Obituary: Claire MacGregor, teacher of pronunciation to international students

Claire MacGregor, teacher. Born: 21 August, 1932 in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire. Died: 9 January, 2022 in Edinburgh, aged 89

Claire MacGregor was a busy, energetic, eclectic lover of life
Claire MacGregor was a busy, energetic, eclectic lover of life

Claire MacGregor died peacefully at Murrayfield House nursing home in Edinburgh on 9 January, 2022 in her 90th year.

A daughter of the manse like her mother and grandmother before her, she embraced the opportunities available to independently minded, clever young women in 1960s Britain. Dismissive of convention from an early age, Claire was inspired by a mother and aunt who had studied at St Andrews and Cambridge Universities in the 1920s when women at the latter were still being denied degrees. Claire was determined to grasp a broad range of experiences formerly not open to women and to share in the opportunities that were becoming available to them. She was not to be limited in what was achievable by custom or timidity and her many lifelong friends were of similar mind.

Neither militant feminist, nor bluestocking, Claire was a rational, interested, pioneering woman who believed in her own ability and for whom equality was taken as read. Where she encountered resistance her intellectual ability, modest humanity and good humour ensured that she was readily accepted as a valuable colleague and friend wherever she went.

Claire was born on 21 August, 1932, daughter and oldest of the three children of the Rev Alek and Beatrice Sawyer. She spent the war years first in Yarrow in the Borders with her mother and her grandfather the retired Rev Adam Fergusson whilst her father served as a padre on active service, then at Esdaile, the Edinburgh school for Church of Scotland ministers’ daughters (at that time evacuated to Ayton Castle in Berwickshire) before graduating with an MA in general arts from St Andrews University. In 1952 her Spanish tutor arranged a placement working as a nanny to the children of General Franco’s Foreign Minister and brother-in-law, Ramon Serrano Suñer. She regretted never meeting Franco himself: on the day of his birthday party, to which the family was invited, she was provided with some money and told to take herself to the cinema for the evening.

A postgraduate Diploma in Phonetics at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Linguistics, led at that time by first class academics David Abercrombie and Betsy Uldall among others, marked the start of a long career as a teacher of pronunciation to international students.

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Her time at Edinburgh post-diploma was spent working on the Linguistic Survey of Scotland, by then its own Department at the University. Claire spent several years collecting phonological data for the Survey from dialect speakers in the Borders and Fife and also developed friendly relationships with her subjects – fascinated by accounts of industrial and rural life in the early 20th century. Her love of the Scots language and more recent Scots history was surely deepened by these encounters. Her young sons were also much taken by the palatography room in Buccleuch Street in which powdered chocolate was sprayed inside the mouth and the “wipe off” photographed after the subject had pronounced a chosen word.

Claire’s first overseas teaching assignment was Tehran University in 1970. She travelled extensively and had an enduring love for the Iranian people. In hindsight, it was an amazing time to have been in Iran during the crumbling reign of the Shah, with signs of the coming revolution already evident. Female students were beginning to wear the chador head covering in class and others, whose successors were to ignite the revolution in 1978, were often on strike – providing fairly regular days off for outings to see more of the city.

Throughout the 1980s Claire worked in Bill Currie’s Edinburgh Language Foundation in Haddington and Edinburgh teaching pronunciation to doctors and other professionals from all over the world – often from countries with troubled recent pasts like China, Angola and Vietnam.

As retirement loomed in the late 1980s, she spent her final two working years teaching at Bilkent University in Ankara. Mixing academic life with her love of people, history, culture and travel she saw most of Turkey by its hugely efficient bus network – Antakya, Trebizond, Cappadocia, Izmir and Istanbul – and told tales of the gentle, friendly people she met everywhere there.

After retirement, Claire spent 30 happy and busy years working as a guide in St Giles’ Cathedral, Greyfriars Kirk, St Cuthbert’s and Newhailes House – carefully learning the history, customs and significance of each – and variously as a tree warden for Edinburgh Council, landlady and a daily cleaner, member of the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Group, active member of a Tai Chi club, occasional singer in various community choirs and family genealogist.

Travel in retirement was a pleasure both in the UK (where she was collecting cathedrals) and overseas particularly where there were family connections – Texas and California, Australia and Grand Bahama to visit the grave of her father who had died there while working as a locum minister, and regular family gatherings in France.

Claire was a busy, energetic, eclectic lover of life and every inch her own woman. Very widely read with an interest in interesting things and a strong independence of mind and spirit, she had a huge appetite for humour and good conversation and no time for silly convention.

In an unhappy coincidence, Jane Margaret Claire MacGregor died on the same day as her brother, Professor of Old Testament Studies, John Sawyer, leaving younger brother Lindsay, Emeritus Professor of Structural Biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. She is survived by children Hugh, Adam and Lucy (her eldest son, Fergus, died in 2018), seven grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

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