Ian MacInnes

Illustrator of the writer George Mackay Brown

Tuesday 23 December 2003 01:00

Ian MacInnes, artist and teacher: born Stromness, Orkney 26 January 1922; Headmaster, Stromness Academy 1977-84; married 1949 Jean Barclay (née Buchan; three daughters, one stepdaughter); died Stromness 12 December 2003.

The Orcadian artist and teacher Ian MacInnes was the friend and illustrator, from his first book, of the poet George Mackay Brown.

They met at Stromness Academy, where they were in the same infant class, and the two struck up a friendship which was to last until the poet's death 70 years later. They shared an intense love of their town and its people, especially the characters who were to be found in Stromness's winding streets ("uncoiling like a sailor's rope", as Brown put it), and around its piers and slipways.

Both boys showed high artistic promise. George impressed his teachers at an early age by the quality of his story-telling, while Ian launched his artistic career when still at school with a series of brilliant caricatures of local worthies, published weekly in The Orkney Herald, which provoked much mirth and some mortification.

Ian MacInnes designed and illustrated George Mackay Brown's first collection of verse, The Storm and Other Poems (1954), and went on to design the dust-jackets of some of his finest novels, including Greenvoe (1972) and Magnus (1975). He also illustrated Brown's three children's books The Two Fiddlers (1974), Pictures in the Cave (1977) and Six Lives of Fankle the Cat (1980).

The township of Rackwick nestles under the great western cliffs of Hoy, the "high island" to the south of Stromness. This "hidden valley of light", as Brown described it in a poem dedicated to MacInnes, gave an extra stimulus to both poet and painter and was to inspire some of their finest work. Summer after summer MacInnes brought home a succession of magnificent glowing studies of sea and cliff and derelict croft, while Brown composed what many still regard as his masterpiece, Fishermen with Ploughs (1971).

Then in 1970 Peter Maxwell Davies came to Rackwick in search of silence and fresh creative inspiration. The valley cast its spell, and the composer put down his roots. New and enduring friendships were quickly established; and the music flowed in abundance. The full significance of Rackwick in the rich flowering of Orcadian culture in the late 20th century has still to be properly evaluated, but its importance is beyond question.

Ian MacInnes's first choice of career was the sea. His father had been an officer in the lighthouse ship Pole Star and his eldest brother was well on the way to becoming a master mariner. But Ian's eyesight denied him that opportunity. He enrolled at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen on a course that (by a nice irony) was soon to be interrupted by several years' war service as a chief petty officer in the Navy. After the Second World War he completed his art course (collecting a prestigious medal on the way).

In Aberdeen he met and married Jean Barclay, a war widow with a young daughter. The family moved north to Orkney, where Ian started out on a teaching career which took him from his first post as itinerant teacher of art to his final appointment as Headmaster of Stromness Academy. In that position (which he achieved with the help of a degree from the Open University), and as a member of the General Teaching Council, he was able to put into practice the ideals he believed in, such as social inclusion and equality of opportunity. Throughout his career he remained a passionate advocate of the rights of children, no matter what their background.

Politics was very much a part of MacInnes's life. As a member of the local council he campaigned vigorously in defence of the helpless and underprivileged in the community. In the early Sixties, when CND was on the march from Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square, MacInnes was leading his two dozen protesters from Stromness to Kirkwall. Twenty years later, when there was a very real threat of uranium mining in Orkney, he was again at the forefront of the opposition, now rolling up in hundreds to defend their way of life.

He was a platform speaker of exceptional power, and quite capable of outgunning the sitting MP, Jo Grimond - though the party managers usually succeeded in keeping them well apart.

Perhaps Ian MacInnes's greatest contribution to the welfare of his community was the founding, exactly 50 years ago, of the Orkney Fishermen's Society. In those difficult early days when the timeous delivery of fresh living lobsters to the Billingsgate merchants was all- important, MacInnes was to be seen every morning wheeling a huge barrow-load of lobsters along the street from the society's premises to the ferry St Ola - all this before heading off for a day's work as an itinerant teacher of art in some country school.

After his retirement he carried on painting with even greater zeal, and was preparing for another eagerly awaited exhibition in Edinburgh when, in 1997, he suffered the first of the strokes that crippled and ultimately killed him. For his memorial he leaves us the stirring example of a great fighter for truth and justice, and a richly evocative display of paintings on countless Orcadian walls - and far beyond his islands.

Archie Bevan

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