Obituary: Bill McGuire, Scot who built up Oxfam’s presence across the country

William Barrie McGuire PhD, Former Director, Oxfam Scotland, Northern Ireland and North England. Born: Edinburgh, 27 September 1928 in Edinburgh. Died: 25 November 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 93

Bill McGuire trained as a chemist before moving into administration
Bill McGuire trained as a chemist before moving into administration

After seven years' evening classes (1945-52) at Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh, Bill McGuire gained an Associateship – renamed Degree – in chemistry. Starting as a lab boy in the chemistry department, Surgeons Hall Medical School (1945-47) at the amalgamation with Edinburgh University School of Medicine, he was appointed lab technician assisting with second year medical students' education.

The middle child in a family of five in a top-floor flat in Horne Terrace – renamed Thorneil Village when Edinburgh carried out major housing improvements including installing hot water and replacing inside toilets with full bathrooms – they lived just across the Union Canal bridge from a schoolfriend he used to call "Titch" who later became known internationally as film actor Sean Connery (in his younger days Connery took bodybuilding classes with Andrew McGuire, Bill's older brother).

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Leaving Boroughmuir Secondary School in 1945 with a higher certificate in chemistry – or “science”, as it was then known – and with no cash available to buy textbooks, Bill depended on regular visits to Murdoch Terrace public library, located in the same street as the public wash-house used twice a week by Mrs McGuire for the family wash. Bill said he once read through a whole section of library books to understand his subject.

Speaking of his early education he said he thought he might have been dyslexic: “I always learned slowly but my pressing need to understand got me there.” His maths teacher would ask the class if “anyone else” did not understand a point, “which led to my understanding it when he explained a second time and in my topping the maths exam”. He added: “A marvellous textbook on physical chemistry simply transformed my exam maths from 17 per cent a few months before the Degree exams to 100 per cent in 1952.”

In 1953 Bill secured the post of Assistant Lecturer in biochemistry with research towards his PhD degree, graduating in 1956 with a thesis: Some aspects of cholesterol metabolism in the rodent.

In 1957 he became a researcher with Scottish Agricultural Industries (SAI), Leith, then in 1960, production manager at their animal feeding stuff factory (Nutrimol) in Glasgow. He was appointed SAI's Production and Distribution Manager at Heathhall, Dumfries, in 1963 and three years later, transferred to head office, Edinburgh, as the Distribution Manager.

Once, when he received an urgent phone call from a senior colleague instructing him to make sure the labs were cleared and tidy for a VIP visit, he pressed the senior man on how much to clear – the lab tables were cluttered with equipment and half-finished work. He was told just to get on with it, so grabbed a floor brush and simply swept phials, test tubes and other apparatus into bins.

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In 1969 he was made redundant in a company reorganisation and secured the post of Area Director for Oxfam. He said it was “essentially a development job. This work was largely meeting budgets on income and expenditure and establishing groups of supporters, securing and running Oxfam shops and campaigning on youth and education."

Former MSP Iain Gray said: "Oxfam was a great organisation to work for, full of outstanding people, and Bill was certainly one of those. When I joined, Oxfam in Scotland was expanding both in shop groups and in advocacy and campaigning. All of that was based in Bill's work.

"I remember him telling me that when he was appointed, he got out a map of Scotland and identified where he would build the Oxfam presence, through volunteer groups and shops – and he made it happen.

"That was typical of the methodical determination he brought to leadership. By the time he retired, his legacy was Oxfam in Scotland as the leading development charity in Scotland at the time, in fundraising, campaigns and development education.

"Bill was no soft touch but he backed his staff and volunteers and gave them the space to develop their own ideas and careers – something I certainly benefited from."

About every five years, overseas visits were made by Oxfam staff to keep them in touch with local projects. Costs were kept to a minimum and, relating his experiences during work in India, East Africa and South America, Bill told how, on one occasion, he turned out to be the only member of a group to have a torch with him – packed earlier “just in case” by his wife Shelagh – as the team made a night river crossing using a log as a makeshift bridge.

Always a keen sportsman, from 1955-57 he played as a midfielder for Edinburgh University's first XI then for the local club Spartans in the East of Scotland Amateur League. His early interest in tennis was encouraged through another Horne Terrace family whose mother played for the Uniroyal Rubber mill tennis team.

His family lived at Silverknowes for many years and Bill is survived by Shelagh, whom he married at St George's West Church in 1960, children Philip, Tracey and Barry, and nine grandchildren.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​



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