ swimming section for 33 years), he also served on 14 committees, including that of Aberdeen’s Doors Open Day.

He confessed to having, in his home, enough organ pipes for a pipe organ he believed he would never build. That may be the only bit of fouterin to have survived into his busy and productive adult life. In his last years, he contributed to the community magazine, Midstocket Matters, a series of articles about the characters of Rosemount, this being the area of his upbringing; but perhaps the greatest of these characters, it has to be said, was Norman himself.