Obituary: Annie ‘Nan’ Burnett; teacher, councillor and described as ‘the social conscience’ of Scottish National Heritage

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Born: 24 June, 1935. Died: 22 February, 2012, in Melrose, aged 76.

AT HER first meeting of the main board of Scottish Natural Heritage, Magnus Magnusson somewhat unwisely asked the new member for “the woman’s point of view” on a particular question. The robust and instant reply he got was that while she could not imagine what “the woman’s point of view” would be, she was certainly very ready to give Nan Burnett’s point of view. That little cameo probably captures the essence of Nan’s approach to much of life.

She was the eldest of four daughters to Ella and Robert Cumming (RJ to those who knew him in the North-east of Scotland). Nan was educated at Banff Academy till the age of 14, when she went to St Margaret’s School in Edinburgh. It was there that she first met her husband-to-be, John, one of six boys selected by her housemistress as suitable partners for the girls at the Saturday evening Scottish country dance class. It provided a constant source of amusement that they should have met at an all-girls school.

Although Nan had wanted to follow her father and grandfather into the legal profession, they were adamant that it was not a suitable profession for a young lady and she enrolled instead at the famous Atholl Crescent College in Edinburgh (“The Dough School”) and became a domestic science teacher.

She and John, now a Merchant Navy officer in the Ben Line, married in Crieff in 1957 – the town being a midway point for the two families with petrol rationing being in force due to the Suez Crisis. Indeed, the wedding was postponed twice because John was on the wrong side of the Suez Canal, eventually having to sail home round the Cape.

Nan taught for only two years at Currie High School before Christopher was born. Two years later John “swallowed the anchor” and spent a year at the Edinburgh School of Agriculture, before swapping their two-bedroom bungalow at Fairmilehead, Edinburgh, for a 240-acre arable farm near Banff in Aberdeenshire

Although there was a good farmhouse and two cottages, they had neither electricity nor running water. It was in that period that Nan’s person to person skills were honed, helping to launch and lead the first play group in Banff, being actively involved in the local church Sunday School and the Woman’s Guild, and in 1969 being elected president of the Strathbogie and Fordyce Presbyterial Council.

In September 1969, the family moved to the 1,000 acre hill farm, Cardon, near Broughton in the western Scottish Borders.

Soon after that she was one of the first people to be selected to train for service in the newly created Children’s Panel, something she quickly identified with becoming first an active panel member and later chair of the local Borders advisory committee.

Elected to Scottish Borders Council at a by-election, she soon found herself chairing the social work committee. She and her director, Sandy Cameron, are credited with transforming that committee to respond more effectively to the growing social needs of the Borders.

In recognition of this, she was awarded the OBE in 1993, the citation reading “For services to local government and chairmanship of the Borders social work committee”.

During her period as a councillor, she was also involved with the Rotary Club of Peebles and the Inner Wheel, in the establishing of an Abbeyfield House for the care of the elderly, chairing its house committee in its early years.

In some measure, following in the footsteps of their children Chris and Fiona, who found careers in medicine and animal sciences respectively, in 1980 Nan enrolled in the Open University, later gaining a BA in environmental sciences.

The degree was put to good use when she was asked to join the main board of Scottish Natural Heritage. This was often hard and demanding work which stretched both her mind and skills, but was at the same time rewarding.

At her retiral, Magnus described Nan as being the “social conscience of SNH”. It was during her time with SNH that the Scottish Secretary of State appointed her to the small committee for sustainable development, Nan saying what a joy it was to be among kindred spirits.

Her next appointment was to the board of the State Hospital at Carstairs, where again her person to person skills were utilised as she chaired the dispute and complaints committee.

Aged 65, when she might have been expected to be thinking about retirement she jumped at the request to join the board of Hanover Housing Scotland. The next 11 years were hugely rewarding when all her skills were used to their full potential.

For several years she chaired the housing and care committee. Every full committee meeting was preceded by a prior-meeting with her director so no member who came un-prepared, not having read the agenda papers, did it twice! She said farewell to her friends at Hanover two weeks before the first symptoms of cancer were detected.

The Kirk and her faith were the bedrock of her life. The first female to be ordained an elder in Broughton, Glenholm and Kilbucho Parish Church, at the time of her death she was that congregation’s presbytery elder.

In 1982 when her minister, the Rev Ian Rennie, formed and trained a small group to lead Sunday worship in the scattered linked charge forming the parishes of Upper Tweeddale, she became a member of the Worship Workshop. She remained an active member of this, taking her last service in her home church, Broughton, in late October 2011.

Nan died peacefully in Borders General Hospital on 22 February, 2012, and leaves her husband John, son Chris and daughter Fiona.