Scottish circus legend

Born: November 12, 1937;

Died: November 8, 2018

BORN in the Borders and raised in Glasgow, Moira Roberts, who has died aged 80, became a top circus act and joint circus owner, personally specialising in sharpshooting and archery. Along with her Edinburgh-born husband Bobby Roberts Jr, a high-wire and trapeze artist, bareback rider and animal trainer, she spent her life “under the Big Top,” starting in the Kelvin Hall Carnival and International Circus in the 1960s.

In those early Glasgow days, the couple billed themselves as Bobby Ringo and Princess Moira, continuing to perform even after Bobby shot off part of her finger during the sharpshooting act. The show must go on.

At that time, they were part of the Roberts Brothers Circus, run by Bobby Roberts Sr and his brother Tommy, a circus much loved in Glasgow, the rest of Scotland and down south. Bobby Jr was the 10th generation of the Roberts circus family, their original surname being Otto from continental Europe. He was born in Edinburgh while his English dad was doing his National Service there as a fireman.

Bobby Jr, an elephant lover and trainer, and Moira went on to run their own popular travelling circus, Bobby Roberts Super Circus, based in Polebrook, Northamptonshire, until 2011 when animal rights activists changed the face of circuses and children’s entertainment. The activists said teaching formerly-wild animals to perform was inhumane and sent death threats to Moira and her husband.

Although Bobby and Moira had retired, the family circus continues under the name Circus Sallai (a Hungarian name pronounced Shall I?) run by their daughter Kitty and her Hungarian husband Istvan Sallai. Like her mother, Kitty is passionate about animals, domestic or wild. Moira’s other child, Bobby Roberts III, maintains the tradition of the circus clown.

Moira Anne Rettie was born on November 12, 1937 in the market town of Castle Douglas near Dumfries where her earliest memories were of playing with children evacuated from Glasgow during the war and watching the Royal Artillery train for D-Day. Her parents ran Castle Douglas’s local cinema, where young Moira, from the reel-room first got a taste for show business and the world outside.

After losing both of her parents when she was still a child, she moved to Glasgow aged 14 to live with her aunt Rose and uncle Arthur who ran the Arthur Hancock fairground in Partick, a site they often shared with the Roberts Brothers travelling circus. There was traditional friction between fairground and circus families and her aunt and uncle were not happy when, aged 23, she got a job as an usherette with the Roberts Brothers Circus during its winter spell at the Kelvin Hall.

They were even less happy when she started seeing 18-year-old Edinburgh boy Bobby Roberts Jr, son of one of the owners of the circus which had been founded in Scotland in 1944. Bobby Jr had been born in Edinburgh when his father was doing his National Service as a fireman. He started off in the circus as a high-wire artiste, walking a wire above an unroofed cage of lions. He also did an act with performing pigs he had trained himself. When he met Moira, it was love at first sight but family frictions held them back.

Moira’s uncle referred to Bobby Roberts Jr as “jungle boy” while Bobby Jr’s father called Moira “that loud-mouthed traveller.” Nevertheless, love prevailed. Bobby married Moira, five years his senior – “the love of my life” - in 1965, their families not only approved but embraced them, and the couple remained inseparable until her recent death.

Apart from Glasgow, they performed in Blackpool, Brighton, Manchester, Great Yarmouth and with the famous Billy Smart’s Circus in London. Bobby Jr and Moira loved elephants – a love which was mutual – and they took their troupe of six elephants to continental Europe. In fact, they spent their 1965 honeymoon walking their elephants under Paris’s Arc de Triomphe and up the Champs Elysées on French Independence Day, July 14.

One of Moira and Bobby’s greatest memories was being invited by the Queen to show her their elephants. In the early 1980s, Bobby and Moira were named Circus World Champions by a BBC TV programme. No official record of the award exists, nor that the championship was ever repeated, but Moira’s daughter Kitty has a video of the London presentation. It shows the actor Andrew Sachs, best-known as Manuel in Fawlty Towers, giving the award to Bobby and Moira.

The year 2011 was a bad one for the couple. Animal rights activists “came across” a video of a Romanian groom, mistreating the circus’s oldest elephant, Anne (Moira’s middle name), prodding her with a pitchfork while her legs were chained. Bobby Jr and Moira were accused of “inhumane treatment” of an animal. In fact, they had looked after Anne almost as though she were their child, well aware that the elephant, which had grown up in the circus, would stand no chance back in the wild. Bobby Jr was given a warning and a suspended sentence by the court. Moira was acquitted. She said she had had no idea that the Romanian groom, Nicolai Nitu, had been mistreating the elephant but she did accept overall responsibility since she had not kept an eye on the groom.

The groom disappeared, thought to have gone back to Romania, and Moira was convinced he had taken money from an animal rights group to mistreat the elephant while they filmed. “Bobby and I lived and breathed elephants,” she said later. “And they loved him.” At the time, Bobby added: “I don’t think there’s anything cruel in the circus. We have a strict code on animal welfare and we treat them like part of the family. Animal welfare officers always used to come and check and they said to me these animals are kept in better conditions than they would be in stables.”

Anne the elephant, now believed to be 65 years old, was moved to a custom-built state of the art “retirement home” at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire where she still lives. “When Bobby and Moira visited her, her eyes lit up,” their daughter Kitty told The Herald. “She was all over them.”

Moira Roberts is survived by her husband Bobby, their son, also Bobby, daughter Kitty, several grandchildren, and by her sister Violet.