Obituary: Reverend Norman Macrae, well-travelled minister’s adventurous life saw him learning from others across the globe

Born: 29 March, 1918, in Masan, Korea. Died: 24 February, 2012, in Elgin, aged 93

In 1932 – when Norman Macrae was 14 years old – he set out to travel on his own from Korea, where his father the Rev Frederick Macrae was a missionary, to school in Sedbergh, England.

The plan was to travel by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Unfortunately, a variety of events, including war (Japan had invaded Manchuria), a refugee crisis, a cholera epidemic and flooding meant he became trapped in Harbin in Manchuria for several weeks. He spent the time living with an unknown American missionary family who had met him at the station expecting only to help him get a Polish visa and put him back on the train.

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It ended up taking him five months to get to Britain, travelling alone on a German coastal steamer via Singapore, Djibouti and Lisbon among other far-flung locations. He arrived at his new boarding school four months after term had started. As his family have observed, that was late, even by his standards.

That adventure – he always seemed a little surprised when people saw it as adventurous – set the pattern for a life of travel, mission, endless curiosity, interest in people and willingness to learn from what he experienced.

Despite having only been to Scotland once, at the age of eight, Norman was in no doubt about his nationality as a Scot. It must therefore have felt appropriate when he was confirmed at Sedbergh, somewhat unexpectedly, by George MacLeod, then minister of Govan Parish Church.

MacLeod, who was closely associated with the events of Red Clydeside, later founded the Iona Community – an important and radicalising influence on religious and political life in Scotland, well beyond the Church of Scotland.

Norman was to become a great admirer of MacLeod and wrote later that he had learned a lot from him. That willingness to learn from others was one of his most abiding characteristics.

In 1936, Norman began studying arts and divinity at Edinburgh University. It was at this time that Edinburgh became “home”. It was a city he loved deeply and was enormously proud of, though it would be many decades before he was eventually to settle there. It was also where he became involved in the socially engaged and ecumenically minded Student Christian Movement.

After being ordained as a minister in the Church of Scotland, he was briefly an assistant at St Cuthbert’s, in Edinburgh, before being appointed as a missionary by the General Assembly.

He might have been expected to go to the Far East – where he had grown up – but the war made that impossible. Instead, at the age of 25, he found himself in Calabar, Nigeria – where very quickly he had to assume the post of principal of Hope Waddell College. This was a training institution run by the Church of Scotland Mission which was founded in 1846 by a group of Jamaican and Scottish missionaries, but whose most famous figurehead was Mary Slessor, still revered in the region and now celebrated on the Clydesdale Bank’s £10 note.

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In 1945, during his first furlough home, he met Clare Scott, daughter of Rita and Jim Scott, in Norwich. They were able to meet again only briefly on a few occasions until Norman came back home again on furlough at the end of 1949. They became engaged and, with remarkable impetuosity for the time, were married four weeks later in Norwich Cathedral.

Clare, known as Bobby to her family, a sheltered but shiningly intelligent young woman, had taken on a remarkable challenge. Within a few weeks she found herself with an adventurous, but still unformed young man in what – for a relatively privileged young woman from Norwich – must have been a very tough and alien environment. But Clare and Norman were at the beginning of a deep and profound loving partnership in which they would sustain and inspire each other for the rest of their lives.

The loss of their first child at birth in Calabar – and the very tough demands of a missionary life in the 1950s in Nigeria – challenged and consolidated their relationship. After a further four years at Trinity College in Umuahia, they left Nigeria in 1960, the year of independence: “A time of optimism and confidence” as Norman wrote later.

Before long he was to find himself supporting the campaign against Britain’s involvement in supplying arms to the federal government and denying humanitarian aid to the people of what had become the secessionist state of Biafra. Norman and Clare also supported the work of Scottish Mission staff in Biafra, who were playing a vital role in organising clandestine flights of humanitarian aid into the region.

Back in Scotland, Norman became minister of Bonnygate Church in Cupar in Fife, where he served for eight years. In 1969, he became minister of Loanhead East Parish Church in Midlothian and he remained there until he retired in 1985. He gained the respect of all parts of the local community, including the miners, whose unsuccessful strike in defence of the mining industry had dominated life in the town in the last period of his ministry.

Norman’s retirement marked a whole new life for him and Clare. He was for 13 years a chaplain at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary – a job which he enjoyed enormously and through which he was able to provide help, advice and friendship to many people. Indeed many of them remained in contact with him for the rest of his life.

He also took enormous pride in – and gave much practical support to – Clare’s continuing work, in particular her involvement in the influential study group set up by the General Assembly to examine the implications of “the concept of the Motherhood of God”. His joy and pride over her achievement of a PhD at the age of 75 was enormous.

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In the years following his retirement he continued to travel, in particular making trips to Nigeria, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Hope Waddell Institute, and to Korea, as guest of Chang Shin College, to honour the work of his father and the Australian mission.

This interest in his own and his ancestors’ history led him, in response to his family’s urging, to write a book Mission Unfinished, which was published in 2010. The stories and reflections in the book confirmed a new role, which he had gently assumed and greatly enjoyed, as “elder” to his wider family, spread around the world. And like the best elders, he was as keen to learn from the young as to pass on his experience and wisdom. He has left behind a huge circle of friends and admirers.

Clare died in 2005 and Norman is survived by his children Callum, Hilary and Rory and by his seven grandchildren.