Obituary: Margaret Harrison, peace campaigner

One of the founders of the Faslane peace camp who was arrested at least 14 times. Picture: Contributed
One of the founders of the Faslane peace camp who was arrested at least 14 times. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 5 May, 1918, in Dumbarton. Died: 15 April, 2015, in Castle Douglas, aged 96.

Margaret Harrison, who was one of Scotland’s best-known campaigners against nuclear weapons and helped to found the Faslane peace camp, has died aged 96.

Margaret was arrested at least 14 times while taking part in demonstrations against the Polaris and Trident missiles and submarines based at Dunoon and Coulport on the Firth of Clyde.

She was also taken into custody by the police at the annual Easter demonstration at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire, Greenham Common and the United States air base at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire.

Her involvement in the peace movement arose naturally from her strong Christian convictions. She always said in her straightforward, uncomplicated way that Jesus told us to love one another so killing people must be wrong.

This was a belief from which this quiet, dignified woman who brought up a family and wrote poetry in her old age never wavered her whole life.

Margaret’s beliefs underpinned her desire to see an end to poverty and war in the world.

With her husband, Bobby, she was a well-kent face at the Clyde Naval Base at Faslane and the US Polaris missile base in the Holy Loch at Dunoon.

The Harrisons always went as a family to the Aldermaston marches where in the 1950s and 1960s thousands of banner-carrying and placard-waving protestors walked 52 miles between London and Berkshire.

This was the high point of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) calendar at Easter.

Margaret, who hated the formality of being called Mrs, also attended the annual pensioners’ gathering at Greenham Common and was regularly seen showing solidarity with fellow peace activists at RAF Molesworth.

This was while facilities were being constructed for the United States Air Force in Europe to support ground-launched cruise missile operations in the early 1980s.

She was thrown out of the House of Commons during a protest there in 1991.

Margaret Harrison knew well what it was to be lifted by the police and spend a night in the cells during demonstrations. On one occasion in the early 1960s, she decided to not pay the fine and go to jail to highlight the cause for peace.

She was furious, however, when a newspaper paid the fine in order to get a story for its front page – “especially when they printed a lot of nonsense”.

Margaret and Bobby Harrison were presented with a crystal bowl by the CND in the 1970s for their tireless work for peace, which included helping to establish the universally known peace camp at the Faslane gates of the Clyde Naval Base on the Gareloch.

They were also awarded the Freedom of Dumbarton for their work for peace along with her sister, Bee, and Church of Scotland minister Arthur McEwan for their work for Amnesty International.

Margaret said one of the most wonderful experiences of her life was in 1981 when she and her husband took part in a Peace Pilgrimage from Iona to Canterbury.

Born in Dumbarton, she was the daughter of John George and Maggie Burnett of Dalreoch Terrace in Dennystown and later Dumbuie Avenue in Silverton. She had two sisters, Ruth and Lizzie (Bee), to whom she was very close all of their lives.

Margaret Harrison went to Knoxland Primary School and Dumbarton Academy and spent a happy childhood in the east end of the town.

Her first and only job was as a tracer in Denny’s shipyard drawing office where she happily worked for ten years until her marriage to Bobby on 1 June, 1945, in St Augustine’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Dumbarton High Street.

By her own admission, Margaret was clever but lacking in confidence, which is why she didn’t go on to higher education.

The Harrisons had two daughters, Ruth and Anne, five grandchildren, Sarah, Rachael, Ewan, Douglas and Callum, and six great grandchildren, James. Patrick, Sean, Lachlan, Loic and Taylor, and Margaret is survived by them.

During her time at Denny’s her interests included acting. She was a member of Scottish People’s Theatre (SPT) when their Little Theatre at Bankend was destroyed by an enemy bomb in 1941.

Margaret usually arrived at her work on a Saturday morning with her rucksack, ready to go off with her friends or sisters youth hostelling around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

It was on one of these weekends that Bobby, a Liverpool man who adopted Scotland as his home, came cycling into her life at Monachyle, near Balquhidder.

Margaret was a lifelong member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, firstly St Augustine’s and then St Mungo’s, Alexandria where she moved to support a friend who had become the vicar there.

She taught Sunday school for about 40 years and during the war.

Her family would not have called Margaret Harrison a feminist. She was a woman who was traditional in the raising of her children and never would have left them to go to work.

She did, of course, believe in equality for women but it wasn’t directly one of her “causes”. Her work was to do what she could as a mother and housewife to make the world a better place.

Harrison always wanted to write and joined the Alexandria Writing Group, where she was made an honorary member and had a collection of the group’s poems dedicated to her when she left Dumbarton aged 95 to go and live with her daughter, Anne, and her husband, Eric Macarthur, in Castle Douglas. Many of her writings reflected her deep desire to see an end to poverty and war.

She loved to entertain audiences with funny recitations, some of which she adapted to suit the situation, acting all the parts with different voices and accents.

She continued to do this after her move to Castle Douglas, entertaining the other senior citizens at the day care group she attended twice a week.

Throughout her life, Harrison welcomed lonely people into the family, providing hospitality by sharing meals and even holidays, always putting the needs of others before her own.

She had a particular compassion for people with mental health problems as she herself had gone through a period of severe depression and knew how debilitating and isolating that could be. She spent many years visiting regularly patients in Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow.

Apart from a few months being wardens of the youth hostel at Kinlochard in the Trossachs, where during a drought they did the washing in Loch Ard, Margaret and Bobby spent the rest of their lives in Dumbarton, where he had a cycle shop and bicycle repair business.

She embraced her new life in south-west Scotland and enjoyed being part of the family but never forgot her dear friends in Dumbarton and surrounding area.

Although only spending two years there, she touched the lives of the many people in Castle Douglas who got to know and love her.

In his own autobiography, Bobby said of Margaret that she was “the kind of person who could never deceive anyone even if she tried, and I have never met a kinder, more trusting or unsophisticated person before or since”.

This sums up the feelings of her many friends and family who will miss her greatly.

John Ainslie, who is co-ordinator for the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: “Margaret Harrison was an inspiration for many people of all ages in the peace movement.

“Along with her husband Bobby, she played a key role in establishing the peace camp at Faslane.

“Her friendly attitude and resilience encouraged others to join her in the struggle against nuclear weapons. She will be sorely missed by those who strive for nuclear disarmament.”

There will be a memorial and thanksgiving service for Margaret Harrison in St Mungo’s Scottish Episcopal Church, Alexandria, at 1pm on Saturday, 16 May, followed by a gathering for reminiscences and refreshments in the church hall.