Co-founder of Samaritans Glasgow

Born April 25th, 1920

Died December 25th 2018

Kay McMillan MBE, who has died aged 98, was one of the driving forces behind of the Glasgow branch of Samaritans, and served with the charity for more than five decades.

Representatives of all the major churches and charities such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army were present at a 1959 meeting held in Glasgow’s Bible College to gauge interest in starting a local branch of the organisation set up six years earlier in London to help people contemplating suicide.

An advert in the Church of Scotland magazine Life and Work had invited members of the public to come along too. Just one individual took up the offer; Kay McMillan, a 39-year-old mother of two from Clarkston. She was immediately appointed secretary of the new group’s steering committee and she and her husband Donald were two of the 55 volunteers who opened The Samaritans’ fourth UK branch in May 1960.

The premises at 204 Bath Street in the city centre were provided rent-free by the Red Cross. The branch’s first caller declared he felt quite at home in one of the two small basement rooms because it was just like his cell in the city’s Barlinnie Prison.

Those early Samaritans attacked the challenge of saving their despairing fellow citizens with a mix of gung-ho earnestness and selfless generosity. Attitudes were different then, as Kay explained to her colleagues at the branch’s AGM in 2015: “Suicide was a crime if attempted outside the home, unmarried mothers-to-be went to great lengths to keep their pregnancy secret and gay rights were hardly heard of... we started with much enthusiasm but not much else.”

Funding came via a weekly donation of a sixpenny (2½p) from the members themselves. Many callers, lacking a home phone, used public phone boxes, often requesting a reverse-charge call. Visitors to the branch often ended up having face-to-face chats in volunteers’ cars. A 24-hour service was maintained via an emergency line transferred to the homes of branch Leaders.

In cases where a caller revealed they had taken an overdose, a Samaritans “flying squad” would be dispatched. No ambulance was called out, as that meant a police car would be summoned to accompany it. The journey to hospital would be made in a volunteer’s own car.

In such situations the McMillans worked as a team. On one call-out, as Donald tended to a woman who had taken an overdose, Kay bathed the stricken mum’s three children then put them to bed.

Samaritans in those days tended to be much more pro-active in trying to help people directly with many of the problems they were experiencing, helping sort out debts or dispensing clothing vouchers. However, at conference in Oxford in 1964 Kay first heard suggestions that this superficial approach was not getting to the root of callers’ distress. It was the first realisation that feelings had to be explored more carefully to truly address suicidal urges.

Eight years an 11-part BBC series Befrienders, based on Samaritans’ work, doubled the charity’s caseload but also brought Glasgow around 100 new volunteers. Finance remained an issue for the branch. This led in 1983 to the McMillans being asked to start up and run a fundraising group, Friends of the Samaritans, which they did with customary enthusiasm and efficiency.

Kay took great pride in 2004 when her branch was named as a winner of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. Deservedly, Kay was also the recipient of personal accolades. In 1981 her family accompanied her to Buckingham Palace where the Queen presented her with an MBE for services to charity. East Renfrewshire Council honoured Kay with a civic reception to mark her 90th birthday and she was a guest speaker at a reception in the Scottish Parliament to celebrate the diamond anniversary of the Samaritans movement.

Sadly, her beloved Donald was not present at the last two of those events. He passed away in 1991, almost 50 years after he’d first fallen for the young comprometer operator he’d spied in the accounts office of engineering firm Mirrlees Watson, where he worked as a draughtsman.

Born Cynthia Kathleen Dawson in London, Kay was brought up by her grandparents in Mount Florida, Glasgow, after her parents split up. She attended the local primary school then the nearby Queen’s Park Secondary. Her marriage to Donald in 1943 was held during his four days’ leave from wartime service as a radio operator with the RAF. Their first child Ian was born in 1944, followed by daughter Anne in 1947. Kay gave up work to raise her family while her husband worked for a firm that sold shop equipment. She also served for several years as a Justice of the Peace. She was always humble about the part she played in supporting the distressed and suicidal. Her daughter Anne explained: “When people made a fuss Mum would say, ‘I’m just an ordinary housewife and mother who did what she could’.”

Kay is survived by Anne, five grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

John Maclean