HE has been writing. It is what he does every morning, reserving the afternoon for reading though the conditions of his eyes make that increasingly difficult. He stands squat and strong, his voice still touched by the north-east.

He pushes away the chair, leaves his desk and prepares to talk about his life. It may take some time. Ian Masson Fraser is in his 100th year. He has been an instigator of the Iona Community, a traveller to 95 countries where he has invited the ire of dictators and totalitarian governments and escaped unscathed. He was a chaplain at the Munich Olympics where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists. He joined the Frankie Vaughan initiative to end gang warfare in Glasgow. He took on the Thatcher government on the poll tax with the case going to the European Commission for Human Rights where he emerged victorious after the government abandoned the policy.

He has written more than two dozen books, dodged Ferdinand Marcos, visited the "killing fields’’ of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, worked with underground churches in the then Czechoslovakia and Poland, crossed Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin three times on secret missions.

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He has been a minister. In truth, he has always been an agent. His employer has been divine but his mission has been grittily earthy. “I think what I was called to do was to come alongside people, what some would call basic people,” he says. “I did that by finding my way to them through the ministry here or when abroad through having contacts with those in the churches born from below.”

This is a reference to a guiding principle of Fraser. “I think sometimes we are doing it all wrong. I do not believe the minister should dominate worship.”

He has lived this faith of a church of the people and for the people. It has taken him into danger, it has tested his resources and it has deepened his knowledge of himself and the world that has been his workplace.

Fraser takes his chair in his room in a sheltered housing development in Alva, Clackmannanshire, and addresses with a gentle lucidity the questions that inform and mark an existence that will reach 100 years on December 15.

He has only come to Alva this year after living alone in Gargunnock where he largely fended for himself despite an attentive family and, among other things, grew his own tatties.

This is an oddly relevant pastime. Fraser is a man of faith. But he is a human being of heart, soul and hard labour.

THE seven-year boy rose early, work already calling. Fraser’s first labours were to help in his father’s butcher shop in Forres. By 5.45am, he was making sausages in the back before heading to school.

“My mother said my university was the university of adversity because my father went blind when I was four,” he recalls. He had duties, too, after school, accompanying his dad on visits to friends and fellow church elders.

This distanced himself from the church rather than lured him towards it. “I was the last to join the church in school,” he says. “My mother was also sort of nudging me towards the ministry but I always said it was the last thing I would ever do.”

Yet ministry was his calling. He answered it. His CV can be briskly summarised: Master of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity, ministerial charges in Arbroath and Rosyth, warden of Scottish Churches House, executive secretary of the World Council of Churches, dean and head of the department of mission at Selly Oak Colleges, research consultant to the Scottish Churches’ Council and an informal ambassador for British Missionary Society and Boards.

This prosaic list disguises a thrilling reality. Fraser entered the world with his sleeves rolled up. His first job was as a chaplain at a paper mill in Fife. “As a labourer, at a labourer’s wage,” he recalls. “It was a lonely thing to do.” It was also essential, he believes, to be a minister. “You have to know the people,” he says. “A man who wants to be a minister in an agricultural region should have to work for a spell on a farm.”

The years spent in the mill formed the first episode of the Fraser drama that always had the same plot line: if people did not go to the church, the church must go to them.

The work was hard, the lessons tough. But his spell there from 1942 to 1944 convinced him of the merit of making the church “from below”, that is, empowering the congregation. He took this principle and developed it when minister in Rosyth, working with the congregation on painting the church, building walls and matching worship with dirty hands.

“You must see yourself as an agent,” he says. “There are all kinds of leaders mentioned in Ephesians. The minister is not the be-all and end-all.”

His work as an agent for God had aspects of a John le Carre novel. Fraser travelled widely, bringing his gospel of a community church to eastern Europe, South Africa and South America. “If you cut me open, the stories would flow out of me,” he says with a smile.

There is the one of avoiding imprisonment in the Philippines of Ferdinand Marcos. Fraser had flown in to Manila en route to Australia with his wife, Margaret, unaware that he was on a blacklist for a recording he had made with a nun who had been tortured under the dictator.

“She told me that in the midst of her agony she had no reality to her. Not of friends, not of God. All had disappeared under pain. But then there came a shaft of light. She said: ‘I knew I had lost my grip but God had not lost his grip on me.’ When I returned to Britain, the tape was broadcast worldwide and I was obviously put on a blacklist by the Philippine authorities.”

He was saved because a new passport listed him as an educationalist rather than a minister. “I was given a tip that this was a better occupation as far as entering countries was concerned,” he says. “I peeked at the list at passport control and saw the name of Ian Fraser, minister. But no mention of any educationalist. A group of Japanese tourists pushed me along the line, the officer hesitated and I was in.”

But visits to South Africa, under apartheid, and eastern Europe, under communism, provided both danger and inspiration. “There were regular raids on churches in South Africa but I escaped arrest. The black community would run the service but if there was a raid we would take over until the police left. They thought we were in charge so that was all right.

“In Prague, I visited an underground church through means of a contact and an elaborate code. This all showed that people had the means to worship by themselves. These were the churches built from below.”

The most stark example of this theology was in South America. His process was simple: travel anywhere, find contacts and live and pray with them.

“The first thing I said was that I was not going to stay in a hotel. I would ask people to let me live with them and share their food. I could not have landed upon two better things because the poor are so generous. They became hosts and hostesses instead of being at the end of handouts. There is dignity in that.

“If you stay with them for a short time, the insights and the stories come pouring out. I always had my tape recorder with me so I always got it with their emphasis and their vision.”

The stories tumble out. In Mexico, he was told that all his contacts in his next port of call, Guatemala, had been killed, arrested or fled. “I went to another room to reflect and I decided to go on regardless,” he says. He found his contact only after enlisting the help of nuns on the same flight who dropped him off at the man’s home.

“He was putting his car into his garage. He told me that if I had come five minutes earlier he would not have been there. Five minutes later, he would have been inside his house and would not have answered the door. He told me: ‘People put guns through the grille and shoot you when you answer the door.’’’

In El Salvador, Fraser was lost, bereft as the country erupted in the aftermath of the assassination of Oscar Romero, the Roman Catholic prelate, in 1980. The bishop was killed because of his outspoken views on the treatment of the poor and the absence of social justice.

It was a dangerous time and place for churchmen with such views and Fraser not only shared them but had made such opinions known. “My rucksack was locked in a room. I had no access to my worldly goods. But the telephone number of my only contact was in my pocket for some reason. The exact number of local coins to make the call were also there. I have no idea how they got there.”

There was, too, work nearer home. The Iona Community was almost the physical realisation of his spirituality. He knew the religion had to be involved in life and politics. He was a Labour councillor, worked in Easterhouse with gang members and took his case against the poll tax all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. It was withdrawn when the poll tax was rescinded.

“It was the only right thing to do,” he says of his challenge. “People should oppose a bad law whenever the opportunity arises.”

In the midst of this frenetic life, there was the marriage to Margaret, the births of three children and the subsequent swelling of the Fraser clan to nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. The work was conducted not only as an agent of God but in partnership with Margaret.

HOW did he survive? “With great difficulty,” he answers, with no trace of levity. Margaret died in 1987. Fraser’s fate has been to be a widower for 30 years.

“I believe death has a right to take people, however awkwardly that falls out,” he says. “But I believe death has no right to separate us. For a wee while we were torn apart by death but then she came back to me.

“I do not know if this seems fanciful but I live with the Holy Spirit and with her. They give insights to me. I feel that when I come to see something more clearly that she has had a hand in it. We were very much together, very much a partnership.”

They travelled the world, with the young wife offering support particularly in the early steps of the ministry when Fraser was unsure of what the journey would hold or even whether the direction was correct. “Margaret had the stuff in her to prosper in any endeavour. She was so central to our lives as a family. She was game for anything,” he says.

The first days of grieving were extraordinarily painful. “You just trail through one day after another in the hope that it will pass,” he says, the anguish of 30 years still visible in his face and audible in his voice.

This, then, has been a major trial but what of the lessons of 100 years? What has built him and what has informed him?

“Since I came here there has been a crisis,” he says, his hand indicating the room. “I had a stroke recently. What I experienced was that I woke in the middle of the night, knowing something was wrong but not knowing what it was. My legs would not support me so I went back to bed. It was the right thing to do.

“The doctor came and gave me his wisdom. For four days I was told to do as little as possible and when I was fed up doing that to do as little as possible again. Your energy needs space to get going. I was stripped of my writing in the morning and there could be no reading.”

The writer, minister and activist was laid prostrate by life. “I had a strange sort of experience. It was a profound, powerful experience of being emptied out as a person.

“I remember when we went out collecting bird eggs as a boy and we sucked them out so that only the shell was left. I felt like those eggs. I felt that much had left me. I felt I was thinking too much of myself and there wasn’t much in me after all.”

But was there fear then or even now as a succession of birthday parties loudly testify to the reality that life surely has not far to run?

“No. I have learned to trust God. Jesus said that he was going away but he was leaving the Holy Spirit to guide us,” he says.

This may seem absurd to the cynical or unbeliever but it is deeply practical to Fraser. “I have to be very critical of my own thinking: what I want and what I fear. I don’t have to accept that thinking as the answer to my problems even though they are a response to them.

“I don’t hesitate to say that whenever I am troubled or face a decision of some sort I find time away to reflect. The answer comes to me.”

He is refreshingly brisk about how and why he has lived into his 100th year. “Frankly, I don’t know why,” he says. “Folk say to me it was because you had so much work to do and so much yet to do. I don’t believe that. I have travelled all over the world and I know that people with missions, with work to do, have died prematurely and brutally.

“I think of Manila and South America and know, for example, that the nuns who died there are every bit as important as me. I don’t know why I escaped.”

But has he any pointers to the key to a happy, fulfilled life?

He responds immediately: “Marry Margaret.”

The soul endures, the heart is bruised but beats on.