Obituary: Evelyn Gillan, social campaigner

Evelyn Gillan: Co-founder of the Zero Tolerance campaign and chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland
Evelyn Gillan: Co-founder of the Zero Tolerance campaign and chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland
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Born: 4 August, 1959, in Tranent, East Lothian. Died: 14 July, 2015, in Edinburgh aged 55

Evelyn Gillan – co-founder of the award-winning Zero Tolerance campaign and the main proponent of minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland – was born in 1959 to Joe and Bridget Gillan; a wee sister to Valerie and a big sister to Jacky. The Gillan girls were brought up in a traditional working-class community in the mining town of Tranent, East Lothian – a charmed childhood in a strong, extended family within a tight-knit community where everyone looked out for each other. It shaped her.

Evelyn was Dux of her primary school and looked set for university. But the 17-year-old, fashion conscious, soul music-loving lass had other ideas. She trained as a hairdresser, worked in Edinburgh’s Charlie Miller hair salon and spent a couple of years roaming Europe, cutting hair on a beach in Greece, picking grapes in France and working in a Dutch bandage factory.

She came back to Edinburgh at the age of 21 and studied social work at Moray House, where she met Tom Proudfoot, who became her life partner.

Evelyn had her first encounter with politics when she was elected president of the Students Representative Council at Moray House. After that she moved to London to work for gap year specialists International Youth Year. Amongst other things she persuaded Paul Weller and Julie Walters to become co-presidents and appear in a promo film with the Specials’ Jerry Dammers, members of Madness and a young Robbie Coltrane narrating.

But the bright lights and big personalities didn’t cut it. Evelyn became a campaigns Officer in the newly created Women’s Committee of Edinburgh Council – and a minor blizzard of campaigns followed. Edinburgh for Free, a guide to free activities for under-fives; Safer Streets – improving women’s safety with Edinburgh taxi companies; Change the Change, which produced the city’s first ever menopause clinic, and annual celebrations for International Women’s Day.

But the cause that meant most to Evelyn was the Zero Tolerance campaign, co-created with the late Franki Raffles and Susan Hart. Massive, public 48-sheet billboards paired beautiful images with shocking statistics about physical and sexual violence against women and children -– cross all social classes. Soon councils all over Britain wanted to run Zero Tolerance campaigns along with groups in New York and Australia. This successful move into public campaigning prompted Evelyn to take up a new post with the Health Education Board for Scotland. But the runaway success of Zero Tolerance led her to establish the Zero Tolerance Charitable Trust with Elaine Samson – which thrives to this day.

Eight years – and a Masters in social policy – later, Evelyn became head of public affairs for the Royal College of Nursing Scotland. As part of her Value Nurses campaign, she and her team of Ryan, Harriet and Geoff got 50 MSPs to shadow nurses in their own constituencies.

In 2002, Evelyn took six months off to bake cakes, oversee her youngest son’s transition to primary school and complete a PhD at Edinburgh University – despite also becoming the first director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP). Evelyn worked closely with leading doctors to connect their medical knowledge with her research, advocacy and policy influencing skills. The result was an effective organisation that helped persuade the new SNP government to tackle Scotland’s difficult and sometimes deadly relationship with booze.

Evelyn moved from SHAAP to become chief executive at Alcohol Focus Scotland, where she successfully persuaded the Scottish Government to adopt Minimum Unit Pricing as a way to reduce alcohol harm in Scotland. Evelyn believed the work at SHAAP and AFS was amongst the most important undertaken in her working life.

Evelyn took ill last year. When she arrived home from her first spell in hospital there was a letter from David Cameron asking her to accept an MBE. Though she appreciated the nomination by doctors she’d worked with for years, Evelyn declined, saying she was more at home with nominees who had turned down such honours than those who had accepted them.

But, when the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh nominated her for an Honorary Fellowship she had no hesitation in accepting.

Zero Tolerance Board member Lesley Orr said: “Evelyn is in the great tradition of thrawn Scots who shake up complacency, disrupt the way things are, and won’t let go until they’ve been transformed. She spoke truth to power with integrity and humour. In a recent interview she was asked about the last thing that scared her. Evelyn’s response was: “I prefer hope over fear.”

Another colleague once commented that all Evelyn’s work amounted to one thing – sowing the seeds of change. Evelyn was happy with that interpretation and wanted everyone to consider that true aspiration means trying to leave the world a better place. She has.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “For me, the single word that best describes Evelyn is ‘passion’. She brought passion and enthusiasm to every cause she cared about – and, even more importantly, she possessed that all too rare ability to inspire other people to feel passionately about these causes too.

“Her work on violence against women – and women’s rights in general – was outstanding and will long be remembered. For me, though, it was her work at Alcohol Focus Scotland that stands out. It was during these years – when she was at AFS and I was health secretary – that our paths crossed most often. This was when I had the privilege to get to know her better and see at first hand that impressive ability to make a difficult case and inspire and encourage others to believe in it.

“The road towards the Scottish Parliament eventually passing the alcohol minimum pricing legislation was a long, windy and often arduous one. At the outset, it was a policy that enjoyed only minority support in both parliament and the wider public.

“It also had – and still has –some very powerful opponents. Throughout that journey, Evelyn was a source of advice and encouragement to me personally. She was a powerful advocate for the policy and, at the media events we did together to promote it, I was always struck (usually enviously) by her ability to articulate the arguments for it more simply, powerfully and persuasively than I was able to manage.

“On more than one occasion – when I was feeling a bit downhearted about our chances of ever getting the policy through – she helped to lift my spirits and reminded me that nothing worth doing is ever easy. It is in no small part down to Evelyn’s passion and perseverance that we eventually won majority support in parliament and, I believe, in the country too.

“We are not yet home and dry on minimum pricing – it still has considerable legal hurdles to overcome – but if we prevail, as I hope we do, on a policy that will save and improve lives, then it will be a fitting legacy to a great woman.”

She added: “Evelyn will be missed enormously by so many in Scotland. My thoughts are with all who loved her. No words can ease the pain – but please know that she made a difference. A big difference.”

Evelyn recently wrote: “I can honestly say that dying has taught me more about living than anything else I have experienced in the 55 years that I have been on this earth. Most importantly, dying has reinforced for me what I already knew deep down, that love in all its beautiful, myriad forms, is the sine qua non of life, and therefore, of death.

“The giving and receiving of love is what matters most in life. It is the hardest thing to leave your loved ones, especially your children, but I take my leave of you with hope that we are rediscovering those things that matter most.”

Evelyn is survived by her partner Tom Proudfoot and their sons Max and Jack.