‘I just thought, why me?’

George Higgs of Newtown St Boswells who will received a MBE from the Queen this year for his work in equal oppertunities in the Borders.
George Higgs of Newtown St Boswells who will received a MBE from the Queen this year for his work in equal oppertunities in the Borders.

“When I first found out I thought, ‘Nah this is not right’,” said George Higgs, made an MBE in the New Year Honours.

“It took me about a week to figure out what was going on. After that first week, I was very, very humbled. I just thought ‘Why me?’” said George, 62, who chairs the Borders Equality Forum.

“You associate these awards with people who have done extraordinarily well, but I am just an ordinary guy.”

Born in Edinburgh to dad Arthur, who arrived in Scotland from Belize after serving in the Navy during the Second World War, and Scottish mum Jenny, George was raised in the Midlothian mining village of Gorebridge.

He trained as a chef and became head chef at Burts Hotel in Melrose in the 1970s before teaching in the catering and hospitality department at Borders College for 20 years.

While he was teaching, George’s work in promoting equal opportunities took off.

George, who lives in St Boswells, explained: “The police were looking for an advisor and to be honest, I think I was the only black face in the Borders at the time.

“We looked at different ways of helping people coming into the Borders, leading to the migrant support service starting.

“We soon realised after starting the equality forum [in 2004] that it wasn’t just race we needed to cover – there was religion, culture, age, gender.”

The forum works with the police, Scottish Borders Council, NHS Borders and other groups to promote the “One Borders – many cultures” message.

But racism and prejudice still exist, as George experiences from time to time.

He said: “When I occasionally go to the pub I still hear the comments sometimes from drunken individuals. But it is slowly changing for the better.

“Everyone will face discrimination of some sort, whether they have big ears or are bald.”

The much maligned gypsy and traveller communities have been supported by the forum, with information leaflets handed out by George to those who still attend St Boswells Fair in July.

“Any information we get about gypsies is negative and we are trying to change that.

“You always hear the bad news first and sometimes that has to be heard but there are also many good things.”

As well as helping to host events such as Chinese New Year celebrations, Muslim festivals and Polish culture evenings, simple advice for migrants is also a vital aspect of the forum’s work.

This is particularly true to the more than 300 Muslims and 600 Chinese who now call the Borders home – 52 languages are spoken by the area’s school pupils.

George said: “We have a booklet in five languages to enable people to understand a bit about the area.

“There was a Bangladeshi woman who would not go to the supermarket because she did not know she could get her pound back from the shopping trolleys.”

Reflecting on his MBE, George said: “I see other people working out there and think ‘If I am getting an MBE they deserve a knighthood’.

“Without the help of [forum committee members] Clara Colorado, Noose Sharp, Sheena Tsang and Shoukat Aziz, I would not have received an MBE.”