Born: 10 June, 1917, in Edinburgh. Died: 13 June, 2013, in Melrose, aged 96
The Reverend William Speirs was a Baptist minister who was blessed with a great devotion to his calling and a rare ability to get on with anyone in his congregation or socially.
He first served as an army chaplain during the war and then from 1947 in three charges – finally back in his beloved Scotland in Innerleithen, near Peebles. He was a lifelong supporter of the scout movement and at all his charges enthusiastically formed scout troops which he led with unremitting zeal.
He was an energetic leader at camp weekends and especially when he marched at the head of his troop on the St George’s Day parade in full uniform and kilt. His encouragement of generations of boys in the scout movement remained central to his life and they, in return, knew him affectionately as “the old man” or “skip”.
Ian Gray, the current minister at Peebles Baptist Church, got to know Speirs well. He told The Scotsman: “I am one of the newest (as distinct from the youngest) Baptist ministers in Scotland. Bill, by contrast, was both the oldest and the longest serving.
“Bill knew his mind and was a much respected figure throughout the Baptist Church in Scotland. At the recent Baptist Conference in St Andrews I was informed of his death from Peebles and I informed my colleagues at the conference. There was an audible sigh of regret and many spoke of their admiration for his life’s work.”
William Speirs – Bill to his many friends but always Willie to his wife – came from a distinguished Baptist family. His father served as an elder at the Bristo Baptist Church in Edinburgh for many years. Speirs won a scholarship to George Heriot’s School and then read Divinity at Edinburgh University, completing his PhD from home after the war. He was appointed chaplain to the 1st Worcestershire Regiment in 1942 and witnessed particularly fierce fighting at the battle for Hill 112, which was part of Operation Jupiter in 1944.
The various villages in north France were strategically important as the Allies advanced from the beaches and Speirs displayed much bravery as he tended the wounded, administered pastoral care and acted as a stretcher bearer. In 1945 he himself was wounded and after treatment in the UK, Speirs, showing typical resolve, returned to serve for two years in Italy, where he offered support to German prisoners of war. He worked closely with a German pastor and they set up a theological seminary for people who wanted to become pastors.
The sense of goodwill and reconciliation which their work engendered was manifold and its success was largely due to Speirs’ own commitment and dedication. The seminary still exists today.
In the post-war years Speirs kept in touch with many of the German pastors he had met and with whom he had become friends. They told him they would “never forget what you have done for us… a friend and brother in Christ”.
On being demobilised Speirs was based, from 1947 to 1952, at the Baptist church in Redcar. He then served the Baptist community in Derby for 20 years, first at Broadway and later at Watson Street, teaching religious instruction at local schools. He was also a keen member of the Territorial Army. He was chaplain to Kingsway Mental Hospital while in Derby and much involved with the Derby Scottish Association, serving as its president.
In 1982 he returned to Scotland for his third pastorate at the Free Kirk in Canonbie, Dumfriesshire, before retiring to Innerleithen in 1987.
It is Speirs’ enthusiasm for the scout movement that many will recall with special pleasure. His scouting figured as a major part of church life and the 135th Derby Scouts continues to flourish in its 60th year. He was a keen organiser of fundraising events and was able to preserve a sense of humour when there was a delay between items. He once pushed a cub through the curtains saying: “Get them singing a camp fire song.”
On retiring to Innerleithen he was involved in a wide variety of local activities – church, the British Legion, the Liberal Democrats and Probus. He was a regular contributor to The Scotsman’s “This Morning” column and he and his wife were generous of their time and hospitality.
He met Annie Gray Mitchell in 1942. The army had given him a weekend’s leave and they organised their wedding in two days. They shared a long and happy marriage, both serving the church and communities where he was called with equal joy and enthusiasm.
His wife died in 2003 and the Rev Speirs is survived by their two sons and two daughters.