I was saddened last week at the death of Alistair Simpson, who gave such fantastic service to the artistic and cultural life of Falkirk through his leadership of Falkirk and District Arts and Civic Council and his years in Callendar Park College.
While there, he was responsible for local history studies and he and his students researched and collected material on every aspect of our past from the Romans to the modern era. Through his links with the Falkirk Archeological and Natural History Society and historians like Doreen Hunter, he was able to compile original material for his students’ use, and who knows how many future teachers were inspired to learn more about their own past and pass it on the next generation?
My most powerful memory of Alistair, however, dates back to an amazing three-day event in Callendar Park in June 1987. I’m not sure if it was Alistair’s idea, but the decision to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots by holding a great pageant quickly became his baby. And some baby it was!
The plan was to combine the talents and skills of hundreds of Falkirk folk to stage a huge ‘son et lumiere’ with the south face of Callendar House as the backdrop. Alistair commissioned Russell McGillviray, then teaching history at Larbert High, to write a terrific script which told the story of Mary’s tragic life and tied it in with the local Livingston family. Lord Livingston had been the Queen’s guardian and Mary Livingston, his daughter, was one of the famous ‘Four Marys’.
Falkirk’s two leading amateur drama producers, Eunice MacDonald from Falkirk Players and Bill Graham from Tryst Theatre, were appointed joint directors and they brought with them the cream of local acting talent to take on the leading roles. David Braidwood took on the job of technical co-ordinator and along with him came sound and lighting specialists as well as the stage and costume designers who would construct the set around the great staircase of the House.
At first I thought the idea was optimistic, but Alistair was very persuasive and before long I was immersed in locating medieval music, finding tunes for songs and teaching the unruly players how to sing like a 16th century street rabble! The whole soundtrack was recorded over a few evenings in the Radio Clyde studio in Edinburgh by Keith Hogg and by the beginning of June posters for ‘Marie R’ were appearing over the town.
It had been a monumental undertaking and it was Alistair’s sheer determination and certainty of success that held the project together. Seats were set out on the lawn and folk were told to bring blankets and flasks to hold the evening chills at bay. It rained on the second night, but that did not stop more than 100 performers presenting ‘Marie R’ to hundreds of spectators from far and wide.
Despite setbacks, the pageant was a big success and those of us who were involved still recall the hilarities of June 1987. It was not Alistair Simpson’s only contribution to our artistic life, but it is the one for which I will always remember him.