Bill Anderson: An Appreciation

October 31, 2019

By Donald Macleod

When Bill Anderson first came to work at the Free Church College in 1974 his official job-description was ‘Janitor,’ and humble though it sounds, and unlikely though it seems, it provided an ideal opportunity to develop his many interests.   

Still, we have to say, first of all, that he was an excellent janitor: invariably smart in appearance, punctual, eminently presentable, and exceedingly proud of his domain.  He not only kept the doors faithfully, in the best traditions of the Roman ianitor.  He kept an eye out for small structural problems that might become big ones, carefully tended the forecourt, and quickly persuaded intruders that they had no right to be in the car-park.  He and his family also bore with patience and fortitude the stress of living on the premises, especially when the building underwent extensive refurbishment between 1975 and 1978 and they had to endure the constant presence of tradesmen and the inescapable grime and chaos.   

But Bill was never only a janitor, and in due course his designation was quite rightly changed to ‘College Curator’.  There was, indeed, much to care for: not only thousands of books, but historic documents, letters, paintings, portraits, busts, a copy of the National Covenant of 1638, Disruption memorabilia and above all D. O. Hill’s famed Disruption painting.  To an archivist and historian, the building was paradise, Bill was its official custodian, and he was in his element, like a wee boy in a sweetie-shop.        

Yet he couldn’t read any of the documents.

Providence decreeing its own course

William Steel Anderson was born on 24th May 1930 in Ecclefechan, the Dumfries-shire village which also had the less notable honour of being the birth-place of Thomas Carlyle.  The eldest of ten children, Bill had to shoulder responsibilities from an early age, and the prospect of going on to higher education could not even have been the stuff of dreams.  He left school at fourteen, and was briefly apprenticed to a plumber, before being called up for National Service with the Royal Navy.  After National Service he found employment with a local pharmacist, who, by all accounts, would have been happy to make the position permanent.  Bill certainly found the experience highly educative, and it may explain his later interest in herbal medicines and his taste for what, to me, were funny-coloured teas.

But whatever may have been Bill’s plans as he approached his mid-twenties, providence decreed its own course.  At the age of twenty-five he was diagnosed as suffering from macular degeneration: the most common cause of blindness in over-sixties, but extremely rare in people of Bill’s age.  From that point onwards his vision was seriously, and progressively, impaired, but he covered it up so brilliantly that I discovered it only by accident, when, very early in my time at College I handed Bill my car-keys so that he could move it if it was causing an obstruction.  I discovered then, not only that he didn’t drive, but that the reason for it was that shapes were but a blur to him.  From that point onwards, I made it my practice when I turned up for work in the morning and found him dutifully patrolling the car-park, to speak first, knowing that otherwise he wouldn’t recognise me.  I discovered, too, that he could read only by holding the document right up to his face and viewing it through a special glass. 

To a man of Bill’s well-trained mind, lively intellect and addiction to books, this must have been a cruel blow.  But he never said so.  Instead, he responded to it in the most positive way: he devoted his life to caring for blind people.  Under the auspices of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, he trained as a Home Teacher for the Blind, a course of training which in those days aimed at a high level of skill not only in reading Braille but in writing it.

It was while undergoing this training that Bill met Sheila West, who was taking a similar course.  Sheila was the daughter of a Congregational minister whose translation to successive pastoral charges had meant regular family moves to cities as diverse as York, Paisley and Sunderland.   Bill and Sheila married in May 1959, and apart from her work with the blind, Sheila was also a Licentiate of the London College of Music, a qualified music-teacher,  and an accomplished pianist; and though she was never the College’s official pianist she was for a time the Lecturer in Psalmody.  It would be interesting to know whether that experience confirmed her faith in the old adage, ‘Anyone who can speak, can sing.’

By the time Bill finished his professional career he was Superintendent of the Perth and Kinross Society for the Blind.  Even after he left the employment of the Society, however, he stayed in touch with many who had been his clients during his professional life,   many of whom lived in difficult, and some in distressing, circumstances.  One of these, ‘Charlie,’ he regularly visited once a week, to the very end, and his help was not confined to words.  Bill Anderson, had his circumstances been different, would have made an outstanding Social Worker.

Contact with the Free Church

In his early days, Bill had no contact with the Free Church, his family being connected to the Church of Scotland, but by 1958 he was a regular attender at Buccleuch and Greyfriars, Edinburgh.  Behind this lay a chance encounter with the then-minister of Buccleuch, Rev. Murdo Nicolson, a gifted evangelist for whom Bill retained a deep and life-long affection. 

This first period at Buccleuch was interrupted by his transfer to Perth, where he attended what was then Perth and Scone Free Church, but on his return to Edinburgh the Buccleuch connection was resumed, and retained to the end of his days. For some three or four years he also served as an elder, but became increasingly convinced that he could not give the office the level of service it deserved.  He found himself unable to give a proper welcome to those coming through the church-door because he couldn’t recognise them; and he found home-visitation hazardous and frustrating.  It was hard to navigate streets and locate addresses, especially at night, when everything was a blur. 

Bill began his work at the College in 1974 and served, with a brief interlude, till 1996. Though not born and bred to the Free Church, he loved its message, its history and its principles; and next to these, and for their sake, he loved the Mound Buildings; within the Mound Buildings, his special love was the Presbytery Hall; and within the Presbytery Hall, was his most special love, D.  O.  Hill’s painting of the Disruption.  On this subject, Bill was the leading expert, frequently consulted by other official experts in search of information and advice.   It was amazing, considering his impaired insight, to see him point out unerringly the various figures, while at the same time filling in the background and highlighting details of the painting’s composition.

Retiring from his position at College was a serious emotional wrench, and whenever he visited the building in later years he would slip down to the Presbytery Hall, and run his finger along its historic table to check if it had been properly dusted.  Old habits died hard.

But if Bill loved the Mound Buildings, he also loved the city of Edinburgh and its historic buildings.  For many students, the most memorable part of their College experience was the Historical Tour which Mr. Anderson gave as part of their Induction Programme, but he was also frequently called upon to act as Guide to other parties, especially those from American churches anxious to explore both their Scottish heritage and their Presbyterian roots.  Unfortunately, many of these visitors hadn’t calculated on either the distance the party would have to cover or the pace at which they would be driven along, and on more than one occasion exhausted souls had to drop out and take a taxi back to their hotel: to Mr Anderson’s amusement it has to be said, and something of a boost to his national pride. 

But history wasn’t his only interest.  He was also deeply versed in the world of architecture and art, and a compulsive collector of beautiful objects: so much so that when you visited his home you were frightened to sneeze, in case some precious plate or miniature fell from the well.  He did, however, have his own way of relieving the pressure on space: rewarding the least favour with a gift from his collection.

The by-product of his interest in art was that we were kept up to date on the latest exhibition at one of Edinburgh’s galleries; and each one was a ‘must see.’  We were also told of the latest treasure to have been sold at some absurd price at an auction in London or Paris, New York or Amsterdam; or, in tones of great sadness, of yet another British treasure lost to some overseas buyer.

All of Bill’s interests came together in his truly excellent booklet, A Guide to the Free Church of Scotland College and Offices.  Thoroughly researched, rich in detail, and beautifully written, it will serve as an enduring tribute to his knowledge of historic Edinburgh, to his fascination with art and architecture, and above all to his love for the noble building which he deemed it such an honour to serve.  Here we learn that the Senate Room reflects the Victorian revival of interest in the Jacobean style of the 17th century; that the panelling is of Oregon pine, and probably the first import of this timber to Britain; that the carvings above the four doors are in the style of Grinling Gibbons, the 17th century English woodcarver; that the ceiling, the chief glory of the room, has a heavy cornice decorated with heraldic devices in various colours; that several of the faces in the Disruption painting were not painted from contemporary calotypes, but from life, when the men were much older; and that the commemorative Disruption brooch was not merely an ornament, but a practical piece of jewellery designed to tie the shawls of Free Church ladies.  All in all, it is a production which does the Church proud; and we can be sure that Mrs. Anderson’s careful proof-reading contributed significantly to the end-result.

Spiritual experience

Bill Anderson was not given to talking about his own spiritual experience.  He would occasionally share his worries, and sometimes his hurts, but seldom, if ever, did he sit down to have a real conversation, thinking, I now realise, that your time was too precious, and that he mustn’t detain you.  We know nothing, for example, of the circumstances of his conversion.  What we do know, however, is that he was a man of prayer.  In public, they were brief, pointed and free of clichés; in private, they covered, morning and evening, a long list of friends, clients and acquaintances whose needs he knew and whose burdens he bore.  But the sum of it all is that his faith, deep and well-founded, outcropped not in words but in life; a life of service; a life that overcame a handicap that in most men cases would have been fatal to any kind of creativity; a life that reached down to others for whom no one cared.  

It was a privilege to walk part of the journey with him.

Mr. Anderson is survived by his wife, Sheila, and by their children: Nigel (Minister of Livingston Free Church), Edwin, Trevor, Shona and Owen.