Obituary: Sandra Malley, psychologist ahead of her time in treating children

Sandra Jean Malley, psychologist. Born 10 May, 1947, in Fraserburgh. Died 30 December 2018, aged 71.

Sandra Malley, who has died aged 71

Sandra Malley was a genuine ‘lass o’pairts’ – a recipient of two separate First Class Honours degrees from Aberdeen University, one in psychology and another in Gaelic studies. As NHS Grampian’s Head of Child and Family Mental Health at Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital, she played a key role in pioneering the use of family therapy in patient care. On retirement, her undergraduate work on the poetry of ­Sorley MacLean won the Catherine McCaig prize for the best Gaelic dissertation in Scotland.

Sandra was born in Fraserburgh. Her father was a joiner and her mother a dinner lady, and while totally self-effacing in all aspects of her professional and personal life, she was intensely proud of her family roots in the ‘Broch’, speaking highly of her education at Fraserburgh Academy.

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She left the school in 1965 with six Highers and a brief notion of studying in Edinburgh. But she was dissuaded by her mother, who insisted that her gifted daughter must choose their ‘local’ seat of learning near to home – Aberdeen University, for which she duly won a bursary.

Parental wisdom can often work in unexpected ways, though, as Sandra subsequently met her husband Alex at an Aberdeen Students’ Charities Campaign event held in Fraserburgh, though she did point out to him that he was required to seek marriage permission from her father.

She studied French and German at Aberdeen alongside what became her dedicated subject, psychology, for which she received First Class Honours in July 1969. The following month she and Alex married in Fraserburgh, moving shortly afterwards to England where she worked as a psychologist at Warley Hospital in Brentwood.

When Sandra’s father took ill in 1972, the couple decided to return north. She was appointed as a psychologist at the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital, while Alex became head of Daviot Primary School. They lived in the schoolhouse there before moving to Inverurie in 1975, where daughter ­Laura was born. Returning to work three years later, Sandra was subsequently appointed ­senior psychologist in the fledgling Clinical Psychology department. Operating with a small team, she quickly realised that many of the difficulties the parents of the child patients were ­experiencing stemmed from traumas and experiences which had occurred when they were ­children.

In this respect her focus was ahead of its time, government reports only much later beginning to emphasise the importance of early intervention. In similar manner, she was also one of the first psychologists to work at the Raeden Centre, a multi-disciplinary assessment centre for pre-school children with complex needs.

Sandra’s staff recall an excellent head who created a positive and supportive atmosphere in a department with many daily challenges, working tirelessly in her efforts to stretch the resources to keep abreast of the demand. They enjoyed her wise advice, but also the occasional irreverent comment about the incompetent and arrogant.

It was far from being all work, though, with a Christmas highlight being the party she hosted for staff and their partners.

She also continued to take on a full caseload, which inevitably meant long working hours. But she viewed face-to-face contact with patients as the reason why she was in the profession, leading from the front with a gentle but insightful response to troubled and anxious patients and their ­parents.

She always believed that the families themselves were experts in knowing their own children. A Doric speaker, many of those families would have been instantly put at ease by her compassionate manner and approach. Yet there was also a steely side to her character. Appalled by a decision to restructure the service provided at the city’s Raeden Centre, she worked tirelessly on feasibility committees in an attempt to keep the building open for as long as possible.

This aspect of her character also showed up in retirement. Her daughter Laura recalls that once when waiting at traffic lights she was suddenly flanked by an aggressive, revving sports car. She flashed through the gears in an instant leaving a bemused executive trailing behind. ‘Never underestimate a granny–shaped car with a TDI engine,’ she calmly observed.

In her leisure time, Sandra listened to classical music and for a number of years was in the Aberdeen Bach Choir, singing at St Machar’s Cathedral. She was an avid reader, always keen to extend her knowledge of political and social issues.

She also enjoyed learning new languages, first of all Spanish and then Russian. Gaelic followed and became another real passion. She sang with the Gordon Gaelic Choir and later the Còisir Ghàidhlig Obar Dheathain (Aberdeen Gaelic Choir) which won all the choral competitions at the Vancouver Mòd in 2007. The members performed a moving tribute to Sandra at her funeral service in Inverurie.

In 2013, she completed her part-time MA Gaelic Studies with First Class Honours, the external examiner of her dissertation on the poetry of Sorley MacLean describing it as the best he had ever read.

Sandra then began work on a PhD on the poetry of George Campbell Hay. Her own passion for her native Scots and newly acquired Gaelic attracted her to Hay’s work, her professional life as a psychologist bringing out new ways of seeing and understanding his poetry. She subsequently received a highly competitive UK AHRC (Arts & Humanities Research Council) scholarship award, her UK Celtic PhD peers judging her to have given the best presentation.

Sandra’s mantra was always to try to make the world a better place, and her many different friends echo sentiments that her passing has left a huge gap in their lives.

Above all, she was a loving wife to Alex, a loving mother of Laura and her husband ­Barry, and a dear sister of Moira, whom she would visit in the former Swaziland.

She doted on her granddaughters, Isla and Abby, always encouraging them both in their academic and musical achievements.

Her advice, as Laura recalls, was never prescriptive, rather always given in gentle, allegorical form. She also showed great courage through a demanding and unexpectedly rapid illness that ended her life so much earlier than should ever have been the case.