Obituary: Margaret Beedie

Margaret Beedie, 'teacher and Bletchley Park veteran'. Picture: Contributed
Margaret Beedie, 'teacher and Bletchley Park veteran'. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 26 April, 1921, on Harris. Died: 29 July, 2014, in Aberdeen, aged 93.

When Margaret Beedie confessed to her future husband just weeks before their wedding that she had a secret to disclose, the subsequent revelation thankfully wasn’t as dark as he had feared.

It transpired that her given Christian name was different to the one by which he knew her – a fact she had been forced had to divulge before the reading of the banns in the local parish church.

However, it wasn’t the only enigmatic aspect to this thoughtful and courteous Hebridean islander, a highly intelligent schoolteacher, wife and mother who fundraised for her local church, volunteered with the Cubs and Scouts and who enjoyed hobbies from ballroom dancing to hill walking.

For, unbeknown to most of her circle, she had been one of the team at Bletchley Park, known as Station X, sworn to secrecy for decades about the crucial code-breaking work in which they were involved which cracked the Enigma cypher system and helped to steer Britain to victory in the Second World War.

She operated a Hollerith machine, a means of tabulating information received, but like so many of her contemporaries, and in the spirit of the inspired propaganda campaign Careless Talk Costs Lives, she maintained a discreet silence over the precise nature of her duties. However, with the veil of secrecy officially lifted, her contribution to the success of the enormous task faced by the Government Code and Cypher School has now been recorded with pride on Bletchley Park’s roll of honour.

The daughter of crofters John and Mary Mackinnon, she was born at Flodabay (correct) on the Isle of Harris, the youngest by ten years of their family of five. A native Gaelic speaker she was known on the island by her Gaelic name of Curstaidh Magaidh, Christy Maggie when translated into English, and attended the local primary, Manish School, for the first five years of her education.

At the age of ten she was sent to the mainland to continue her schooling at Nigg Primary in Ross-shire, close to her brother Roderick’s first charge as a minister and where her sister Chrissie had gone as his housekeeper. She completed her secondary education at Tain Academy, whilst living with a local family and returning home to Harris each holiday.

A very bright and able young woman, she gained a place at Aberdeen University where she studied for an MA from 1939 and met the man she would eventually marry, James Beedie, who thought her name was Margaret.

After graduating in 1942 she responded to a bland government advert and was soon sent to Bletchley Park as a Foreign Office civilian worker.

There the young recruit, listed as C M Mackinnon, was detailed to serve in Hut 7 which had been built two years earlier to house logistical expert Freddie Freeborn of the British Tabulating Machine company and the 
Hollerith machines the firm had developed.

The equipment could log letters used in intercepted messages and tabulate information in a form that was easy to search and was used as an aide to record-keeping, cryptanalysis and intelligence reporting.

As a result, this early form of data processing was one of Bletchley’s core services, serving all three ministries and building up an invaluable reference source for the Enigma code-breaking exercises.

Known as the Freebornery, the information storage section expanded rapidly and moved into the purpose-built Block C in late 1942 where she also worked as a Hollerith operator. Typically the young women recruited to Bletchley Park would work long shifts that required just the kind of dedication to duty and assiduous concentration that were innate qualities in the quiet, gentle woman from the Outer Hebrides.

Hut 7, where she began, was also subsequently occupied by the Naval and Japanese sections.

Whether she also worked in these areas is unclear but what is certain is her determination to adhere to the discretion dictated by the Official Secrets Act, which all the Bletchley Park workers were required to sign, by disclosing nothing to those closest to her.

However, she did later reveal two snippets of information: that she had worked in the hut next to code-breaker Alan Turing, the brilliant logician, mathematician and computer science pioneer and that she had a lifelong disgust of Marmite, thanks to the sandwiches left out by her wartime landlady for her supper after working late shifts.

Miss Mackinnon, who served at Bletchley Park until 1945, returned to the Granite City after the war and trained as a teacher at Aberdeen College of Education, taking up her first full-time post at the city’s Sunnybank Primary School.

She and James were due to marry in Aberdeen July 1947 but shortly before the big day she dropped the bombshell that she had a secret to reveal. Fearing all sorts of ghastly revelations about to unfold, her fiancé was hugely relieved to discover, when she finally confessed, that she was not Margaret but Christy Maggie, a name she had ditched because she deemed it too Hebridean.

The marriage went ahead, with one of her best friends, whom she had met at Bletchley Park, in attendance as bridesmaid. The couple went on to have two sons and after a child-rearing break Margaret returned to work, teaching French, English, history and religious studies at Hilton Academy in Aberdeen for the next 20 years.

She was a member of Beechgrove Church near her home in Aberdeen’s west end, helped with the Cubs and the 25th Aberdeen Scout Group and later joined Whitehall Bowling Club where she served for a time as ladies’ section president.

She shared a love of ballroom dancing and hillwalking with her husband, keeping a diary of their walks and a record of the hundreds of miles they covered across the north-east of Scotland. She was also an active member of Midstocket Hillwalking Club and over many years had enjoyed walking the moors and hills of her native Harris as well as the mountains of Austria and New Zealand.

A quiet, patient and stoic individual, she remained loyal to both to her Hebridean roots, despite her 83 years on the mainland, and to the spirit of Bletchley Park which was represented at her funeral in her commemorative badge sported by her one of her sons.

She is survived by James, her husband of 67 years, sons David and Hamish, three grandchildren and her great-grandson.

ALISON SHAW