On Tuesday this week I learnt my Aunt Ishbel had died aged 88. She was an extraordinary woman who managed to both break the rules and yet be in many ways still a stickler for traditions.
She died in the home she had been in since a fall 18 months ago from which she never really recovered. The last few months were like she was slowly shutting down, which was tough to see, particularly for my mother with whom she was very close. I wasn’t at her side when she died but knowing my brother was there had a greater significance to me than I expected. I doubt she knew he was there at her final breath but we did and for that I am grateful.
Ishbel Ritchie was a woman who put time and effort into her relationships. They mattered to her and she worked hard at them; professional and personal. This was perhaps because she was single, perhaps also because she spent 40 plus of her 88 years in India, a long way from the family and friends. She became a missionary, because the Church wouldn’t allow women to be ordained when she was seeking to serve. She had to make lots of new friends in a radically different culture to the Fife culture she grew up in. The number of Indian visitors she received once she retired to Scotland suggests she was good at bridging cultural divides.
She overcame distance long before the internet created the global village by writing every week, without fail, to her parents and her sister, my mother. Every week a blue aerogramme – a cleverly designed three fold ultra-lightweight sheet of blue paper with gummed wings for international post – would appear in both our house and my grandmother’s, addresses written in my aunt’s neat copperplate but inside tightly typed lines full of her week’s activity. As well as weekly missives to family she wrote regularly to friends; determined that distance would not damage her relationships. When she returned to Scotland in retirement her dedication paid dividends as she came home to a ready-made network of friends despite not living in the same country for 40-plus years.
For 30 of those 40 years she lived in Gangtok, capital of Sikkim, a largely Buddhist former principality now ruled by India on the India/Tibet border. Gangtok is in the foothills of the Himalayas; 5400 ft above sea level, higher than Ben Nevis. It’s perched almost precariously on a steep slope with the most amazing views. When the weather allowed for a clear enough sky you could see Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, from Aunt Ishbel’s front room. I saw it myself when I visited her in the mid 1990s; it was an utterly awe-inspiring sight.
As headmistress of Paljor Namgyal Girls High School she oversaw the education of thousands of young women in this remote place. She believed we flourish through education. She was most proud when one of her former pupils became her successor. When Tibetan refugees came over the hills she worked out how to make sure they too could get the education they needed in ways which would preserve their culture including their Buddhism; she knew what she believed but respected the beliefs of others; not always the view of missionary folk. She was the honorary British Consul in a city where there was only one other European resident. She lived simply and served deeply. When I visited I was struck by how comfortable she was in the company of people from all backgrounds.
She was awarded an MBE for services to education but her true gift was her authenticity. She was never anything other than “Miss Ritchie, the Scottish woman”. She was always herself, true to her faith and committed to serving her neighbour and the stranger even when she was in truth the real stranger.
Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland