Louise MacRae was the very picture of Scottish ‘shortbread tin’ imagery. The Aberdeen quine, in full Highland regalia, graced the front of Carr’s biscuit tins all the while bringing home medals for her highly skilled dance performances.
Born on June 11 1928 she was a community stalwart, a trusted friend, and wife to Samuel Irvine Rae for 68 years until his death in 2021.
Second to none
Newspaper cuttings from the 1940s to the mid 1950s show a hoard of silverware scooped up by highland dancer Louise MacRae.
One Press and Journal correspondent resorted to shorthand when writing-up results, simply stating: “Highland Dancing: ALL prizes — Miss L MacRae, Aberdeen.”
While competitive in most categories, she was always near unbeatable in the jig, albeit lukewarm towards the sword dance.
The immediate post-war years were the young champion’s heyday on the boards, with her name rarely absent from highland games prize lists. More often than not she would place above her two great rivals, Betty Jessiman and JL Mackenzie. Her contemporaries, they would both go on to be crowned world champions.
Louise was an instinctively musical dancer and her regal poise and Hollywood starlet good looks turned more than a few heads.
As such she caught the attention of the shortbread manufacturers of the era, becoming a biscuit tin cover girl for Carr’s of Carlisle. Her photo was emblazoned on boxes shipped across the world throughout the 1950s.
Such was Louise’s global familiarity that when a family friend saw her image in a department store window in Wellington, New Zealand, he exclaimed: “I know that lassie!” To which the stranger next to him replied, “I know her too — I’ve played the pipes while she danced!”
Holburn Street raised
Louise had a sterling pupilage in her craft, mentored by the fearsome Mary Aitken. A great highland dance champion of an earlier era with over 8000 prizes to her name, she was a neighbour of the MacRaes at 556 Holborn Street, Aberdeen.
This address was home to the extended MacRae family, including Louise’s four older sisters. Hailing from Banffshire farming stock, Louise’s mother Jeannie had settled in Aberdeen while father Colin pursued work as a farmhand and warehouseman.
War time memories
The Second World War broke out when Louise was just 11 years old. She passed the entrance exam for Aberdeen’s Central School, more recently The Academy on Schoolhill, but Louise never set foot in the building. Requisitioned as part of the war effort, classrooms were shared with the boys of Aberdeen Grammar School for the duration of the war.
Vivid and formative wartime memories include racing to the attic window at Holburn Street – strikingly not the air raid shelter – on a June day in 1940 to witness a dogfight overhead between a Heinkel bomber and the Dyce spitfire squadron.
It was the first major bombing attack on Aberdeen of the war.
As the German aircraft was shot down and began its rapid descent towards Anderson Drive, she remembers the housewives of Ruthrieston reaching for their rolling pins while their husbands grabbed garden tools, running towards the crash site to give the bomber crew “a doing-in”.
The five Luftwaffe airmen perished as their plane careered into Aberdeen’s newly-built ice-rink and were spared a bludgeoning by the local vigilantes.
On stage opportunities
As Aberdeen became a port city in the firing line, many aspects of everyday life were paused. Community bonds, however, were clearly strengthened in spite of this new peril from the skies.
For the talented young Louise, not only a dancer but a singer and pianist, it gave her the opportunity to take to the stage.
She was quickly snapped up by the leading concert parties of the day, performing fundraisers for the Red Cross and British Legion around village halls, geeing up convalescents in military wards and keeping the home fires burning in variety shows at the Tivoli Theatre.
Louise became a mainstay in the concert party of singer John Mearns, a regular voice on BBC radio and the master of the cornkister. They shared concert billing with some of the top music hall acts of the day, not least the great Harry Lauder in one of his last live shows.
Romance at the Palais
Louise was taken under the wing of two other members of this troupe, Adam and Mary Sangster, through whom she would meet their young neighbour Irvine Rae, home on leave from the Royal Engineers.
The dashing sapper almost blew his chances, after purposefully agreeing to meet on the dancefloor of Aberdeen’s Palais ballroom on Diamond Street, not the entrance, to avoid paying admission for two.
Nevertheless, in September 1952 the Evening Express proclaimed the headline “HIGHLAND DANCER WED” and thereafter the couple moved to Tayport, Fife, where Irvine had set up business.
Louise then worked as a comptometrist, leaving behind a fondly remembered stint at the Northern Agricultural and Lime Company.
For the next seven decades, Tayport was home and Irvine and Louise immersed themselves in their adopted community.
They were a formidable double act, with Louise often proving the perfect foil to Irvine’s penchant for the wind-up. They jointly taught Scottish Country dancing classes, re-established and fundraised energetically for Tayport Instrumental Band, while Louise volunteered at the Rest Centre for pensioners and chaired the local Girlguide association.
Their son Duncan was born in 1956 and two daughters, Shona and Ishbel, then followed.
While Irvine’s business, building firm Brand and Rae, went from strength to strength, domestic thrift remained the watchword for Louise.
When the daughters asked for a pair of Levis, Louise bought some rolls of purple denim and hand-stitched the jeans herself instead, much to their dismay.
The Raes bought the dilapidated Garpit Farm on the outskirts of Tayport in the 1970s and its restoration became a labour of love.
The Garpit flourished as a market garden under Louise’s very hands-on approach planting, picking and supplying many shops and households nearby.
While only learning how to drive well into adulthood, Louise became a familiar sight haring across the backroads of Fife on deliveries in her Morris Traveller, although seldom cranking it above third gear.
Redhall Cottage on the Cortachy estate in Angus was the holiday bolthole and the Rae family were known for the generosity of their hospitality and the purposefulness of their organised adventures in the outdoors.
Louise remained active in Tayport life well into her final years. Aside from family, dancing was always her other true love and she continued taking line dancing classes well into her late eighties — the enduring compulsion of a champion dancer.
She died peacefully at the age of 95 on December 29 2023 and is survived by her three children, nine grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
- Louise MacRae 1928-2023