Obituaries, Margaret MacLean, civil servant who helped establish National Museum of Scotland

Margaret MacLean, civil servant. Born: 26 September 1942 in Stornoway. Died: 5 October 2021 in Edinburgh aged 79

Margaret Maclean did much to further Gaelic's place in Scottish heritage
Margaret Maclean did much to further Gaelic's place in Scottish heritage

My sister Margaret MacLean died due to a brain bleed after suffering from worsening scleroderma for the second half of her life. She was a senior civil servant, beginning in London in 1965 with three years in Customs and Excise, followed by two years as private secretary to Dick Taverne, Financial Secretary to the Treasury under Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins.

She enjoyed this role much more than Customs, where she was one of very few women, surrounded by men who were the products of private schools – Margaret was educated at a state school. In 1970 Margaret was transferred to the Scottish Office at her own request.

Jim Lonie, a longstanding colleague and friend of Margaret's, spoke the following words at her funeral about her contribution to the Scottish Office: “Margaret served in various departments but is remembered chiefly for her outstanding work as Head of Personnel and Head of Arts and Cultural Heritage. She knew [the latter] field intimately and two particular achievements deserve special mention. First, the outstanding part she played in the cultural activities of the European Summit in Edinburgh in 1992, when she mobilised contributions from across the arts to produce 'A celebration of Europe in music, words, dance, light and colour'. This surpassed expectations and made a lasting impression.

Margaret Maclean did much to further Gaelic's place in Scottish heritage

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“Her second great achievement concerned the establishment of the National Museum of Scotland. She promoted it, won funding for it and convinced ministers that this was a seminal development.

“Another of the Arts responsibilities was Gaelic. Margaret was not herself a Gaelic speaker but she had a Gaelic background and had an intuitive understanding of the aspirations for the language. She did much to develop a spirit of cooperation and support for the furthering of the language and its place in our Scottish heritage.

“Margaret also served with distinction as Head of Personnel. Colleagues have recalled how discretion, humour, judgement and compassion were deployed and one has recounted in particular how Margaret helped resolve a difficult staffing problem with a 'firm, gritty determination'. Another colleague remembered her as a discerning critic, with this comment from her on a draft which did not quite meet her exacting standard: ‘Does this submission do anything more than involve the Minister in our own uncertainty?’ ”

Margaret was forced to retire in 1996 at the age of 54 due to scleroderma-related disability but she continued to contribute to public life as a governor of Edinburgh College of Art, a member of the Scottish Museums Council and on the Scottish Committee of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The many civil servants who came to her funeral 25 years later testified to the respect she had earned.

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Margaret was the daughter of Isabel May MacRae, a prize-winning nurse whose family have been gamekeepers on the Eisgein Estate in Lewis since 1876. May had to abandon nursing to marry Stornoway butcher Dugald MacLean in 1940 and this denial of opportunities fired her strong support for Margaret's education. Dugald was one of ten MacLeans, Gaelic-speaking, crofting men and women, who came to Lewis early in the century from north west Skye to join Stornoway' s petit bourgeois class as farmers, butchers and bakers. Dugald was one of the first to export Stornoway black puddings widely and his business success provided the family with a very comfortable lifestyle.

Margaret attended Stornoway's Nicolson Institute, which she enjoyed. She was interested in literature, opera and classical music from an early age. For her last term in school she went to live with the Taschner family in Kassel in Germany and Christa Tascher became her friend for life.

She went on to Aberdeen University, where she lived for two years at Crombie Hall, Britain's first mixed student residence. Her five undergraduate years included one year at Germany's Tubingen University, where she occupied a garret with Kathleen Mitchell (Perkins) from Inverness. In 1965 she graduated MA Honours in English and German.

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At Aberdeen, Margaret was one of relatively few language students and five of these became her friends and a support group for the rest of her life – Kathleen Perkins, Peggy Cruickshank, Maria Fricker, Donald Ferguson and Frances Milne. The first four went on an annual holiday in Britain or Europe once a year for 20 years. With Frances she went to many places, including Kordofan in Sudan. She enjoyed a tour of Rajasthan. She took her friends on several trips to Lewis. They shared her great interest in opera, music and drama. The Edinburgh Festival was always a highlight of Margaret's year.

In her homes in Edinburgh's New Town, and later Corstorphine, Margaret's hospitality towards friends and family was renowned. My wife, Kathy, and I have four sons. She took her young nephews, Calum, Ruairidh, Tormod and Fearchar, to pantos, concerts and on exciting holidays, including pony trekking in the Pentlands and to Cairndow in Argyll.

While our parents were still alive she organised a fortnight for all of us at Scarista on the beautiful machair of West Harris during a heat wave in 1990. As May and Dugald aged she travelled to Stornoway many times to support them and, despite her own failing health, ran my mother's affairs for her last years.

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