Scotsman Obituaries: Robbie Shepherd
Robbie Shepherd’s name, reputation and his instantly recognisable, broad Aberdeenshire accent were irrevocably bound up with his 35-year role as presenter of BBC Radio Scotland’s widely popular Scottish dance programme Take the Floor.
His commitment to country dance and wider Scottish music was matched by his lifelong championing of his beloved Doric, in which he wrote a regular column for the Aberdeen Press & Journal (collected in a book neatly titled Doric Columns).
First broadcast in 1936 and initially titled Scottish Dance Music, Take the Floor remains Scotland’s longest running radio programme, with Shepherd taking over in 1981 following the death of its previous presenter, David Findlay.
His couthy Doric tones over the airwaves initially attracted criticism but soon put his distinctive stamp on the programme, becoming inseparable from the reel and quickstep strains of the dance bands he introduced; in fact his very speech had the same lilt and skip as the strathspeys he so loved.
He summed up his approach to Take the Floor and the now discontinued Reel Blend, which he also presented, as, “I like to think that I am broadcasting to a lady in a top tenement in Glasgow at the same time as I am chatting to a lady in a croft.”
Shepherd was also a widely travelling concert MC and an in-demand compere on the Highland games circuit, including the Braemar Gathering.
When he retired from presenting Take the Floor in 2016, the then BBC Scotland director, Ken MacQuarrie, described him as one of Scotland’s most recognisable voices. “Robbie has, over more than three decades, shared his in-depth knowledge and his infectious enthusiasm with generations of Radio Scotland audiences,” he said.
Shepherd was born in the Aberdeenshire village of Dunecht and attended Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen until his father’s illness necessitated him starting work in an accountant’s office, eventually qualifying in accountancy.
At the same time, however, he became involved in the local entertainment scene, commentating for stock car racing. He was then asked to be commentator for the Old Meldrum Highland Games.
As a young “moothie” player, he also had a band, the Garlogie Four, and started appearing on four radio programmes a week, including two for BBC Radio Aberdeen.
When that station was wound up, Shepherd transferred to BBC Radio Scotland and in 1981 joined Take the Floor and never looked back.
Accordionist Gary Innes, who took over as Take the Floor presenter when Shepherd retired, described him as “a legend” and recalled: “After 35 years he left with such grace and dignity. I said to him, ‘Robbie, I have no idea how on earth I am ever going to fill your boots.’
“And he just said with that lovely Doric accent, ‘Ach Gary, ye ken I'm only a size five, you'll be fine’.”
Shepherd’s wife, Esma, hailed from the neighbouring village of Clunie, where they married in 1961. They had known each other a long time and shared an interest in music and dancing. Their relationship was apparently kindled by a conductor who used to keep them adjacent seats on the local bus.
The “loon fae Dunecht” gleaned numerous awards, including an MBE in the 2001 New Year Honours List for services to Scottish music and culture, a commitment also marked by a Master of the University (M.Univ) honour from Aberdeen University.
Other awards included induction into the Traditional Music Hall of Fame, the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Traditional Music and a Scroll of Honour from the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.
Jennifer Cruickshank, who worked with Shepherd for 33 years, initially as sound engineer and eventually as producer, described him as “100 per cent dedicated to the preparation and delivery of his programme.
"He knew his audience and valued every one of them. Out of the office, Robbie was a gentleman who valued his family and friends. He was a great support to me both professionally and personally and I have many wonderful memories of him that I will cherish for ever.”
He also had a warm sense of humour, a useful attribute when Take the Floor hit the road, broadcasting live from village halls and other venues, from the Borders to Shetland.
He loved these outside broadcasts, explaining: “The atmosphere you get in a wee village hall is unique. Everybody is the same – laird and worker are alike. The music and the dance link everyone.”
The best laid plans could gang a-gley, however. Shepherd recalled having on one occasion to saw through a chain securing the door of a Glasgow hall before they could set up.
And on Mull, they had to pump coins into a meter to maintain the power supply throughout the show.
Cruickshank recalls one incident when the presenter went into the BBC van in which he used to hang his trademark tartan jacket and dress trousers so they would arrive ahead of him.
“Robbie went to get changed and found his jacket and trousers had been replaced by a beautiful lady’s evening dress,” she said. He retrieved his own outfit, but the next day got Esma to photograph him wearing the dress.
“He got the last laugh,” recalls Cruickshank. “It just goes to show he was a good team player.”
Robbie is survived by Esma, his son Gordon, daughter-in-law Lucy and grandchildren Dougie and Rosie.
At Robbie Shepherd’s departure, one half expects to hear his habitual show sign-off still hanging in the air: “I’ll be lookin’ for ye!”
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