The Glaswegian minister who took to Borders life like a duck to water

A 21st century parish minister in Scotland is arguably a modern take on a man for all seasons, and as he prepares for his last sermon at the foot of the Cheviots, Reverend Robin McHaffie can look back on a career filled by ambition, faith and much colour.

Thursday, 1st September 2016, 3:32 pm
Updated Thursday, 1st September 2016, 4:34 pm
Retiring Minister Robin McHaffie of the Cheviot Churches group at Yetholm Kirk

Rev McHaffie came to the Borders from Glasgow with his wife Hazel and nurtured a young family from the Manse in Yetholm. His daughters have moved on, his wife sadly passed away, and on Sunday he will say goodbye to the Cheviot Churches congregation at the heart of the rural communities of Yetholm, Morebattle, Linton and Hownam, in a special service at 11am and afternoon fete open to all at Mainhouse, hosted by Joe and Christine Scott Plummer.

Now 68, he admits that when he left school with few qualifications, a young Glaswegian in a smart suit, this was not the path he envisaged his life taking.

“Not at all,” he says, with a laugh, sitting in the Yetholm Manse, amid boxes overflowing with memories, sitting in line, waiting for the removal van.

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Retiring Minister Robin McHaffie of the Cheviot Churches group at Yetholm Kirk

“But I look back now on a fascinating journey, for me and my family, from inner city Glasgow, what I thought would be my future in marketing, and then a mature student life and work across different churches, to a whole new adventure in this wonderful part of the country.

“There is definitely sadness now at it coming to an end, and I am sure it won’t be easy in my last Sunday service, but I have also come to terms with moving on, begun to enjoy reflecting on what we have done here, and I am looking forward to the next stage in my life.”

Born in Glasgow in 1948, his father a civil servant in the tax and excise department, Rev McHaffie did not hang around in school longer than was necessary.

“It bored me stiff,” he recalled. “I wanted to get out there and into proper work.”

Retiring Minister Robin McHaffie of the Cheviot Churches group at Yetholm Kirk

He explained how he went into clerical management and marketign with Philips, as well as having a stint in the carpet trade, before his wife Hazel encouraged him to join her in working with a Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Dalmarnock, and their work in the East End brought them into contact with volunteers across different denominations.

“I started attending church then in Dalmarnock, joine,d and as our work continued I felt what you would say was a calling to the Ministry.

“It was a complete change of life for me, and for Hazel, and I came to reflect on this a few years ago, and how I never questioned it.”

He first needed qualifications, which meant returning to studies and entering Glasgow University at 25, studying Divinity for five years.

He started learning the ecclesiastical ropes at St Thomas’ Gallowgate, close to Celtic Park.

He and Hazel opened youth centres, ran children’s clubs, set up a community interest company to help the vulnerable and deprived and proved persuasive in attracting help from various trades to educate and upskill local people.

In 1981, he was ordained in his first proper church, Kinning Park, and spent 10 years there. It was no Sunday school picnic as communities were torn apart by a wealth of new development in the inner city and Rev McHaffie would become a leading figure in restoring communities across the Protestant and Catholic faiths with hundreds of social projects.

His biggest achievement, however, was the rebuilding of the Kinning Park Church.

Once that was completed, Rev McHaffie started to look beyond the city boundaries to new horizons and was intrigued by a note that had been

sent around ministers advertising a post in the Scottish Borders that sat on his desk for some time.

“I had become very busy with my work in Glasgow, and was quite forcefully ecumenical, which didn’t please everybody, as I tried to bring people together. It’s very varied but I was growing tired of being a minister in the city, with the pace of life, all the traffic, the work in night shelters, the funerals each morning of unknown homeless people who had sadly passed away the night before, often two at a time.

“The girls were aged three (Claire), six (Emma) and 10 (Sara) by then, and, while again we didn’t negotiate with them about a move, we thought maybe it’s time for a change, and we came to Yetholm.”

They moved into the big eerie manse, with its one working lightbulb on arrival, and listened to the quiet. No car horns, police sirens, screaming or laughter from the closes or fighting. The children wondered if they had arrived on a different planet. Hazel bought a book, ‘How to be a Good Villager’, set about learning recipes for jam, and spoke to her family about the importance of opening their minds to learn new ways. They loved the countryside, the freedom around Yetholm, and soon understoood that in rural areas of a few hundred the minister’s family are much more in the public eye than in a busy city of a million, with the manse door always open.

Robin grew to love his new, different congregations.

“I took to it like a duck to water,” he recalled. “The congregation probably took longer to take to me. I have never been a great traditionalist so I was happy to change how we worked in Glasgow and learn about country ways.

“I have always been a bit of the daft laddie, asking questions and wondering why we do things this way or that, and so I think people wondered where I’d come from at first. They probably still do. The move was great for us as a family, but I always think if you scratch a

Glaswegian you’ll find we’re only a generation or two away from Argyll or the Highlands.”

The Borders had its own challenges, he discovered, not least in addressing falling numbers, and Rev McHaffie has continued to try different ideas to bring people together in congregations, and, with nearly 25 years of children’s and holiday clubs, encourage young

people to find a home in the church.

A minister who strived to form a bridge from the church to local communities, he led trips to as varied places as Moffat, Lanark, Possilpark, Coldingham, Traquair and Holy Island; and relished around

25 years of school and hospital chaplaincy work, in seeking to develop the pilgrimage and hospitality blocks of a modern church.

He has faced personal challenges with cancer and a heart attack in the past decade, as well as the sudden loss of Hazel to cancer in 2013 as the couple worked on a French holiday retreat as a retirement dream.

He has savoured much personal joy too, unforgettably learning to ride and accompanying daughter Emma in the Yetholm Civic Week role of Bari Manushi, as the girls blossomed into strong women and moved on to good careers.

“I have so many great memories of my time here, so many christenings and weddings of course, special services in the church, and all the things we have done outside the church, too, that there is not the space here to include them all.

“Some new ideas worked and some didn’t, but that is what life is about. The church has changed so much in my time, attitudes are changing with apathy and antipathy and an increase in an aggressive atheism. For instance, people thought nothing of me coming around the doors to see how they were 20 or so years ago, but now you are viewed by many as someone trying to sell something.
“But we have stayed alive against the odds, what we’ve done in refurbishing the church at Yetholm I’d like to think can help the church remain an important place in the community with scope now for lots of activities, as well as broadcasting and taking what we do online.

“For me, there is a sense of ‘job completed’ here. There is a lot of life around these great villages and lots of wonderful people for another minister to come in and work with. I still have a couple of weddings to do and I’ll never be far away if I’m needed to step in, but I’m looking forward to spreading my wings again. I promised Hazel I’d finish our house in Brittany, I’d like to travel to parts of Scotland I’ve not visited and I plan to learn more about the early church in Rome.

“I have also developed a real desire to work in palliative care so I will be returning to studies there. It’s time to reboot as the kids say and look forward to the next chapter.”

There are few who could sum up the phrase ‘A man for all seasons’ quite like this Glaswegian who became a country minister.

A garden fete to mark the retirement of Rev Robin McHaffie will be held at Mainhouse, near Linton, with worship at 11am, followed by barbecue, teas and cakes, kids activities, tug-of-war, raffles and presentation.