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Obituary: Edith MacArthur – ‘the grande dame of Scottish theatre’

Edith MacArthur (centre), David Tennant, Louise Delamere in Hay Fever at the Lyceum, Edinburgh in 1992. Edith MacArthur (centre), David Tennant, Louise Delamere in Hay Fever at the Lyceum, Edinburgh in 1992.

In later years, Edith MacArthur was regarded as the grande dame of Scottish theatre. It was a position she also enjoyed with television viewers, largely as a result of her six-year stint as the benevolent Lady Cunningham, laird of STV’s popular daytime soap Take the High Road. 

Born in Ardrossan, North Ayrshire, she began acting at school and in amateur groups before studying at the Royal College of Music in Glasgow.

After a brief period working in the civil service, her professional career began as an assistant stage manager with the Wilson Barrett company, where she soon progressed to acting.

Appearances at the Gateway Theatre, Edinburgh, in Perth and at the Citizens, Glasgow followed before she made her West End debut alongside Ian Carmichael in Alec Coppel’s comedy-thriller The Gazebo at the Savoy Theatre in 1960.

She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company the same year, staying for two seasons before going on to the Bristol Old Vic and Nottingham Playhouse, where she was seen as wife to Ian McKellen’s Sir Thomas More in the first professional production of the play by Shakespeare, Dekker and others in 1964.

Her West End credits include two runs of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – as Sister Helena at the Wyndham’s Theatre (1966) and a formidable Miss MacKay at the Strand Theatre (1994) – and William Douglas-Home’s The Douglas Cause at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1971.

But it was on Scotland’s stages that she made her greatest impact. In 1973 she was seen as Chastitie in Bill Bryden’s historic revival of David Lindsay’s “pleasant satire” The Thrie Estaites at the Edinburgh Festival.

After joining the Royal Lyceum’s company in 1974, she maintained a long relationship with the venue, where notable performances included Judith Bliss (Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, 1987), Madame Ranevskaya – “a gorgeous starry presence”, noted The Stage (The Cherry Orchard, 1989), the title role in John Clifford’s The Queen of Spades (2002) and alongside Brian Cox’s Uncle Varick in John Byrne’s reworking of Chekhov in 2004.

No less significant was her association with Pitlochry Festival Theatre, where she was a memorably gracious Mrs Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1988), Aunt Cath in Tom Gallagher’s The Summertime is Come (1999) and a vivid Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (1999).

At Dundee Rep in 1994 and 1996, she gave what The Stage described as “one of the richest and most towering performances ever offered in a Scottish stage” as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

In Perth, she was the eponymous passenger in Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy (1991) and one of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (2000). The following year, she stole scene after scene as the dotty Andrene in Iain Heggie’s Wiping My Mother’s Arse at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.

Her other television work included the historical drama The Borderers (1968-70); an admired 1972 adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song; Sutherland’s Law (1974-76) and Life Support with Art Malik and Richard Wilson (1999).

Perhaps her most memorable small-screen appearance was as a woman, terminally ill with cancer, on a nationwide journey to visit her five children before her death in John McGrath’s The Long Roads in 1993.

She was awarded an MBE for services to drama in 2000.

Edith MacArthur was born on March 8, 1926 and died on April 25, aged 92.

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