Obituary: Violet Laidlaw, secretary, union worker and Edinburgh University Court’s first non-teaching member

Violet Laidlaw ( John McGonagle / Three Point Photography)
Violet Laidlaw ( John McGonagle / Three Point Photography)
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Violet Laidlaw, who died on 3 March, aged 95, was a ­truly remarkable woman. Nowadays, her keen intelligence, personal qualities and ­personality would have taken her to the top of any graduate profession she chose to enter or to high office in public life,be it political or social.

Violet was born and brought up in the Dumbiedykes area of Edinburgh. After a career in legal offices, Violet joined the University of Edinburgh in 1966 as the departmental secretary in the very youthful Department of Sociology, founded in 1964, and remained there until she retired in 1983.

Her role both in the department and as a union person cannot be overestimated. She ran a great ship and kept the show, the students, the staff, and above all the Professor, Tom Burns, on the road. Not for nothing was she called, largely affectionately, “The Dragon”.

Yet she was a good, discreet and compassionate listener and her advice and support helped many of her colleagues and students who were struggling or in difficulties. She saw herself, and her colleagues saw her, as a key member of the sociology team, and her commitment, enthusiasm and sense of humour played a major role in making the department a leader in the field, and a good place in which to work.

Violet was also very much a political animal. She knew how to make things happen, when to speak her mind –which she could do forcefully – when to persuade, and when to remain silent.

A lifelong socialist, she became an active member and secretary of the Secretary-Typists Association when she joined the University. She was a stout champion of the rights of clerical staff when Gordon Brown was student rector between 1972-75. Subsequently the secretarial staff were represented by Nalgo, the National Association of Local Government Officers and, almost inevitably, some ­people would say, Violet became secretary of the university branch from 1975 to 1978; served on the branch executive committee from 1978 to 1980 and also on Nalgo’s district universities committee for four years.

She understood the importance of making the secretarial staff more of a force inside the university and was a founding member of the Non-Teaching Staff Liaison Committee and the first representative of that group on the university’s ­Constitution and Structure Committee.

In 1978 her political skills, her grasp of university affairs and the role of the university in the wider community led to her election to the University Court, the most senior ­governing body in the university. No member of the non-teaching staff had previously served on the Court, on which she sat until 1981.

In November 1984 at the graduation ceremony following her retirement, the university conferred on her the honorary degree of Master of Arts. Such is the esteem in which she is still held that the prize for the best performance in Sociology Joint Honours carries Violet’s name. Violet remained very active almost to the end of her long life. She was 90 when she decided to withdraw from the advisory group of Edinburgh’s A City for All Ages. Its aims are to “enable involvement of older people in development of Edinburgh plans and strategies, share information, and to encourage older people to take responsibilities in planning their own future”.

Those aims, if one removes the adjective “older”, in many ways encapsulate Violet’s activities throughout her life. If she had one regret it was that she belonged to a pre-digital generation and missed the opportunity afforded by the internet, and e-mail in particular, to make mischief among the powerful.

She will be much missed and very fondly remembered by her many friends and acquaintances, from the young children of her neighbours in whom she always took an abiding interest, to those somewhat nearer her own age. Just before her death, a neighbour and university colleague was explaining to her why university lecturers were striking about pensions. She managed to say very firmly: “And rightly so.”

In the words of this neighbour: “Her spirit was still there, a fighter for justice until the very end. What an incredible and kind person.”

David McCrone 
& Frank Bechhofer