Obituary: Jean Blades, occupational therapist and local historian

Born: 24 March, 1921, in Edinburgh. Died: 28 December, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 93

Jean Blades MBE: Amiably cantankerous model of community activism in East Lothian
Jean Blades MBE: Amiably cantankerous model of community activism in East Lothian
Jean Blades MBE: Amiably cantankerous model of community activism in East Lothian

Upon her retiral from an outstanding and fulfilling career in occupational therapy in 1985, Jean Blades developed vigorous, wide-ranging interests in local history and all manner of community groups, old and new, in Fala, Midlothian.

From the first, she was accompanied, supported and advised by husband, Daniel – the retired Church of Scotland minister there. Within two years, Jean led a mustard-keen group of local, like minds in the formation of the Fala, Soutra & district History and Heritage Society.

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She timed this shrewdly to make use of interest in the Soutra Hospital Research Project (Sharp) archaeo-medical investigations then beginning at Soutra. Programmes of talks, exhibitions and excursions were assembled, were well received, and continue to this day. She woke up a vast sleepy backwater within and beyond Midlothian.

Jean, enthusiastic and driven, well-connected and with a capacity to coax and cajole, was “a natural”; she tapped into all local skills and interests and often got her way through being – the phrase agreed on – “amiably cantankerous”.

A model of community activism, a religious though never pious woman, Jean was constantly genial, inquisitive and impish. She died at St Margaret’s Care Home, Edinburgh, on 28 December, 2014. Her commemorative church service took place at Mortonhall, led by Rev Graham Leitch, on 7 January.

Jean herself was a repository of local history, and amasser of archives (though not their best administrator) and she augmented this for more than 15 years on the local circuit of village-hall talks – centred on witchcraft and whichever topic needed attention.

With Daniel she researched and wrote Fala and Soutra: Past and Present (1987; 1988), modelled on James Hunter’s Fala and Soutra…(1892). Her archive and local history library are to be lodged with the Midlothian Local Studies Library.

Sharp intends to get Jean’s writings, annotated and indexed, online.

In Jean’s final years, three topics animated her without fail. First was the clipper ship, City of Adelaide (later The Carrick), that carried emigrants to Australia mainly from London. These included an entire branch of Jean’s family, the Millers from Markinch, which left her a journal of the voyage in 1871. The ship, now in Adelaide, was the subject of a long campaign over its fate – in which Jean participated.

Second was the continuing rehabilitation of the headquarters of 603 (City of Edinburgh) Fighter Squadron in its bunker at Barnton Quarry, Corstorphine Hill, Edinburgh.

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Jean’s much-loved brother, Robin Waterston, flew Spitfires with 603 Squadron. He was fatally shot down over Blackheath, Kent, in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Jean often spoke of Robin (nicknamed “Bubble” after the Pears Soap advertisement of the day) with a mix of sorrowful loss and pride.

Third, Jean was, above all, preoccupied with all aspects of the continuing investigation of the “once powerful” Soutra medieval hospital and her much-loved Soutra Aisle.

This tiny hilltop monument to the hospital and a family mausoleum looks out over all east-central Scotland. She organised the onerous rehabilitation of the Aisle (her “slater” or wood-louse of a building), and the erection of stone-dykes, information panels, car–park – making it the hill-top port-of-call for thousands of visitors.

In this demanding often bureaucratic work, Jean was indefatigable and, regarding the hospital investigations, she was a tenacious questioner.

This has been based on 30 years of friendship. Whenever I revisit Soutra Aisle I shall fondly recollect open-hearted Jean Blades.