A tribute to Mary Haggart (1924-2020)

Given at a Choral Evensong in Thanksgiving for her life on September 30th 2021, by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh

I want to begin this remembrance of Mary Haggart with a word about her husband, Alastair, late bishop of this diocese and primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Alastair died in January 1998 and it fell to me as his successor to celebrate his requiem. As I expected, he had left very precise instructions for his funeral, which ended memorably, as we carried him from the cathedral, to the Larghetto from Elgar’s Second Symphony. I can remember the occasion clearly, because not only was I grieving as I left the cathedral to that solemn and tragic music, I was inwardly fuming, because Alastair had ordered that no address or eulogy was to be delivered at his funeral.  He was one of the most distinguished Scots of his generation and certainly one of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s greatest bishops, but he had forbidden any public expression of our love and appreciation. I got round the ban to some extent with a piece of sophistry. He’d forbidden a eulogy at his funeral, so I delivered a few words about him from the chancel steps before we started the service, and I remember using the words, ‘he, being dead, yet calleth the shots’.

I still can’t figure what he thought he was up to, forbidding us to remember and give thanks for his life. A memorial address is not an act of vanity; it is what the New Testament calls an Anamnesis, the word Jesus used at the Last Supper, which we translate as remembrance, but which is better translated as making present again. Fortunately, Mary Haggart did not follow her husband’s example. She died on the 8th of December 2020, but years before that she had asked me if I would deliver the address at her funeral, and I said I’d be honoured to do so. So, we are here this evening to remember Mary Elizabeth Haggart’s life, to make it present again, before it disappears into the forgetfulness of the past that awaits us all.

Mary was born on the 8th of April 1924, to Margaret Elizabeth Scholes and her husband John Neville Scholes, who was a Supervisor at Leicester General Post Office.  A deeply loved only child, her early memories all centred round friends at school and at the local church, and a happy home life. She was 15 when the War started in 1939, and to the end of her days she remembered the night of November 14 1940, when wave after wave of Nazi planes dropped 500 tons of explosives, 30,000 incendiary bombs, and 500 landmines on the nearby city of Coventry, destroying the cathedral and killing thousands. Next day the surviving casualties were brought to Leicester for treatment. It confirmed Mary in her desire to become a nurse, and she began her training at Leicester Royal Infirmary in 1942.

This was a time in the history of British Medicine when neither men nor married women were permitted to train for the nursing profession. Training was residential, and it was a weird combination of life in a nunnery and St Trinian’s School for girls. Attendance at meals was compulsory, and after breakfast they all trouped into the chapel for a short service led severely by the hospital Matron, who was usually a formidable personality with a strong resemblance to a battleship. Residents were allowed 5 nights off a month and did 3 months night duty every year.  But Mary sailed through it all with humour and determination.

After finishing her general training, she moved to Guy’s Hospital in London for midwifery training. The war was over by then and life was slowly returning to normal, but everywhere buildings were in ruins and whole city blocks were flattened bomb sites covered in banks of Fireweed.  Working in The Old Kent Road district of East London, Mary was moved by the humour and resilience of the people.

After she’d completed her Midwifery training, she returned to Leicester as Staff Nurse on a male surgical ward; and after a year she was made Sister. It was clearly obvious to the authorities by then that Mary Scholes was a woman of considerable ability and authority, so it surprised no one when, in 1963, she was appointed to the post of Matron at Dundee Royal Infirmary, and Matron Designate of Ninewells Hospital, the grand new infirmary being planned for the edge of the city. Her new post involved planning the nursing services for a large new modern hospital and transferring staff from the old 18th Century Dundee Royal Infirmary to the new building. All of which was accomplished with her characteristic warmth and efficiency, so it was no surprise when she was awarded an OBE and appointed in 1968 as the first Chief Nursing Officer to the Dundee Board of Management, a post she held till her retirement in 1983. While all that was going on, she had become an active member of St Paul’s Cathedral, where Alastair Haggart was the provost at the time.

After a stint as Principal of the Theological College in Coates Hall, Alastair became Bishop of Edinburgh in 1975. I remember his election well, because I proposed him. There was only one other candidate in the election, and the only vote he got was that of the priest who nominated him, so Alastair was virtually elected unopposed. Alastair’s wife Peggy died in 1979, after a long and debilitating illness.  Those of us who loved him were delighted when he announced in 1983, with a typical Haggartian flourish, that he and Mary Scholes were to marry. When informing the diocese, he quoted Canon Sydney Smith:  ‘How can a bishop marry? How can a bishop flirt?  The most he can say is: I will see you in the vestry after the service’.  Everyone, including Alastair’s beloved daughters Alison and Mary Grace, were delighted with the marriage of two such a gifted and dedicated public servants. After Alastair retired in 1986, there followed twelve happy years of travel and service to the World-wide Anglican Communion, till his death in 1998 and the beginning of Mary’s long widowhood.

That long list of achievements and distinctions does not capture Mary’s warmth or charm or her intellectual curiosity and capacity.  A voracious reader like her husband, she was a patron of the Edinburgh Book Festival, and could usually be found in the front row of the big tent in Charlotte Square in the weeks in August it was on. And she was in close touch with some internationally famous writers.  I can’t remember how it happened, but she invited me to join her for coffee at the Sheraton Hotel with the American novelist John Irvine, one day, because he wanted to consult us about the novel he was then writing. He needed to establish the history of one of his characters as a musician in a gloomy old Edinburgh church loaded with mystery and atmosphere. Naturally, I suggested he should visit Old St Paul’s, and he did.  I’m not sure what happened to that idea or how it read in his next novel. It was typical of the largeness of Mary’s interests and the width of her associations – but I’m still puzzled as to how exactly she came to be a friend of the famous American writer. Mary had what we call a hinterland – a deep intellectual and cultural background to what appeared to be a life of practical and organizational accomplishment

So, we meet here tonight to remember and give thanks for such a remarkably rich and abundant life; rich in accomplishment; rich in affection; rich in laughter; rich in joy; rich in faith.  Rest in peace, Mary. But I’m sure that if there’s a structure to life in Heaven, you’ll already have re-organized the whole place.

Amen