Obituary: Rev Alistair Kelly minister, Children’s Panel reporter and artist

Rev Alistair Kelly
Rev Alistair Kelly
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Born: 10 March, 1933, on Clydebank. Died: 4 November, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 80.

Alistair Kelly was a multi-talented churchman whose natural affinity with young people saw him become Scotland’s longest-serving reporter to the children’s panel.

One of the original reporters, he was inspired by the vision laid out in the Kilbrandon Report of the 1960s which sought a better way of dealing with troubled children and reducing delinquency.

He had already qualified in law and divinity and spent a decade as a minister and now saw this new era as an opportunity to combine his pastoral experience and put his legal studies to practical use in a way that would help to give generations of youngsters the chance to transform their lives.

He left the church in 1970, the year the children’s hearing system was established, and over the next quarter of a century became acknowledged as an expert in the field, writing a book on the hearings system that ­advocated further reform and demanded proper respect of children’s rights in Scotland, within a European context.

Several years after retiring he returned to the ministry to serve a deaf congregation that stretched along the east coast from Tayside to the Borders.

His own roots were in Clydebank where he was born the son of the local town clerk Henry Kelly and his wife Agnes, a secondary school teacher. During the Second World War he and his sisters, Aileen and his twin Margery, were evacuated along with their mother, to rural Perthshire – a wise precaution as it turned out. While safely in the village of Gartmore their family home took a direct hit during the Clydebank Blitz of March 1941.

Finishing his education at Glasgow Academy, he then completed his national service with the RAF before studying law and divinity at the University of Glasgow from 1953 to 1959. As a student, his holidays were spent earning his keep as a waiter at the Marine Hotel, in North Berwick.

He began his work in the ministry with a year or so as assistant at Dundee Parish Church (St Mary’s) where he soon met and married his wife Joyce, a contralto in the church choir. There then followed a five-year spell as minister of Drumry St Mary’s in Drumchapel where he served until 1966.

It was while during this period that the Scottish Secretary set up a committee, chaired by the judge, Lord Kilbrandon, to look at the treatment of juvenile delinquents and youngsters either beyond parental control or in need of care or protection. It proposed a lay panel to decide how to best handle such young people, with the primary emphasis on the needs of the child, the role of the family and a preventive and educational approach to the problem.

This enlightened attitude to dealing with juvenile justice and safeguarding youngsters in trouble appealed to Kelly who had a general love of children and an instinct to protect the vulnerable ones. The influential report was published in 1964 but it took several years before the children’s hearing system was established.

By that time he had two youngsters of his own and was ready to embark on a new career path. He concluded four years’ service as minister of Edinburgh’s South Morningside Parish Church in 1970 and joined the children’s panel of Renfrew County Council where he spent a further four years. Appointed regional reporter to the children’s panel for Fife Regional Council in 1974, he remained in the post for the next 22 years until his retirement in 1996.

He was passionate about his role in child protection and stood up for what he believed to be the best interests of children, even if it challenged prevailing political views. He was proud of Scotland’s unique children’s panel system, writing a book on the subject, Introduction to The Scottish Children’s Panel, and promoting its merits beyond his own country. On his retiral he was the longest serving children’s reporter in the country.

He was led back to the ministry four years later as a result of a skill he acquired while working in Fife: the Church of Scotland had learned that had become proficient in sign language and approached him when they needed a minister, on a temporary basis, to provide pastoral care to a deaf congregation.

Agreeing to return as a locum in 2000, he then spent the next 13 years as minister for Edinburgh’s Albany Deaf Church, with a congregation spread across the east of Scotland.

His interest in helping ­children also continued in retirement when he chaired the country’s oldest children’s charity, Dundee’s Caroline House Trust, which provides continuing support to children who have left care.

In his leisure time he was also a prolific artist, a talent that stemmed from childhood when he would often sit with a sketchpad on his knee. A self-taught watercolourist, he took it up professionally in 1996 and developed a unique style of vibrant land and cityscapes, packed with people, colour and activity.

He had sold more than 800 pictures and concentrated mainly on Scottish scenes including many of Edinburgh and Fife fishing villages plus the Forth Rail Bridge as well as scenes of Austria, Italy, Russia, Switzerland, Canada and the USA. His work has been exhibited in the Scottish capital, Pitlochry, ­Glasgow and Shetland.

At 80, he had a website, blog, facebook and twitter accounts promoting his work and last year promised lots of new pictures in 2012 “simply because I enjoy painting”.

The other great joy of his life was his family. He adored, and had a special bond with, each of his grandchildren. But two years ago the family suffered an unbearable loss when his 22-year-old granddaughter Jane was tragically killed by her boyfriend. Jane and her grandfather had shared a talent for and love of art, regularly facebooking each other to exchange tips and comment on each other’s work, and her death left him utterly griefstricken.

He later produced his own artistic tribute to Jane, encompassing her short life and featuring locations significant to her including Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art where she studied, Uppsala where she last holidayed and the spires of 
St Petersburg and Moscow that she dreamed of visiting.

When his son Graeme and grandson Craig made a trip to Moscow in memory of Jane this summer, he was unable to join them on their travels but saw them off, accompanying them on foot across the Tay Bridge and following their journey through their daily blogs, leaving constant words of support and encouragement.

Predeceased by Jane, he is ­survived by his wife Joyce, children Graeme and Alison and four grandchildren.