Scottish actress best known for Take The High Road

Born: March 8, 1926;

Died: April 25, 2018

THE distinguished Scottish actress Edith MacArthur, who has died aged 92, was one of the shining talents in Scottish theatre after the Second World War. She played commanding roles in all the major theatres, although many will remember her as the sympathetic lady laird, Elizabeth Cunningham, in the soap opera Take the High Road. It was a role she took to with immense style from its first episode in 1980 and she remained with the show until her character was killed off in a car crash in 1986.

Ms MacArthur’s character lived in the ‘Big House’ – she owned the village and many neighbouring farms – in Glendarroch (in fact, filmed in Luss on the banks of Loch Lomond) and was a central figure in many of the story lines of the soap. She made the character of the bounteous lady laird very much her own and a kindly presence in the community.

Ms MacArthur preserved a certain hauteur in her characterisation, but she had to contend with many problems. The estate was in serious financial trouble and Ms MacArthur had several taut scenes over its sale to a German businessman who wanted to turn the idyllic village into a leisure centre. Ms MacArthur also had to cope with her flighty daughter Fiona (Caroline Ashley) who caused much unrest in the family.

Ms MacArthur also spotted a star in the making, David Tennant. When the Scottish actor and future Doctor Who star was 11, Ms MacArthur saw him in a school play and told his parents, “One day he and I will be on stage together.” That prediction proved spot on and in 1994 Ms MacArthur gave an exceptional reading of Mary in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day's Journey into Night with Tennant, at the beginning of his career, as one of her sons at the Dundee Rep.

Born in Ardrossan, Edith MacArthur attended Ardrossan Academy where she began a life-long interest in acting – she was a stalwart member of the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Players. She studied at Glasgow’s Royal College of Music and began her career in 1948 with the Wilson Barrett Company which toured Scotland – future stars included Tom Fleming, Walter Carr, Geoffrey Palmer and Elizabeth Sellars.

She was soon cast in leading roles with the Gateway Theatre in Edinburgh including the world premiere of Johnnie Jouk the Gibbet by TM Watson in 1956. Then for four years she was a member of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow where she gave admired performances in Major Barbara (1957) and She Stoops to Conquer (1959) as well as appearing in many new plays by Scottish authors. She returned in 1968 for Tyrone Guthrie’s startling production of The Anatomist.

Ms MacArthur established herself as a major figure in Scottish theatre and her range was exceptional – from the classics to fondly remembered appearances in Cinderella at the Citz and the Five Past Eight Shows in Edinburgh. She also appeared at The Tron, the Perth Rep, the Royal Lyceum, the Traverse and did seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford in the early Sixties. There she played Lady Montague in Peter Hall’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

She became a regular at the Pitlochry Festival appearing often from 1988. Highlights included Pygmalion (1988), Separate Tables (1990), On Golden Pond (with Jimmy Logan, 1996) and Queen of Spades (2002).

In 1996 she repeated Long Day's Journey into Night at Pitlochry when The Herald critic wrote, “Edith Macarthur as Mary, her hands as buckled by arthritis as her mind is addled by dope, brings a lyricism and tunefulness to the role that makes her lies all the more convincing, and her story all the more tragic.”

In 1994 she was a memorable headmistress in Alan Strachan’s production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in London’s west end. The confrontational scene between Miss Brodie (Patricia Hodge) and Ms MacArthur proved a special delight: one critic wrote, “Ms MacArthur was at her most disapproving and critical best.”

On television her career was rich and varied. She appeared in numerous Scottish orientated programmes - notably Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Borderers, Sutherland’s Law and John McGrath’s 1993 film The Long Roads. In 1996 she made a heart-rending appearance opposite Robert Carlyle in Hamish Macbeth.

Ms MacArthur was often seen at the Edinburgh Festivals and regularly gave poetry recitals. Indeed she and Tom Fleming became acknowledged throughout Scotland for their evenings devoted to the correspondence between Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle.

Ms MacArthur had a wonderful way of delivering poetry and her immaculate diction and ability to bring life to a verse was a complete joy. She much enjoyed reciting Burns and other Scottish poets. I once asked her if she really gave all the verses of the taxing poem, The Next Stop’s Kirkcaldy? ("Whit wey does the engine say 'Toot-toot'?/ Is it feart to gang in the tunnel?”). She threw back that glorious mane of silver hair and said, “Always. It’s a smasher.”

Edith Macarthur was an actress who set the stage and screen alight on her every performance. There was a sensitivity, wit and glorious elegance in all her performances, perhaps most notably Mary in Long Day's Journey into Night. It was, not surprisingly, her favourite role.

Ms Macarthur, who never married, was made an MBE in 2000 and awarded an honorary degree from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh in 2001.