Jackie Macadam meets Margaret Beetham, daughter of the 20th century Church of Scotland missionary and theologian, Lesslie Newbigin.
“It is hard to convey how different Edinburgh in 1946 was from the world I knew and loved.”
Margaret Beetham is recalling a childhood visit ‘home’ from India. Home Is Where, the book in which she recalls her life as a missionary child, has just been published.
Margaret’s father, Lesslie Newbigin, was one of the architects of the new united Church of South India. “In 1947 he became one of its first Bishops, a move which surprised some who knew of his and my mother’s deep roots in the ‘kirk’, with its anti-episcopal history,” she said. “Others, however, understood that the CSI came out of a desire to remake ‘Church’ by bringing together and refashioning different traditions.”
“When my parents spoke of ‘Home’ they meant Britain and specifically Scotland. My Mum loved Edinburgh, the city where she had lived and gone to university. She met Dad when they both worked for the Student Christian Movement in Scotland. But until I was six, I had never been ‘Home’ and when we got there it felt strange and alien. Everyone was white and, even the women wore dark clothes. No colourful saris. And it was bitterly cold!” she recalls.
It was a somewhat traumatic change for Margaret and her sisters.
Margaret explained: “I spent most of my first twelve years in South India where my parents were based, in two great cities, first Kanchipuram, near Chennai (Madras), and then Madurai. However, I spent much of the time at boarding school 7000 feet up in the cool of the Palni Hills, called ‘hills’ by the British in the somewhat patronising vocabulary of colonialism, though these ‘hills’ were far higher than the tallest mountains in Scotland.”
Not surprisingly, many of Margaret’s earliest memories are of travel.
“Each year we went from the city on the hot, dry lowlands we called ‘the plains’ and went up into the cool and green of the hills. I remember the excitement of those journeys.”
But she added: “Our longest journeys were those on the huge ocean-going ships which took us between India and Britain every five years.”
She explained: “Our parents, sent by the Church of Scotland to India, were torn between the conviction that God wanted them to be in India and their belief, shared by many but not all their colleagues, that giving us – their children – a good education meant sending us back to school in England, even though that meant many years of separation.”
However, Margaret had a varied early education. “I went to three different schools before I was eight; primary schools in Edinburgh and Huyton, a suburb of Liverpool where my mother’s sister lived, with whom we stayed for some months in 1947, and then the school up in the mountains of South India to which I went as a boarder from the ages of eight to twelve. Still I was happy at this school and it was a wrench to leave, as I did when I was 12, to go, with my sister, to a boarding school for girls in Kent.
“My mother had gone to this same school, founded for the daughters of missionaries in 1838. It gave me a good academic education. However, it was a hard time for me and my sisters in that we were separated from our families for all the years of our schooling. No going home in the holidays for us. We stayed with various older relatives of our parents…. However, as my sister Alison, said to me when we sat together in the hospice at the end of her life, no one ever hugged us. We did not see our parents or siblings – at least not for five years. Nor did we have Skype or access to phones of any kind (no mobiles then, of course). We wrote letters to each other every week. I still have some of them put away in a trunk under the bed in the spare room.”
Margaret says that it was while she was with her dying sister that she began to write her memories down, but publishing her memories required some thought.
“I was very hesitant about publishing it as it felt very exposing, not of me so much, but of those I love. I checked it out with my siblings and children but, of course, most of those who feature in the story are dead. Also, as I make clear in the book, it is based on my memories and memory is unreliable. I was afraid I might have wronged those I wrote about. However, I also had an increasingly strong conviction that this was not just my story but one account of an experience which was shared by many others. In the first place, the children of those in Britain whose parents over the last hundred and fifty years or more have left ‘Home’ to work for the church or the state or the army overseas. There have been a few accounts of missionary childhoods but not many written by women.
“Beyond those histories I am very aware of how many children today have been displaced from the world they thought of as ‘home’ and find themselves in strange countries, with or without their families. That is in part why I wrote the story in the third person, even though it is my story.”
“The book might be about the past and about my childhood, but it is set in the present and in my old age. I have found a home here and now, in my neighbourhood, among my wonderful friends and work colleagues, in my church community.”
‘Home Is Where: The Journeys of a Missionary Child.’ By Margaret Beetham is published by Darton, Longman and Todd. Ebook version available on
[ https://www.dltebooks.com/ ]
Courtesy of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland, June 2020