Peace campaigner

Born: October 19, 1942;

Died: April 12, 2016

HELEN Steven, who has died at the age of 73, was a much-admired worker for justice and peace. A passionate campaigner against weapons of mass destruction, she won the respect not just of supporters of her cause but of opponents. Her non-violent protests at Faslane took her not only to Cornton Vale prison but to NATO headquarters, where she addressed generals on the moral case against nuclear armaments.

Her upbringing gave no pointers to her eventual radicalism. Brought up in a Christian household in Glasgow, she was educated at the girls' fee-paying school, Laurel Bank, where she was active in the Scripture Union.

As a teenager, she started climbing with her father, the writer Campbell Steven; this sparked an enduring love of the outdoors. She joined the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club – the oldest all-women's mountaineering club still in existence – in 1959. In 1970, she would lead the first women’s climbing expedition to Greenland.

After studying at Glasgow University, she became a history teacher at Laurel Bank school, a position she held for seven years. So far, so conventional.

Her decision in 1972 to go to Vietnam as part of a Quaker project working in orphanages in Saigon was life-changing. She was inspired to go there by a TV programme about children in the country. What she experienced in that war-torn land led to a profound commitment to work for justice and peace for the rest of her life.

Inspired by the way Quakers put their faith into practical action, this loyal daughter of the Church of Scotland became a member of the Religious Society of Friends. It was in Vietnam that she met and worked with Ellen Moxley, a practising Quaker; it proved to be the beginning of a life-long loving partnership. Helen and Ellen brought up a Vietnamese orphan girl, Marian, together. Marian, who is now in her 40s and happily settled with her husband in Scotland, could not have been brought up in a more loving home.

Another key decision was made in 1979, when Helen Steven became a full-time peace and justice worker with the Iona Community. The Community, founded by George MacLeod, appealed to her because it brought together prayer, political action, and community.

In the 1980s, inspired by civil rights leader Martin Luther King, she developed and delivered non-violent direct action training. Affinity groups such as the Gareloch Horticulturalists began. It continues to this day as a group of women with a sense of justice and a sense of humour – engaged in non-violent direct action at Faslane Naval base, and elsewhere.

In 1985, supported by the Iona Community and the Quakers, Helen and Ellen opened Peace House in Braco. Over the course of 12 years, more than 10,000 people attended the residential centre and participated in its courses about peace, justice and non-violent direct action.

In 1987, Helen Steven was arrested for her part in a demonstration at Faslane. She refused to pay the fine and was sentenced to five days in Cornton Vale women's prison.

"One of the hardest boundaries for me to cross," she would write, "was my decision to engage in civil disobedience. For a well-behaved middle-class woman, whose whole upbringing had tended towards being law-abiding, respectful and conforming, it was a huge step to break the law deliberately."

In 1999, she was one of the people involved in setting up the Scottish Centre for Nonviolence in Dunblane.

After her retirement from paid work in 2002, she and Ellen moved to Raffin Stoer, Lochinver. They loved living in rural Scotland and became part of a vibrant local community, where there was more time to enjoy music, art and gardening. Helen would become president of the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club and chair of the Assynt Foundation.

In 2004, Helen and Ellen were jointly awarded the Ghandi International Peace prize for their work for justice and peace. A year later, Helen Steven delivered the Society of Friends Swarthmore Lecture, which formed the basis of her insightful book about prayer, No Extraordinary Power.

She relished the challenge of going to NATO to talk to military leaders. On one occasion, she organised a conference for military people in Iona Abbey. Some were so moved that they left in tears at the end of the week.

She told of one man who had been one of the architects of the NATO nuclear strategy.

"Later, as he left Iona to board the ferry, he shook me by the hand and said, 'Only the hand of God could have dumped me among a group of raving peace women', then he suddenly looked me straight in the eye and said most solemnly, 'And I mean that'."

Helen Steven, then, was an engaging personality and an inspirational figure. When I was leader of the Iona Community I marvelled at her ability to talk with all manner of people about serious issues.

She could not have achieved all that she did without the support of her loving partner, Ellen. For me, Helen and Ellen quietly modelled how a same-sex partnership between deeply spiritual people would be a powerful source of good in the world. Bless them.

Helen Steven is survived by her partner Ellen Moxley, their adopted daughter Marian, her stepmother Mais Steven, and her brothers John and Kenneth Steven.