Euan Cattanach, the Aberfeldy craftsman who made Billy Connolly’s banjo, has died aged 81.
Today Irene, his wife of nearly 50 years, speaks for the first time about their love, their life and their poignant final moments together.
“I’m devastated. There’s no one else like my Euan.”
Born in Peebles on October 11 1940, Euan was one of five boys for his parents, Roberta and James, who raised their sons on country estates where James worked as a game keeper.
His final posting – to Leithan Lodge at Innerleithan – as a grouse keeper provided the boys with opportunities to help their dad upon leaving school.
But at 15, aspiring to higher wages, Euan left school for a job in the woollen mills.
“The problem with this,” explained Irene, “was that whenever the August 12 rolled round Euan would never be at work.
“He’d be helping his dad and brothers for the start of the shooting season.”
But although he formed great friendships in the mills, he soon took a keeper job of his own.
He was my life
Almost half a century ago Euan met mum-of-three Irene Ewart in Dumfriesshire.
But it most certainly wasn’t love at first sight.
“I was working in my Bed and Breakfast and he and his brother came as guests.
“He had been working in the forest – where he was contracted to work – and I looked him up and down and said ‘we don’t normally take in workers!’
“And our friendship developed after that.”
No rush to get married
By the time Irene and Euan got together Irene felt there was no real need to get married.
“It was actually a standing joke.
“Euan would ask me and I’d say that I didn’t want to rush it. Well, we stuck to that. Here we are 48 happy years later. Times had changed.
“We were the happiest couple. I don’t know a happier couple.
“I was his life – I know that.
“And he was mine.”
A Cat with nine lives
Euan – who was sometimes known as Cat – lived up to his nickname; especially with regard to his health.
“He certainly was a cat with nine lives,” said Irene. ” Just last year I had to insist on taking him to see a doctor for a mole on his back.
“It turned out to be cancerous and was removed in Ninewells.
“I reminded him of this when the other health problems reared there ugly heads.”
Irene says she’s sure their doctors’ surgery must have dreaded her phone calls as she constantly questioned them on his treatment.
“I had harsh words with them a few times… because I cared about him so much.
“They told me they lived in fear until they knew he was safe, well and home from hospital. A situation we didn’t want to be repeated.”
I tried to save him
Irene was part of the cast for the 2019 series of Bear Grylls The Island, when she was 75.
She said that while she’s tackled tough things nothing compared to her final moments with Euan who suffered a massive heart attack on Sunday November 14.
“I tried everything I could to save him.
“I tried desperately to bring him back with CPR but it was a huge heart attack.
“Through his cancer I looked after that man to the best of my ability and I’m just so sad I couldn’t keep him with us.”
Euan had also recently finished another course of radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer.
Irene believes the one kindness in his sudden death is that he didn’t need to suffer any more pain from the cancer.
However, letting go has not been easy.
“I wouldn’t let them take him away. I just needed more time.
“It’s not done much these days but I kept him with me as long as I could.
“Then, when it was time to say goodbye for good, I had him brought home at my request, to rest before the funeral.”
Euan’s brothers Gus and Gregor played the bagpipes as he left his home, and piped him into the grave.
“It was beautiful.
“All the tributes to him from myself and our two precious families were about respect and love.
“The details all meant something.
“The heart-shaped wreath had a silver stag’s head, and included all his favourite roses and crysanths, and heathers for my man of the moors.
“I made it with tenderness and love, and I watered it with my tears.
“I don’t know that this will ever be real.”
Building a life together
In 1973 the couple set up home together in Cumbria where Euan was looking after the grounds of a syndicate-owned estate near Asholme, Haltwhistle.
They bought a flat and a chip shop, and for a time Irene was also a cook in the cottage hospital nearby.
“We were 13 years there then we came to Aberfeldy.
“We sold the chip shop and bought a house and opened a business here.”
Their new venture – called Autodog – comprised pet supplies, a garden centre and floristry, which Irene is trained in.
It was here Euan really developed his love of all things wooden.
He’d make garden furniture but when they sold the shop and retired he turned his hand to something new.
Coming from a musical family, he and his brothers had always dabbled in playing multiple different instruments.
They also later discovered that they had a grandfather on their mother’s side who was a very skilled cabinet maker.
“I think we just felt this talent must have come from somewhere – and it seems it did.”
It started with a mandolin
Euan had always had a guitar but wanted a mandolin.
He turned to YouTube and learned how to make them himself.
From there his hobby, and his business, just grew and grew.
On his website, Euan shares the story.
He wrote: “When I wanted a good mandolin and could not afford a Stephan Sobell in Hexhamshire or a Foley from Ireland, out came the old tools and skills and I made one for myself.
“I showed it to a semi-pro player and he asked to buy it.
“I sold it, made another, and hey ho, then another… and that has now developed into (my business) Chattan Luthiery.”
Euan began banjo making, even selling his instruments to country singer Peggy Seeger, among others.
But his most-high profile customer wasn’t a customer at all.
The Big Yin
During his tour of Scotland comedian and musician Billy Connolly came to spend time with Euan – the only banjo maker in Scotland – as part of his docu-series.
“He was actually there for most of the day and it was like he and Euan were old friends.
“Euan actually gifted Billy with one of his banjos, and then he later emailed to say how much he was enjoying playing it.
“Pamela then shared a video of him playing it.”
— Pamela Stephenson (@PamelaStephensn) January 5, 2019
The fame Euan received after Billy’s visit was something he remained grateful for, but never let it go to his head.
‘I love you’ in the snow
During their years together Irene and Euan were rarely apart as they lived and worked together.
So when Irene was a contestant 5,000 miles away on a desert island survival show they missed each other desperately.
“He took me to Perth station and he wouldn’t leave. He just kept waving and waving. It broke my heart.”
There was no doubting how much they loved each other.
Euan’s workshop could be seen from their bedroom window.
When it was cold Irene would knock the window to see if he wanted a cup of tea.
“I mean, there was sometimes the odd rude gesture too to make me laugh.
“But last year when it snowed I went to the window to see if he wanted a cuppa.
“He had written ‘I love you’ on he shed roof in big letters.
“It froze like that. It was so beautiful. It’s a memory I will treasure.”
Irene says Euan will be remembered by his brothers Colin, Gregor, Fergus and Neil as being loveable but competitive – especially when it came to clay pigeon shooting.
And he will be fondly thought of by everyone who knew him as a great storyteller, fisherman, craftsman and friend.
But to Irene he was the love of her life.
“I’ve lost the most amazing man. My country gentleman.
“He’s famous for being the man who gave Billy Connolly a guitar.
“But I’m left without his warmth, his kindness and him just being there, all smart in his country clothes, smiling at me from his workshop through the bedroom window.”
Euan’s family made sure his graveside service was a true tribute for him.
“He was so precious to our families and our many friends.
“Afterwards, we had a hot drink and food with his friends, singing and playing many of Euans wonderfully-made musical instruments.”
Those moments Irene says she will remember forever.
“It may have upset me but I will cherish all of it. I’m so thankful for a truly amazing bunch.
“A farewell like that was a reminder of our many wonderful nights spent with Euan. Not to be forgotten.”
Euan is survived by his and Irene’s children from their previous marriages, Corrinna, Louise, Pamela, Tracy and Shaun, his brothers and their families and his grandchildren, for whom he was simply ‘papa’.