Obituary: The Hon Marista Leishman, writer and educationalist

(Picture: Alan Ledgerwood)
(Picture: Alan Ledgerwood)
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The Hon Marista Muriel Leishman, writer and educationalist. Born: 10 April 1932. Died: 3 November 2019, aged 87.

If the reader will forgive me being indulgently personal in my initial illustration of her character, I first met the effervescent writer and leading educationalist for the National Trust for Scotland, Marista Leishman, when I was six, about the size of a cricket bat, and she was the delightful 26-year-old elegant lady living in the Glasgow flat downstairs to ours.

Many a time of a winter evening we would hear the beautiful sound of her singing operatic arias as she played her grand piano to an almost professional level, the noise wafting like a musical smoke through the floorboards, and I would rush down to be spoilt with hugs and magic, the whole lubricated with waterfalls of laughter. I remember how she swayed as she sang. She was truly extraordinary.

But Marista was no soft-headed society romantic, she was very able. Around that time she was working at a hugely demanding project to write intricate personal letters to every single minister in the Church of Scotland, asking them to become involved in building new churches. If she got a good response she would often rush off to give explanatory lectures – and enchant.

The project was akin to a hugely complex and ruthless military campaign, and she was instrumental in winning the war. Today there are many soulless modern housing estates that wouldn’t have had their essential community churches without her creativity and punctilious application.

It was the start of a high energy career that brought much good and joy for over half a century as she took on, and mastered, even bigger challenges.

Marista had been born with all the advantages – and disadvantages – of being the daughter of that formidable and austere international giant of a man Lord Reith, the Director General of the BBC, a very tall, bad-tempered character who might glibly be described as a cross between Donald Trump and John Knox and whom Churchill once described as “Old Wuthering Heights”.

Educated initially at the exclusive St George’s in Astor, where she did well but was homesick, she went on to St Andrews University. There, this bright student studied English and Philosophy and feel very deeply in love with a fellow student, Murray Leishman.

Murray was destined to be both a minister of the church and its most celebrated analytical psychotherapist. This was far from Reith’s ideal choice for his beloved daughter, particularly as he wasn’t a Duke and didn’t have a grouse moor.

Indeed, it was said at the time that only a fourth member of the Holy Trinity would have been good enough and he expressed his fury by announcing that he wasn’t sure he would even bother turning up at the wedding. He did, though, and went on to mellow enough to gift his daughter a holiday cottage.

The happy couple went on to have four equally happy children, Mark, Iona Martha and Kirstie. Once they had grown Marista was able to channel her prodigious talents into other areas, enabling her to have a very full life.

The chief recipient of these talents was the National Trust for Scotland where, as a major administrator she was pivotal in conceptualising, delivering and managing a number of their exemplary projects, in particular their flagship Georgian House in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.

She was everywhere, writing booklets, establishing and managing the educational department between 1979 and 86, big youth projects, house restorations; chasing, charming and delivering on spec and to time, not only with the Trust but also with other organisations.

She also wrote both books and countless articles in both magazines and newspapers. Her book My father – Reith of the BBC was her most revered work, being both cathartic for her and a properly researched insight into this remarkable and influential man. She also wrote well of her shipbuilding forebear George Reith and a memoire of Sir James Stormonth Darling

It is said that moments after marrying Murray in St John’s church in Perth they both went outside and roared their noisy delight at the delicious fun of simply being alive.

When some 60 years later her friends and family gathered at the same church for her funeral there was also a sense of a good life well lived under waterfalls of laughter. I couldn’t help notice that during the hymns one of her daughters, just like her mother had done all those years earlier in the flat below ours, swayed as she sang.

A stone to her cairn.

Maxwell MacLeod