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Famous Children

Over the years Elgin has been associated with many well known actors, scientists, scholars and other noteable members of the community, some being born and bred in Elgin.

Ralph Riach - Actor

A first major acting job working alongside Sir Laurence Olivier isn't a bad start for a rookie actor attempting to make a name for himself in cut-throat profession. Add to that the fact that the rookie is approaching middle age, and the achievement is even more remarkable.

But then Ralph Riach, now in his sixties, who plays TV John McIver in BBC1's Sunday-night drama Hamish Macbeth, is unlike most actors. At the age of 45 he decided he could no longer bear to be a self-employed upholsterer and gave that up to follow his heart - into acting.

Since then Riach has never been out of work. His TV credits include The Bill, Chancer, Dr Finlay, Taggart, Tutti Frutti (in which, coincidentally, Stuart McGugan - Barney in Hamish Macbeth - also starred), Rides and Casualty, among many others. But it is as Hamish Macbeth's psychic right-hand man that he's best known.

Riach naturally has no regrets about his mid-life change of career. "I had been working as an architectural draughtsman, but I gave it up because I hated it so much. I then went on to be a self-employed upholsterer and a theatrical landlord in Perth. Richard Todd was my first lodger."

Perth's amateur operatic society provided some channel for Riach's acting aspirations, but the occasional production was not enough. "I had been interested in acting since I was a teenager, but I came from Elgin, where going into acting was just unheard of." He finally took the plunge in 1984 and enrolled at drama college in Glasgow. "When I realised you didn't need academic qualifications to be an actor I just thought, You've got to have a go. If you don't try now you have only yourself to blame." Being the oldest in his class did not bother him. "I got on fine, I behaved like a kid myself and I thoroughly enjoyed my three years there."

The role alongside Lord Olivier was in Granada's production Lost Empires, and others quickly followed. TV John came out of the blue with a message left on Riach's answering machine by Deirdre Kerr, who produced the first two series of Hamish Macbeth. "I was delighted," he says. "He's a smashing character, I shall miss him."

TV John goes out in dramatic fashion in a two-part story, starting this week, which ends what seems likely to be the final series. But that doesn't mean Riach has severed his links with Plockton, the Scottish west-coast village that doubles as Hamish's beat, Lochdubh. "I went up there for a New Year and had a terrific time".

Kevin McKidd – Actor

Born and brought up in Elgin, Kevin wanted to be an actor ever since he took part in school plays at "around six or seven." He dropped out of Edinburgh University, where he was studying engineering, to take up a drama course at Queen Margaret's College, and from there was picked up by leading theatrical agency ICM.

Mr McKidd is patron of Elgin-based drama group Out of the Darkness Theatre Company, where his mother Kath is an administrator.

Kevin McKidd has come a long way since he lay in his bed in a council estate on the outskirts of Elgin in north Scotland, dreaming of Steven Spielberg discovering him. "I always thought I wanted to be Eliot," he explains. "I wanted to have an alien as a mate. I wanted to be in a Spielberg movie and hang out with E.T. because he was the coolest thing I'd ever seen." The son of a plumber and a secretary in a lemonade factory, who is now the administrator of a disabled children's theatre company in Elgin, McKidd, the youngest of two brothers, had an impoverished working-class upbringing. With no artistic influence, he fell into acting as a result of athletic inadequacy. "I couldn't play football because I was really fat," he explains patiently. "I was a big beefer. When I was 14, I shot up and lost it, but before that I was very short and dumpy." He pauses and winces slightly. "Ask my mum if you don't believe me. The first time I went on stage was during a school play and everyone laughed, either because I was fat, or because I was being funny. I wasn't sure. Anyway, it was a good buzz and I just knew that's what I wanted to do.

His parents were less than keen. They wanted him to do something grown up that had a future. So Kevin, by way of appeasement, did engineering for part of one term at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret College in 1992 and then switched to the drama course. "As soon as it started to work they were very supportive," he remembers. "they are really cool people," he adds. "They said: 'Look, we married young, had kids young, we never had the chance to know what we could have done, so make sure that you give it a stab.'"

Meanwhile, he and wife Jane have moved out of London to the Bedfordshire countryside, to provide a bit of space for their two children, Joseph, two and two-month-old Iona.

Kevin McKidd, who has starred in films including Trainspotting and Dog Soldiers, has recently completed filming in Tomintoul for his new movie The Bum's Rush.

 Alexander Gray - Surgeon

Dr Gray’s Hospital, the third oldest existing hospital in the Grampian area, takes its name from Elgin-born Alexander Gray, who spent over 20 years of his life in Bengal as a surgeon for the East India Company.

Like others in the Company, he was able to take advantage of local trading opportunities to amass a considerable personal fortune.

Gray died in India in 1807 and bequeathed the bulk of his money to his native town for various charitable purposes, including the sum of £20,000 "for the establishment of a hospital in the town of Elgin for the sick and the poor of the town and county of Murray (Moray)".

Gray’s heirs contested the will and for seven years legal proceedings delayed any further progress but in 1814, the Court of Chancery finally declared that the will should stand.

A site for the hospital - "a field immediately West of the Town of Elgin" - was purchased and the foundation stone was laid on 11 July 1815.

The 30-bed hospital, which was designed by James Gillespie Graham, an Edinburgh architect recommended by the Earl of Moray, opened to patients on 1 January 1819.

Jessie Kesson – Novelist and Playwright

Jessie Grant Macdonald was illegitimate, born in the workhouse in Inverness and brought up in the backwynds of Elgin. "The lane was home and wonderful". When her mother contracted syphilis Jessie was moved in 1924 to Proctor's Orphanage, near Skene, Aberdeenshire, "a cold place for the heart". These childhood experiences form the basis of her novel The White Bird passes (1958), later televised by the BBC. The novel is eloquent about Jessie's anquish at being seperated from her mother, who for all her problems was still a figure redolent with magic and whose love of music and literature was the source of her daughter's unique literary talents and determination to be a poet and writer.

Deprived of the university education she craved, she left the orphanage in 1932 to go into service, but suffered a nervous breakdown. Sent to croft near Loch Ness she met Johnnie Kesson, a cattleman, whom she married in 1934. The couple had a son and daughter. Abreachan was the backcloth for The Road of no return a story in Where the apple ripens (1985).

Johnnie's career took them to Rothienorman which formed the setting for Glitter of mica (1963) and during the war to the Black Isle where the presence of Italian prisoners gave the idea for the novel and film Another Time, another place (1983) .

In 1940 her poem Fir Wud caught the attention of Neil Gunn and she became a contributor to The Scots Magazine. Encouraged by Nan Shepard she entered a short story competition which she won, and this was followed by an invitation to write for BBC Aberdeen, over 30 features and plays subsequently being broadcast.

Jessie Kesson lived in London from 1947, the move being essential to permit her to write unfettered by temptation of the Kailyard. She carried her country with her "Morayshire...the heart, Aberdeenshire...the mind" and it was with enourmous pride that she excepted honorary degrees from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dundee in the 1980's. She produced Women's hour and also wrote over ninety plays for radio and TV, notably You never slept in mine.

Jessie Kesson's writing was of of the highest quality, pared to poetic essence. The White Bird passes in its story of Janie is a triumphant poetic tale of a spirit that poverty cannot diminish. Glitter of mica relays the changing fortunes of the isolated parish of Caldwell as seen through the tragic story of the Riddel family, while the stories in Where the apple ripens depict those who haunt the fringes of society, the old, the homeless, the lonely.

Jessie Kesson combined regional interests with larger themes and although adopting Scottish idiom and character her writing is universally accessible. She gave a genuine voice to the experiences of woman and painted an honest depiction of the rigours of life. It is her authenticity, her earthy humour, her extraordinary memory and intellect, her deep feelings for her childhood and the human condition that make this author outstanding and important to the development of Scottish writing. Jessie Kesson died in London on 26th September 1994.

Andy Gray – Clarinet and Vocals

Andy started playing clarinet at school in Oxford. After leaving Art College at Cambridge he turned professional in 1963 playing with the London City Stompers, Charlie Galbraith All Stars and the Alan Elsdon Band with whom he toured and recorded with his idol Edmond Hall.

He joined Kenny Ball's Jazzmen in 1967 and in 1968 recorded "I Wanna Be Like You" from Walt Disney's Jungle Book which has now become his trade mark! Also in 1968 with the Kenny Ball Band he played the London birthday concerts with Louis Armstrong.

He has done countless world tours, national and international TV, Radio and recordings. Andy recorded a successful Jazz House CD with his son Paul in 1995 he really enjoyed doing. He also makes appearances with the European Jazz Giants.

Now at this stage of his career he is making more time to play with the Andy Cooper's Euro Top 8 and to play with musicians he has always admired. "Music should be fun to play, with me it certainly is and the audience will always enjoy that too" quotes Andy! This can be seen with every musician in the Top 8 Band. Photo courtesy of Andy Cooper

Alexander Graham Bell - Inventor

Bell was born into a family specialising in elocution: both his father and his grandfather were authorities on the subject, and before long he himself was teaching people how to speak. Largely family trained and self-taught, in 1863, at the age of 16, he and his brother Melville began researching the mechanics of speech. Starting with the anatomy of the mouth and throate, they sacrificed the family cat in order to study the vocal chords in more detail.

In 1864 Bell became a resident master in Elgin's Weston House Academy in Scotland, where he conducted his first studies in sound and first conceived the idea of transmitting speech with electricity. His idea was to make a device that could mimic the human voice and reproduce vowels and consonants. His father has already spent years classifying vocal sounds and had developed a shorthand system called Visible Speech, in which every sound was represented by a symbol, with the intention of teaching the deaf to speak by putting these sounds together.

Harry Robinson – Music Composer

Lord Rockingham's XI were a group of musicians put together to play as the heavily sax laiden resident band on 'Oh Boy!'.

Jack Good had created this TV rock and roll show shortly after being dismissed by the BBC. Although Good had produced the very successful 'Six-5 Special' for the Beeb, he was deemed to be too reckless for Auntie and given his marching orders.

Unfortunately for the BBC he was not unemployed for long and ITV were then able to host one of the UK's definitive TV popular music programmes.

Lord Rockingham's XI actually had 13 musicians in all if you included bandleader Harry Robinson and lady organist Cherry Wainer. Well known jazz 'buff' Benny Green played alto saxophone with the band, but was so embarrassed by it that he often played in sunglasses to hide the fact. Although most people identified Elgin born Harry Robinson as Lord Rockingham, this wasn't the case according to Jack Good.

After achieving fame with their single 'Hoots Mon' and wanting to go 'on the road', there was considerable argument about who had rights to the name Lord Rockingham, and lawyers had to be brought in to settle the dispute! Although Good had created the name as a play on words 'rocking 'em', there really had been a real Lord Rockingham in times past.

The band achieved one further minor novelty hit apart from 'Hoots Mon' and the joke was over. Harry Robinson did try again with a modified line-up during the hey day of the Twist a couple of years later, but got no significant response. Lord Rockingham's XI remain a delightful, if transient, piece of 1950s fun, and should never have been taken as seriously as some musicians apparently believed they should be.

The BBC were terrified of Good's ability to think on his feet and to follow his instincts, so eight months after the show started, they appointed the reliable Dennis Main Wilson (later to become well-known as the producer of Top Of The Pops) as co-producer. His main previous experience had been producing the Goon Show on radio.

None of the 6.5 Special productions shows was taped, so they are lost for ever, but a low-budget film based on the show survives.

Although Jack had given the BBC a show that was attracting 12 million viewers, he was being paid only £18 a week . He left for independent television and launched Oh Boy! in June, 1958. After trial broadcasts in the Midlands, it went national, in direct competition with 6.5 Special on Saturday evenings.

6.5 Special stuck to its mix of rock, jazz, skiffle and crooners, but Good was in his rock 'n' roll element with Oh Boy! The programmes were broadcast from the Hackney Empire, London and made a star of Cliff Richard, as well as showcasing Billy Fury on several editions.

The show is also remembered for the brilliantly-named Lord Rockingham's XI - actually a 13-piece band put together by arranger Harry Robinson.

He shut himself in a caravan at a seaside resort and analysed the appeal of a pile of American records, before settling on a line-up of two tenor saxes, two baritone saxes, a double bass, a piano, an organ (played by Cherry Wainer), Latin American percussion, three guitars and drums and whatever else might be needed.

The band had two hits, the novelty numbers Fried Onions and Hoots Mon, but it all ended in tears with Good and Robinson arguing over the rights to the band's name. (They settled out of court, with Good keeping television and recording rights, and Robinson being able to use the name on tour.)

Steven Presseley

Having emerged in from the Rangers youth set up in the 1990s, opportunities were limited at Ibrox and the powerful defender headed for Coventry in 1995. Returned north to Dundee United before Hearts brought him to Edinburgh in the summer of 1998. He is now manager of Falkirk.

Major General Andrew Anderson

The story starts back in 1774 with the marriage of Marjorie Gilzean and a young man called Andrew Anderson. Andrew had joined a Hanovarian regiment in Elgin. She and Andrew left Elgin when the regiment moved south. Their travels are something of a mystery but it is likely they may have travelled as far as Spain or Gibraltar with the regiment.

The next we hear of Marjorie was in 1778 when she arrived back in Elgin without her husband, whom we believe had been killed in action. She had travelled hundred of miles on foot to get back to her native Elgin where she eventually arrived penniless and with a child in her arms. Her parents were both dead and she and her son, also named Andrew after his father, began to live a very harsh existence sleeping in the ruins of the Cathedral and relying on the generosity of local people.

As he grew up Andrew showed signs of being a bright lad and he was given a place at the Grammar School as 'the pauper loon'. He progressed well at school and upon leaving became apprenticed to an uncle in Llanbryde.  This did not work out and he ran away to Leith and Latterly to London where he found work in a tailor's shop.  In 1760 Andrew was asked to deliver a suit of clothing to a Scots soldier who was about to leave for India to join the army of the Honourable East India Company. This gentleman offered to take Andrew to India with him.  This was to prove a turning point in young Andrew's life.

He never made any further contact with his mother and she eventually died in 1790 and lies buried in Kineddar churchyard in Lossiemouth.

Andrew was commissioned as an Ensign in 1766 in the army of the Honourable East Company. He proved himself to be a fine officer progressing steadily through the ranks and by 1811 had reached the rank of Major General-not bad for a 'pauper loon' from Elgin. It was possible to become very wealthy in the service as there were great prizes to be won and shared.

Perhaps influenced by his own upbringing Andrew Anderson executed a Deed of Trust in 1815 by which he left £70,000 to the sheriff and Magistrates and Clergy of the established church in Elgin to build and endow an Institution in Elgin.

General Anderson died in 1824 in London aged 77 and in 1830 Elgin Town Council commenced building on the lands of Maisondieu and the fine building of the Elgin Institute was hived off when the School Boards were set up in 1890 and this part of the original Institute now forms what today East End Primary School.

Mario Joseph Conti - Archbishop of Glasgow

Mario Joseph Conti, son of Louis Joseph Conti and Josephine Quintilia Conti (ms Panicali) was born at Elgin, Moray, 20th March 1934.

He was educated at St Marie’s Convent, Elgin and Springfield School, Elgin and entered the Minor Seminary of St Mary’s College, Blairs.

He was then, in 1952, sent by Bishop Francis Walsh to the Scots College, Rome, to study for the priesthood for the Diocese of Aberdeen.

He gained a Licence in Philosophy in 1955 and also in Theology in 1959 both from the Gregorian University, Rome. He was ordained Priest in the Church of San Marcello al Corso, Rome, by Archbishop Luigi Traglia on 26th October 1958.

After completing his studies in 1959, he was appointed Assistant Priest, St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, where he remained until he was appointed Parish Priest of St Joachim’s, Wick and St Anne’s, Thurso in 1962. He was nominated Bishop of Aberdeen on 28th February 1977, was ordained bishop by His Eminence Gordon Cardinal Gray, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, at Aberdeen on 3rd May 1977.

Archbishop-elect Conti is currently a member of both the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for the Cultural Heritage of the Church.

He is President of the Commission for Christian Doctrine and Unity of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and also of their Heritage Commission. The Archbishop-elect is also a member of the Catholic Bishops’ Joint Committee for Bio-Ethics and also of the Central Council of ACTS (Action of Churches Together in Scotland) and is a President of CTBI (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland).

He also holds the following honours:

  • ·Commendatore nell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, 1981.
  • ·Honorary D.D. (University of Aberdeen), 1989.
  • ·He is a Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and a Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem Rhodes and Malta, 1991; Principal Chaplain to the British Association of the Order of Malta, 1995-2000.
  • ·He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
  • ·Aberdeen University has appointed Archbishop Conti as an Honorary Professor of Theology, 2002

He was appointed Archbishop of Glasgow by His Holiness Pope John Paul II on January 15th 2002 and took possession of the Archdiocese on Friday 22nd February 2002 in Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow.

Wing Commander Harbourne Mackay Stephen CBE, DSO, DFC*, RAF retd.

Harbourne Mackay Stephen was born in Elgin on 17 April 1916. His parents were Thomas Milne Stephen and Kathleen Vincent Stephen, nee Park, who were married in Croydon in 1903. The house in which he was born was the North of Scotland Bank House at 151 High Street, his father at the time being the Bank’s manager. This house, erected in 1857 on the site of Drummuir House, one-time site of Elgin’s Theatre Royal, was replaced by the present branch of the Clydesdale Bank in 1969.

It is not known exactly when the Stephen family left Elgin, but Harbourne, known to his family and close friends as “Harry”, was educated between the ages of four and seven in Elgin by a governess, then in Edinburgh and finally as a pupil at Shrewsbury School. No doubt his somewhat disjointed education was caused by family moves, in association with his father’s banking career. He left school at the age of 15 to become a “Copy Boy”, at 15 shillings a week, for Allied Newspapers in Grays Inn Road, London. After some years at Allied Newspapers, he joined the staff of the Evening Standard.

Flying had long interested him and, at the age of 20 in April of 1936, he joined the Volunteer Reserve of the Royal Air Force at White Waltham as a Sergeant pilot. He fitted his training around his newspaper work, flying Tiger Moths on Saturdays and Sundays. From the Tiger Moth he graduated to the Hawker Hart and, just prior to the outbreak of WWII, he converted to the Hawker Hurricane. At the outbreak of war, he was called up to be a Sergeant pilot and the weekend training rapidly developed into a seven day a week process. In April 1940 Harbourne Mackay Stephen was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and was posted to 605 Squadron at Drem in East Lothian. During his short stay there he was credited with shooting down a Heinkel bomber. Posted to 74 Squadron at Hornchurch in May 1940, and converting to the Spitfire, he was thrown in at the deep end of the RAF’s frontline in the Battle of Britain.

By August 1940 Stephen had personally shot down a dozen German aircraft and had contributed to the demise of several others. His most memorable day was 11 August 1940 when, in the morning three sorties, he shot down four enemy aircraft and in the afternoon shot down another one and damaged a further three. By the end of 1940 his personal tally was more than 20 aircraft destroyed and he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. In December 1940, now a Flight Lieutenant, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order by King George VI on the personal recommendation of Sir William Sholto-Douglas, Air Officer Commanding in Chief of RAF Fighter Command. This DSO was the first ever to be awarded to an airman in the field. Harbourne Stephen was a “Fighter Ace” indeed.

In early 1941 he returned to Scotland as Chief Flying Instructor at RAF Turnhouse (now Edinburgh Airport) and helped form 130 Squadron. Later that year, on promotion to Squadron Leader, he commanded 234 Squadron shooting down his final victim, a Messerschmitt 109, in October 1941. His final tally was 22½ enemy aircraft destroyed. He spent the rest of his war in South East Asia serving as an Air Operations Officer with 224 Group in Arakan and, as a Wing Commander, commanding 166 Wing in Burma.

Harbourne Stephen refused a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force at the end of the war preferring to return to his first love – the world of journalism. In 1946 he took up a management traineeship at Express Newspapers. His first senior position was as Manager of the Scottish Daily Express, the Scottish Sunday Express, and the Evening Citizen. His move to Glasgow enabled him to continue his association with the Royal Air Force when, in 1950, he was appointed Commanding Officer of 602 (City of Glasgow) Auxiliary Air Force Squadron. In 1956, Lord Beaverbrook, who he had met during his distinguished RAF career, chose Harbourne to oversee the rebuilding of his Scottish printing empire. Later he moved back to London as the General Manager of the Sunday Express and Sunday Graphic.

In 1959 he was appointed General Manager of the Sunday Times, where the colour supplement, which became the Sunday Times Magazine, was his brainchild. His next move was as Managing Director of the Daily Telegraph, where he launched the weekend colour magazine. He was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1985. He was a founder member and Trustee of Raleigh International, a Member of the Council of the RSPB and of the Scientific Exploration Society and continued these interests until his death in London on 22 August 2001, at the age of 85. He is survived by his wife Erica and two daughters.

Wing Commander Harbourne Mackay Stephen was a Battle of Britain pilot, one of “The Few”, who distinguished himself in the defence of his country and who was recognised personally by his King.

In later life he became a renowned innovator in the world of newspapers and he was recognised by his Queen. It is surely only right that we should recognise this notable “Son of Elgin”. His participation in the Battle of Britain, with 74 Squadron Royal Air Force in 1940, helped to prevent an invasion of this country and the enslavement of its people.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”

Charles Doig

Elgin architect Charles Doig, was famous for designing the pagoda roof.

The 'Pagoda Roof' is a malt whisky distillery's most instantly recognisable feature. Take it away, and you don't seem to have a distillery any more. It would be like having a French vineyard without a chateau.

It was as recently as the 1890s that these steeply-pitched roofs with the pagoda caps started to appear above the square-built kilns of malt distilleries. They are, basically, very attractive chimneys. Their height and the design of the vent at the top allowed an improved draught for the peat fires below as they dried the malted barley.

Traditional malt kilns draw the hot air from the peat furnace through the malt by way of a chimney effect generated by the characteristic steep roofs and pagoda heads of many Scottish distilleries. The pagoda roof was introduced around the 1890s as it offered an improved air draught.In most cases, where most distilleries buy in their malt they have mostly lost their function other than a piece of visual identity.

Blair Jenkins

Blair Jenkins was head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland until 2006. He has since chaired the Scottish Broadcasting Commission which recommended the creation of a Scottish Digital Network.

One of Scotland’s most experienced broadcast journalists, he started his career as a reporter with the Evening Express in Aberdeen and was Young Journalist of the Year in the Scottish Press Awards in 1977. He joined the BBC as a news trainee in 1980 and worked as a Producer on the Nine O’Clock News before returning to Glasgow to produce Reporting Scotland in 1984.

Blair joined Scottish Television in 1986 and was successively Controller of News and Current Affairs, Head of Regional Programmes and then Director of Broadcasting.

He has been Chairman of BAFTA Scotland and a member of the Royal Television Society specialist committee on Current Affairs.

Born in Elgin in 1957, he attended Elgin Academy and then Edinburgh University where he graduated MA with first-class honours in English Language and Literature.


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