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A tribute to the late Archibald (Archie) Gillies, violinist, educator and mentor who died in Inverness

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Archie Gillies.
Archie Gillies.

Archibald (Archie) Gillies, violinist, educator and mentor to generations of amateur musicians in the north, died aged 95, on July 12 at the Royal Northern Infirmary in Inverness.

A huge enthusiast for classical music – or at least the parts of it he approved of – Archie was playing until the last few months of his life.

With his beautiful, rounded violin tone and his remarkable ability to sight-read the trickiest music, he delighted in sharing his gifts by teaching young and not so young alike, playing with amateur musicians and giving them access to some of the greatest works in the repertoire.

He loved making music, and was in great demand locally for all manner of musical performances, giving recitals and even playing in Inverness’s Truly Terrible Orchestra despite failing health. “It’s good fun,”was his reasoning.

Passionate about music, Archie was not, strictly speaking, a professional musician, although he could have been.

For many years he worked in the Western Isles and then the Highlands as a technical teacher, rising to become the Highland Regional Council’s adviser in technical education.

He was widely read, a lifelong socialist and a product of his early years in pre-war Springburn, Glasgow.

Life was not easy, with his father – a union activist – often out of work.

He did part-time jobs to finance his violin lessons, which were disrupted during the Clydeside blitz when the family home was bombed and he was evacuated to relatives in Cumnock.

In the difficult post-war years, Archie won music competitions and broadcast on BBC radio, but was advised by his uncle, a professional violinist, not to become a full-time musician as there was simply not enough work – “He said I would end up playing at the bandstand on Dunoon pier during the summer”. So he attended Jordanhill Teacher Training College, then taught technical subjects at Wellshot Secondary, Glasgow before accepting a job in South Uist.

It came with a house, a priority for a newly-married man – he’d married wife Anne in 1954.

He quickly established musical links with the local community, taking advantage of playing opportunities wherever they arose, as he did later in the Highlands.

He played regularly for the Haddo House Opera series run by the Countess of Haddo.

In the early 1960s he set up The High School Orchestra followed by the Inverness String Orchestra in 1967, giving annual Christmas carol concerts in aid of charity.

In the 1990s the String Orchestra became an evening class, putting amateurs through their paces with a genial yet rigorous approach which kept the flame of classical string playing alive in an environment where traditional music-making held sway.

Not that Archie was averse to playing a few reels.

At chamber music courses in Ullapool and Kirkwall, he was the first to strike up a tune in the local pubs and often amongst the last to leave.

His energy – even in his 90s – was remarkable. “How about one last movement before we break up?” he’d ask his exhausted fellow string quartet players, decades younger than himself, as midnight approached!

Regular musical evenings at home were also enjoyed by a great number of musicians, not least thanks to the wonderful tea breaks of home baking provided by his wife Anne.

He was always willing to provide advice to players – amateur and professional, and was a stalwart of amateur chamber music courses at St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Harrogate.

He was a loyal audience member for Inverness chamber music recitals, chatting to musicians afterwards and trying their violins.

At times his plain speaking could be perhaps carried too far.

At his packed funeral service, his son Alasdair recounted an instance when Archie met Nicola Benedetti after a concerto performance in Inverness and suggested that her tone, though wonderful, could be improved if she swayed around during her performance a bit less!

He later wrote to congratulate her on her subsequent televised Aberdeen Proms performance.

Archie was a great character – his approach to music and to life was inspirational, and he will be much missed.

His wife Anne, died in 2013, and he is survived by his three sons, Norman, Duncan and Alasdair.

n Gordon Adam, chairman, music Inverness.

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