Spinster's £2m present for the past stuns museum
SHE was a regular face at Scotland's national museum, strolling its learned halls and enthusiastically attending its popular lectures despite her advancing years.
Adele Stewart would bring gifts – ranging from a 19th-century glove stretcher to a 1960s plastic shopping basket probably found in skips – to add to its collection. The septuagenarian even forked out 500 to be an official patron.
But officials at the National Museums of Scotland have now been stunned by the extent of her generosity. Adele, who died aged 79 in 2006, has left the Edinburgh institution 2m, the bulk of her estate, in her will.
The bequest is the largest in the 147-year history of the museum, which is currently undergoing a multi-million-pound modernisation programme. A new gallery will be named in her honour when work is completed in 2011.
The money is believed to have been left to her by her father, who inherited it from a maternal aunt who had instilled a love of the past and museums into her nephew. He, in turn, passed on that love to his daughter, who never married, expressing the wish before he died that on her death the family legacy should be left to the museum.
Dr Gordon Rintoul, the director of the National Museums Scotland, said: "Adele Stewart was a great supporter of our work and aspirations, and we are honoured and touched that she has remembered us in this way.
"She was a proud Scot who had travelled the world, took a deep interest in cultural and community activities and was deeply connected to Edinburgh and its institutions. Not only that, she was also determined that others should experience the educational benefit and enjoyment that she herself gained from the museum."
Friends said the gesture summed up the life of the "kind-hearted old lady" who lived modestly in her terraced home, which was full of objects she had collected from the streets of Edinburgh.
Canon Tim Morris, the minister at the Episcopalian Church of the Good Shepherd in Murrayfield, said: "The bequest to the museum is typical of her generosity and her lifelong love of learning and history that she wanted to share with others.
"She was someone with eccentricities rather than being a full-blown eccentric. She was one of those lovely ladies who people always liked talking with because you never came away without learning something interesting about life or literature.
"One of her favourite sayings was she wanted to help bring the past into the present so that other people could enjoy it as much as she did."
Adele was born in 1923 to Scottish parents who were forging a new life in the Far East. Her father, William Gordon Stewart, a Heriot-Watt University graduate in 1919, was a Scottish chartered engineer who joined the Public Works department in Malaya, then a British colony, and later moved on to Singapore. Her mother is believed to have died early in Adele's life.
With his daughter at school in England, William Stewart was captured by Japanese forces during the Second World War and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. Reunited after hostilities ceased, they lived in Australia before returning to Scotland in the 1960s.
Her father took part-time lecturing posts at universities until his retirement, and after his death in the 1980s, Adele, who never married, continued to live at their home in Coltbridge Terrace.
Over the years she became a regular visitor to the museum, the National Library of Scotland and National Trust properties. She was also an active member of her church and the Scottish Costume Society, because of her love of textiles.
Canon Morris first came to know her after he took over the Murrayfield church in 2002. She had been a member of the congregation for 40 years. She was then well into her seventies.
"She was incredibly active, rarely in her house because she would be going off to philosophical and literary meetings. All her life she was accumulating knowledge and wisdom," he said.
"She had jobs when she was younger but the impression was that she took them to keep her busy rather then needing to work.
"But she never gave the impression that she had a particularly wealthy background. She always dressed in clothes that were reminiscent of the 1940s, with large hats. She was always neatly turned out but by no means fashionable. It didn't bother her. She was a picture of old-fashioned gentility."
Despite her friendliness towards everyone she met, Morris said she kept her personal life "very close to her chest".
"She always kept quiet about her background. She was quite a private person who never let people get that close to her, although she had a wide range of interests. She never married – although there was talk about a young man who died in the war. I believe there are distant cousins living in the area, but she never gave the impression that they were close."
One of her traits was to forage in skips on her way home. "She would collect things from skips and was a hoarder but she collected things mainly to pass on to other people who she thought would get use out of it."
Adele was also concerned about litter on the streets near her home. "She would go along picking up litter, like sweet papers, and stick them in a plastic bag," Morris added.
Sandy Richardson, head of development at the museum, said Adele's memory would be honoured by naming the new World Cultures Gallery after her. "We are considering how best to use the bequest in a way that Adele would have appreciated.
"We do get legacies on a regular basis but usually in the range of around 5,000 to 50,000. A bequest on this scale is highly unusual."
Richardson met Adele on several occasions and was once invited to her home for tea. "She mentioned she might leave us something in her will, but none of us expected anything of this incredible scale."
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