Mary Riggans: Actress

Effie Macinnes, the village gossip in ‘Take the High Road’, who went on to play Suzie Sweet in ‘Balamory’

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The Independent Online

The cheery-faced Mary Riggans joined Take the High Road, ITV’s Scottish soap opera, in 1983 as Effie Macinnes, the village gossip and busybody forever looking for an eligible man – but usually losing interest on finding one. In her head, Effie was still 19, filled with romantic notions and likely to be caught reading a Mills & Boon novel. The character seemed destined to be the fictional Glendarroch’s eternal spinster but eventually found happiness with Jockie McDonald, following the death of his wife. Effie married him in 1995. Over the years, she worked as housekeeper at Glendarroch House, then in the kitchen at the Ardnacraig Hotel.

Describing Effie as “young at heart”, Riggans once said: “When first asked to consider the part, I loved the idea of a woman being allowed to fancy guys of all ages – the comedy and tragedy that that entails.”

She was cast as Effie three years after Take the High Road began as a daytime soap on the ITV network, although it was shown at peak time in Scotland. It was retitled High Road in 1994 and, although the channel had officially dropped it nationally a year earlier, producer Scottish Television continued to make episodes, which many other regional companies showed. Riggans stayed with the serial until it was finally axed in 2003.

By then, she was reaching another generation of viewers with the role of Suzie Sweet, Penny Pocket’s business partner at the village shop and café, in the CBeebies series Balamory (2002-05). The programme, aimed at children aged six and under and filmed mostly in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, featured a seaside community of extrovert and colourful characters. Suzie, the flipside to Penny’s businesslike character, told stories about various items sold in the shop, Pocket and Sweet, and displayed culinary skills in the kitchen. Both would occasionally burst into song.

Riggans’s acting skills had been on display from a young age. Born in West Dunbartonshire she was 10 when she first acted on radio, in the Scottish edition of Children’s Hour, and the medium remained her favourite throughout her long screen and stage career. She would go on to act in dozens of Saturday Night Theatre productions and read Morning Story. Joyce Grenfell once wrote to her: “If I could write in Scots and make up a good story, I’d get you to read it.”

After leaving North Kelvinside Academy, Glasgow, Riggans gained an MA in philosophy from Glasgow University, where she performed with its drama society. Throughout her education she also continued to act professionally. At the age of 16 she made her television début as Kirsty Kellas in the Robert Kemp play A Nest of Singing Birds (1954).

After university, Riggans gained repertory theatre experience in Perth, performed with a puppet company and worked as an English supply teacher between jobs. From the mid-1960s she was cast in character roles on television. There were parts in plays and one-off appearances in series such as Sutherland’s Law (1973) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978). Emphasising her versatility, there were also five different roles in Dr Finlay’s Casebook between 1964 and 1970, two in Taggart (1983, 1992) and three in the sitcom Rab C Nesbitt (1988, 1990, 1992).

In the film Dear Frankie (2003), Riggans played Nell, grandmother of the deaf boy whose mother took him on the run to get away from his abusive father. She won the Sony Radio Award as Best Actress in 1983 for her performance as Jean Armour, Robert Burns’s wife, in Donald Campbell’s play Till A’ the Seas Gang Dry. Her television popularity led to many pantomime appearances across Scotland over the years. She was also in plays at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, where her roles included the forgiving wife Beatrice in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and the matchmaker Ustinya in Alexander Ostrovsky’s A Family Affair, as well as touring Scotland in productions.

Off set, Riggans was known for knitting socks for members of the High Road cast. She also enjoyed watching rugby and tennis. Last year, she suffered a stroke that left her with restricted speech and movement.  

Mary Patton Riggans, actress: born Old Kilpatrick, West Dunbartonshire 19 July 1935; married 1962 Malcolm Taylor (divorced; one daughter); died Edinburgh 2 December 2013.