Obituary: James Chirrey, soldier & politician

BORN: 2 September, 1936, in Glasgow. Died: 10 January, 2015, in Helensburgh, aged 78.
West Dunbartonshire man who had a lifelong passion for Scottish Nationalism. Picture: ContributedWest Dunbartonshire man who had a lifelong passion for Scottish Nationalism. Picture: Contributed
West Dunbartonshire man who had a lifelong passion for Scottish Nationalism. Picture: Contributed

James Chirrey, who has died aged 78, was a student, a soldier, a politician, a teacher and historian who was a Scottish Nationalist when it was not as popular to be a member of that party as it is now.

Chirrey always believed in social justice, and this sowed the seeds of his political activism. He was an advocate for Scottish independence as far back as the 1960s, and joined the SNP a few years later.

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At his funeral, his daughter, Lydia Kielbasiewicz, said: “He joined 22 different organisations during his life, and the choices he made reflected his beliefs and values, his interests and passions, which he held over the course of his life.”

His family remember him from many Sunday nights around the dinner table discussing politics, current affairs, Margaret Thatcher and military strategy in an independent ­Scotland.

He later served as an SNP councillor in the 1990s, as the member for Riverside in Bonhill, culminating in his appointment as a JP for West Dunbartonshire.

Jim Chirrey, who was a kenspeckle figure in Vale of Leven, was held in high regard for his calm and measured manner and his desire to reach consensus across the political spectrum.

He would have been so proud to see the SNP, a minority party for much of his political life, mature into the major force in Scottish politics that it has become today.

He was born in Glasgow in 1936, only child of James and Nan Chirrey, and although it was the height of the Depression, and times were hard, he could take comfort in being part of a loving, extended family. They moved to Alexandria in 1938, when his father gained permanent work as an engineer at the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory.

Jim started at Main Street School, where another member of his class was Elizabeth McIntosh. They began courting at the age of 17 and were married in 1957, on Elizabeth’s 21st birthday. They remained together for 57 years and had two daughters, Lydia and Deborah.

Chirrey had a great capacity for making and keeping friends and one of them, whom he met at Vale of Leven Academy, was the well-known local historian and film-maker, the late Colin Liddell.

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Chirrey always had a passion for Scotland. He loved his country and it was his great ambition to join the army.

Called up for National Service in 1957, he signed on as a regular soldier in the Seaforth Highlanders and was posted to Fort George, near Inverness.

Within three years he became a sergeant, and then the Orderly Room Sergeant of the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own Highlanders.

He was then posted to Germany and Singapore, where he saw active service in the Communist Uprising in Brunei 1962.

Having served for seven years, he maintained a lifelong love of military history and strategy, and amassed an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the campaigns of the British Army during the 20th century.

During his youth, Chirrey loved roaming the hills and glens around the Vale of Leven and he often camped out on Loch Lomondside.

After the army, he worked for British European Airways as a reservations clerk and continued his career in travel and tourism until the mid-1980s.

He was a life-long learner who graduated MA with Joint Honours in Scottish History and English from Glasgow University in 1987.

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All the while, he worked hard in politics and served on West Dunbartonshire Council as SNP councillor for Riverside Ward, Bonhill 1995. He was also a Justice of the Peace.

He joined the Glasgow University History Society and the Lennox Heritage Society and researched and published three books, including one on the Torpedo Factory.

Meanwhile his wife, Elizabeth, became head teacher at Bonhill Primary School from 1977 to 1996. Chirrey wrote for local newspapers and, when he retired, he took up a post as a tour guide at the Denny Tank in Dumbarton, explaining and describing the pioneering work at this Clyde shipbuilding yard. Even then he still had time to be an active member of the Church of Scotland, teaching in the Sunday School and Bible class.

He sang in the Clydebank Male Voice Choir and was a member of several drama groups. He also taught literacy and numeracy skills to adult learners.

Sadly, he contracted Parkinson’s disease in his early 1970s and eventually entered Argyle Lodge Care Home in Helensburgh, where he spent the last two years of his life.

The esteem in which Jim Chirrey was held was reflected in the large turnout of mourners at his funeral in Alexandria Parish Church and final committal at Cardross Crematorium.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, their daughters, Lydia and Deborah and their husbands, Nick and Ed and his beloved grandson, Douglas.