Obituary: Col Sir Robert Macrae

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE Queen visited Orkney in August 1987 to unveil the new stained glass window in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, it was fitting that the Lord-Lieutenant who greeted her was Robert Macrae. Not only did he discharge his Lieutenancy duties with exemplary dignity and dedication, but he had been at the forefront of the efforts to save the fabric of Orkney's 12th- century cathedral, and to ensure that this generation of Orcadians passes on this treasured part of our heritage to the next, both intact and enhanced.

It was a reflection of his qualities of leadership and action, and of his commitment to the Orkney community, that when, in 1971, it was found that the cathedral's west gable was in danger of collapse, Macrae was to the fore in driving forward the "Save the Cathedral Appeal". A press conference to launch the appeal was held in the cathedral on a windswept day the following January. Four thousand pounds were raised locally on the first day, and, through Macrae's efforts in stimulating a generous response to the appeal as far and wide as Norway and North America, enough funds were raised in a year to enable restoration work to go ahead.

He had a clear view that, at any point in history, the Orcadians of the day were stewards of a special spiritual place, and had "a duty to hand it down to posterity in good order". Thanks to his leadership, the Friends of St Magnus continue to raise money to maintain the building, and discharge that duty.

Bobby Macrae had retired to Orkney in 1968, after an army career spanning 33 years. Born Robert Andrew Alexander Scarth Macrae ("RAAS" to his army friends), he was educated at Lancing in Sussex and then at Sandhurst. He was commissioned in 1935 in the Seaforth Highlanders, and ever after displayed a passionate regimental loyalty and interest.

Sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force, he was taken prisoner at St Valery in 1940 and remained a prisoner of war until 1945. He returned to Germany, and then served in Greece. He had two years' active service in Korea, before moving on to Kenya at the time of the troubles there. After a period at Staff College in Warminster, he was Commanding Officer for Fort George, became a colonel in 1963, and on his retiral in 1968 was Deputy Chief of Staff at Army HQ, Scotland. He then took up farming in Orkney, until in 1989 he retired again, and the farm at Binscarth was taken over by his son Malcolm.

But "retirement" was a word that only ever featured in Bobby Macrae's life in its most formal sense. Active public service was the hallmark of his years in the Orkney community. In addition to serving as Lord Lieutenant from 1972 to 1990, Macrae represented North Ronaldsay as a local councillor from 1970 to 1978. He was vice-chairman of the Orkney Hospital Board and the Orkney Health Board, an honorary sheriff and a JP.

He was made a Commander of the Order of St Olaf by King Olav of Norway, when the King visited Orkney in 1987 to take part in the cathedral's 850th anniversary events. Three years later, he was created KCVO - an honour in the personal gift of the Queen.

Like so many people with a will to get on and do things, Bobby Macrae could be intolerant of bureaucracy and officiousness. He held firmly to what now might be called traditional values. And his active compassion in the face of need could at times be matched by a direct outspokenness in the face of injustice or about things he simply felt were wrong.

He held public office at what was a critical time for the islands. Orkney was coming to terms with the arrival of North Sea oil. Not only did he play his part as a councillor in securing a good deal for the local community, but, together with his wife, "Toby" (they had married immediately upon his return home in 1945), he also ensured that many of the new oil-industry visitors to the islands returned home with a warm glow of Orkney hospitality, and particularly Highland Park whisky, inside them.

Indeed, long before the Flotta terminal flare stack was seen for the first time from the Macraes' home, Grindelay was renowned for the generosity of the Macrae hospitality. Bobby Macrae, above all, was a social and sociable person. He enjoyed good conversation; he enjoyed good company and he was good company. After his wife's death in 1997, he sometimes appeared to be a much more lonely figure.

His funeral service last week was the celebration of the life of someone who knew that life is worth celebrating. It took place, appropriately, in the cathedral he had done so much to help save and restore.

Robert Andrew Alexander Scarth Macrae, soldier and farmer: born Purley, Surrey 14 April 1915; MBE 1953; Vice-Lieutenant of Orkney 1967-72, Lord- Lieutenant 1972- 90; KCVO 1990; married 1945 Violet MacLellan (died 1997; two sons); died Kirkwall, Orkney 15 November 1999.