THE actor who played the pathologist in the Scottish Television series Taggart died early yesterday morning after collapsing in the middle of a Burns night recital.

Friends said Robert Robertson, 70, had the audience at Perth Theatre in stitches with his recital of Holy Willie's Prayer, the bard's famous piece of irreverence, moments before he took ill. A nurse who was in the audience tried to revive him before he was taken by ambulance to Perth Royal Infirmary.

He had suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead around 2am.

His loss marks a tragic milestone for the popular Scottish detective series.

Robertson was the last surviving member of the Taggart cast who appeared in the first episode of the show 17 years ago, and 51 episodes in all.

After the death of lead actor Mark McManus, in 1994, Taggart continued - developing the lead sidekick roles played by actors James Macpherson and Blythe Duff.

Iain Anders, who played Superintendent Jack McVitie, died following a short illness in September 1997.

New blood has been introduced in the shape of detectives Stuart Fraser, played by Colin McCreadie, and Robbie Ross, played by John Michie. However, much of the pressures of script continuity have fallen on Duff and Macpherson.

Late last year, following a near fatal collapsed lung, Macpherson announced he intended to quit the series after filming this spring.

A spokeswoman for Scottish Television in Glasgow, said: ''Like other detective programmes and like soaps, there will be developments and change and periods when new people become established.

''It is too early to say how cast changes will impact on the future of Taggart, which is a hugely popular programme. All filming of Mr Robertson's roles were complete and the next scheduled recording of Taggart is in the spring. It is too early to say how the story will be affected.''

The character played by Robertson was frequently the scriptwriter's choice as the vehicle to introduce Taggart and his sleuths to a murdered victim.

Robertson, who was born in St Andrews, had been a jobbing actor for many years and began his career at Manchester Rep after the war. He then moved to London and returned to Scotland in 1973 to appear in a play at Dundee Rep.

He was so impressed by the revival in Scottish theatre that he stayed north of the border and became the Dundee Rep's artistic director three years later, holding the post until 1992.

In 1983, he was chosen to play Dr Andrews in the pilot episode of a detective series set in Glasgow called Killer, which became a worldwide hit as Taggart, averaging 9m viewers per episode.

While at Dundee Rep, he earned a reputation as the driving force behind the company's move to a purpose-built theatre in the city centre.

He also regularly appeared on stage and won plaudits for roles including Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, and Frank in Educating Rita.

Taggart was his most famous role - even though Robertson always joked he was an unlikely choice as pathologist because he hated the sight of blood.

Robert Love, an executive producer and colleague, said: ''He had gravitas as senior member of the team and had a wonderful sense of humour in his private life that he was able to bring to his professional role.

Anne Coulter, his agent, said: ''He was a warm, funny, courteous man who will be greatly missed by his family, many friends, and colleagues.''

Mr Robertson had been with partner Monica Nesbitt for 21 years, after he divorced.