Obituary: Dr Marc Ellington, US-born folk singer who joined British Establishment

Dr Marc Ellington, DL, Baron of Towie Barclay. Born: December 16 1945 in Boston, Massachusetts, United States. Died: February 17 2021, aged 75

Dr Marc Ellington shares a joke with the Duke of Rothesay

There’s a photo in the Great Hall in Towie Barclay Castle of two men sharing a real belly laugh –one is a bearded and pony-tailed former folk singer called Marc Ellington, the other is a kilted Duke of Rothesay, better known as HRH Prince Charles. The photo clearly shows two things – firstly, a quite genuine friendship between the two men, and secondly, the fact that Marc Ellington knew everybody.

He was quite shameless when it came to name-dropping, which could be a little disorientating, “Bob” could be a reference to the local doctor in Turriff or Dylan or Marley. He had genuinely played alongside a dazzling array of musical greats, fully half of whom had slept on the floor of his flat at some stage. His daughters Kirstie and Iona once found themselves on a family holiday in Mustique having a singsong with a slim, pale man with mismatched eyes who, according to them, “wasn’t very good”. Thankfully nobody relayed that back to David Bowie.

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The Ellington family home, Towie Barclay Castle, near Turriff in Aberdeenshire, is a stunning 16th-century tower house that Marc and wife Karen, an award-winning landscaper and garden designer, bought as a ruin in the late 1960s for a few thousand pounds, then spent years painstakingly rebuilding. The project was funded entirely through Marc’s musical career and kept on track by Karen’s rigorous attention to detail. Their outstanding restoration was given a Saltire Award in 1973.

Marc said that they did it just in the nick of time, “The craftsmen, the masons, roofers, old-school plumbers that we needed to do the job were mostly retiring or already retired. Another ten years and those skills would have disappeared” Years later this uncomfortable truth led Marc to set up the Scottish Traditional Skills Training Centre aimed at encouraging students to learn traditional skills such as lime-mortar work, stonemasonry, drystane-dyking, hedge making and path maintenance. He saw this work as vital in order to ensure the future of our built heritage.

Marc Ellington was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1945 and moved with his parents and younger brother Eric to the UK in 1967, allegedly so that the two boys wouldn’t run the risk of being drafted into the US Forces to serve in the Vietnam war. Their sister Noni remained in America with her young family.

The Ellingtons were a talented family – his father Frank was a radio broadcaster who pioneered “Talking Books for the Blind” in Canada. One of Frank’s career highlights was interviewing jazz legend Duke Ellington, who kept on calling him “Cuz”, the American diminutive of “cousin”. His mother Harriette was a gifted speech therapist and his brother Eric became an accomplished professional photographer.

In the late Sixties Marc was a well-known figure in the folk-rock scene, recording with artists like the Byrds, Matthews’ Southern Comfort, Fairport Convention and the Flying Burrito Brothers. His solo albums included Restoration, Marc Ellington, Marc Time, A Question of Roads and Rains/Reins of Change.

He developed a TV career on Grampian TV with a show called Marc Time that featured a lot of his old friends like Gallagher and Lyle, Sandy Denny, and Rab Noakes.

In later years Marc viewed his musical career as ancient history but it had a bad habit of rearing up again when he least expected it. In 2002 he found himself performing again with Fairport Convention at the Cropredy Festival in Norfolk and two years ago he performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall in a concert to celebrate his great friend Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday. He later admitted to have been terrified at the prospect of both performances.

For a former hippie he did a remarkably good job of integrating into the Establishment. He was a former board member of the Government’s Historic Buildings Council (1980-88), Grampian Enterprise, the British Heritage Committee and Heritage Lottery Fund for Scotland. He was also a non-executive director of Historic Scotland (2005-11), a board member of Banff and Buchan College and a Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland (2002-10). He became Depute Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire in 2007 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Aberdeen University in 2014.

His lifelong contribution to the conservation and protection of the historic built environment was variously acknowledged by the Civic Trust, Saltire and European Heritage Awards.

For such a public figure Marc Ellington was actually a very private man. Many people only saw the persona he projected – the beard, the pony-tail, the county-set clothes and the pipe, but he was much more than that. He was a superb networker who used his contacts to effect good with no thought of personal gain. One of the best examples of this was when he facilitated the transfer of the internationally acclaimed Trauma Research Unit that had been under threat at Aberdeen University to the city’s other university, RGU. The unit’s head, the late Professor David Alexander, said that the team had only survived and been able to carry on their vital work because of “The Baron”. Marc’s many friends can tell dozens of similar stories that reveal his innate kindness and thoughtfulness.

A keen sailor, he kept a beautiful, traditionally built gaff-rigged ketch, De Tollie, in Whitehills harbour. His knowledge of traditional boats made him an obvious commentator at the annual Portsoy Small Boats Festival.

For the last year of his life Marc lived with a serious heart condition. He passed away in his sleep on February 17.

He is survived by his wife Karen, daughters Iona and Kirstie, sister Noni and grandsons Archie, Hugo, Angus and Hamish.

MARK STEPHEN & THE ELLINGTON FAMILY

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