Scotsman Obituaries: Walter Blair, Scottish organist, teacher and choirmaster

Walter Blair, musician and educator. Born: 20 May 1941. Died: 3 February 2023, aged 81
Walter Blair helped many musicians fulfil potential they never knew they hadWalter Blair helped many musicians fulfil potential they never knew they had
Walter Blair helped many musicians fulfil potential they never knew they had

One of Scotland’s great musicians and educationalists, Walter Blair, has died at the age of 81. I had got to know Walter later in life, as a marvellous accompanist in several recitals at the Edinburgh Festival, which I put on at St Andrew’s and St George’s Church on George Street in Edinburgh.

In these programmes I endeavoured to give a platform to some of my finest students from St Andrews University, as well as giving me a chance to sing some song repertoire I had not previously attempted in my long career.

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Walter was wonderfully committed to these programmes, changing styles and genres easily and with great skill, and I was delighted to find a like-minded spirit to work with. Never one to rest on his laurels, Walter was always keen to try new pieces, and his rock-solid technique allowed him to play even the most daunting of scores with apparent ease.

I had known him vaguely for a long time, as my wife had sung in the Helensburgh Oratorio Choir under his direction, while at school in the early 1970s. When he and his wife Sheila moved to St Andrews later in life, we met up and instantly formed a musical and social bond, which lasted until his death. Until quite recently we were still thinking of future recital programmes.

Walter was born in 1941 and, leaving school at 15, was apprenticed to Westclox, Dunbartonshire as a toolmaker. This was never to be his future, as he was already playing the organ at his local church, and travelling to London for organ lessons with C H Trevor.

Encouraged to break away from his traditional West of Scotland upbringing, he went to night school, and eventually graduated as a fully fledged teacher from Jordanhill Teaching College in Glasgow, as a top student.

His desire to motivate, encourage and promote talent in youngsters was quickly spotted, and he was appointed Principal Teacher of Music at Douglas Academy in Milngavie in 1967.

In 1979 he established the specialist music school at Douglas Academy and, in 1983, he became Head of the Junior School at the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and, in 1994, Associate Director of Music at the RSAMD.

Throughout his career he pursued his love of performing through recitals and recordings, as accompanist, organist and choirmaster. For 50 years he was organist and choirmaster at the former Old and St Andrew’s Church in Helensburgh, and he continued in this vein when he moved to St Andrews in Fife.

Walter loved to adjudicate, and was for many years on the audition panel of Broughton Music School in Edinburgh and a Consultant to Dyce Academy in Aberdeen. Working as a moderator and examiner with the Associated Board, he led the Certificate of Teaching Course in both Scotland and Hong Kong.

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In 2013 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to music, a fitting tribute and a great honour for a very unassuming, quiet and humble man.

His widow, Sheila, has received hundreds of tributes from a wealth of people, old and young, famous and less well-known, all expressing their love and admiration for a wonderful man who brought joy and happiness to many and helped fulfil potential which many never knew they had.

I personally remember a superb musician who treated everyone the same, with dignity and respect at all times, while never for a moment lowering his standards of excellence. Walter was still working with young musicians up to his death, a towering figure of total modesty. He will be much missed, but his legacy lives on.


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