Betty Gillespie, carer and activist for the homeless

Born: March 20, 1934;

Died: December 16, 2018

Betty Gillespie, who has died aged 84, was a farmer, mill-worker, school cleaner, and a carer for the homeless at Glasgow City Mission where she worked for over 30 years.

She was born in Denny at Whitehill farm. It was tenanted, without electricity or other facilities. The family’s tough life worsened dramatically when her father was killed in a railway shunting accident. The eight-year old Betty had to help run the farm.

As the only running water in the house was down the windows, Betty drew water from a well. If the wet rope slipped and she lost the bucket, she got ‘leathered’. The hens laid in nettles, so she got stung collecting the eggs. If any broke she got leathered. She did the washing. If the stretcher slipped or the washing line broke she got leathered. Happily, the strict regime eased when the distractions of the war brought some peace to the farm.

Betty had all the qualities of a pre-war generation who made do and mended, who kept calm and carried on. She was a homemaker who sewed, knitted, gathered berries, made jam, and wasn’t above scavenging for parrot coal. Even as an octogenarian, she couldn’t pass a skip without peeking into it.

Nature, nurture and circumstance equipped Betty with a strong social conscience and an empathy with the disadvantaged. A particular set of skills more appropriate for her future work than Liam Neilson’s in Taken.

Betty and her husband, Eddie, were working in Aberfeldy in 1960 when they chanced upon an Evening Times left on a park bench. It contained an advert for the City Mission job that he applied for and got. That serendipitous event led to a joint contribution of over 70 years at the City Mission caring for the less fortunate.

Betty was a country girl but she knew the reputation of the No Mean City of Glasgow. On arrival, her worst fears seemed justified. The welcoming party comprised one man who blocked the entrance holding an axe aloft. Their driver suggested they turn tail. She must have felt like the Sherriff in Blazing Saddles, but she walked on in. All was well, the coal black figure was their self appointed boiler-man. He just wanted to show he had chopped the wood and fired the boiler. Betty always distrusted first impressions, especially about the disadvantaged.

She lived in the Mission and was available 24/7. She was often distressed when, in the middle of the night, all she and Eddie could do was offer a little help to people sent by uninformed Ministers. They had promised a bed in the Mission but it had none.

Betty carried out the quotidian tasks of washing, cleaning, cooking and feeding. Other work included sorting clothes donations and facilitating the regular concert parties and prayer meetings. The latter were well attended, but restively, because the tea and special thick cut Co-Op bread and jam were wisely but frustratingly served after the meeting.

In the early years many traumatised war casualties attended the Mission. There was no professional counselling and the broken bodies of the veterans were often crudely held together. There seemed to be more plates in the men’s heads than in Arnott’s crockery department.

Betty did what she could. She often said later that the main contribution of the Mission was social, not physical. To provide a safe space where people met in fellowship, in the knowledge that they mattered because others cared.

Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 10 years ago she was sentient till the end. For many years, Betty had knitted scarves that she donated to Glasgow and Stirling charity shops. She was working on one the day she died.

Her sudden but peaceful death necessitated the extended attendance of two police officers. On leaving they were told they were a credit to the Force. One, exhausted and on auto response, replied to the grieving husk before him, “thank you and have a nice evening”. Betty would have laughed. Latterly, she would jokingly shout out “someone’s stolen ma brain, get me a new wan” They didn’t get her heart, though.

Betty is survived by Eddie, her husband of 66 years, and her family, Andrew, Dorothy and Peter, and granddaughter Jacqueline.

Peter Shaw