We pay tribute to Kay McMillan's more than 50 years of service to Samaritans of Glasgow
ONE night in October 1959, Glasgow's Bible College hosted a meeting to gauge interest in starting a local branch of The Samaritans, an organisation set up six years earlier in London by Anglican priest Chad Varah to help people contemplating suicide. Gathered there were representatives of all the major churches plus charities such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Rotary Club and Women's Voluntary Service. An advert had been placed in the Church of Scotland magazine Life and Work inviting members of the public to come along too. However, just one individual took up the offer; Kay McMillan, a 39-year-old mother of two from Clarkston.
Before the meeting broke up Kay had been appointed secretary of the new group's steering committee. She quickly secured the help of her husband Donald and, on May 23, 1960, the McMillans were two of the 55 volunteers who opened The Samaritans' fourth UK branch, and just their second in Scotland a few months after the first had opened in Edinburgh.
The premises at 204 Bath Street in the city centre were provided rent-free by the Red Cross. The branch's first caller declared he felt quite at home in one of the two small basement rooms because it was just like his cell in the city's Barlinnie Prison.
Kay was there that day, a proud moment in what ultimately amounted to more than 50 years of dedicated service to the Glasgow branch. Those early Samaritans attacked the challenge of saving despairing fellow citizens with a mix of gung-ho earnestness and selfless generosity.
As Kay explained to her colleagues at the branch's AGM in 2015: “Social attitudes were completely different in those days. For example, suicide was a crime if attempted outside the home, unmarried mothers-to-be went to great lengths to keep their pregnancy secret and gay rights were hardly heard of. Into this situation we started with much enthusiasm but not much else.”
Funding came via a weekly donation of a sixpenny (2½p) from the members themselves. With fewer than half the population having a phone, many callers dialled Douglas 4444 from public phone boxes, often requesting a reverse-charge call in case their pennies ran out. At times the branch premises were inundated with visitors, some of whom ended up having face-to-face chats in volunteers' cars.
Shifts for female volunteers like Kay ended at 8pm due to fears for their safety behind their always-open door, with males filling all of the night shifts. A 24-hour service was maintained by dint of the emergency line being transferred to the homes of the branch Leaders who were, in the earliest days, all churchmen.
In cases where a caller revealed they had taken an overdose, most commonly a mix of whisky and Valium, a Samaritans “flying squad” would be dispatched. If the householder was unconscious or unable to reach the door, they might have to get in by climbing through a window. No ambulance was called out, as that meant a police car would be summoned to accompany it. To avoid alerting neighbours and causing the caller anxiety, the journey to hospital would be made in a volunteer's own car.
In situations such as these, the McMillans worked as a team. On one call-out, as Donald tended to a woman who had taken an overdose, Kay bathed the stricken mum's three children then put them to bed. Another night a man arrived at Donald and Kay's front door after being sent on a bus from London to Glasgow by the charity's founder, Mr Varah. Their instructions were to give a bed for the night to the gent, who was a doctor with a drink problem, then ensure he got to his new workplace the following morning – and got there sober.
Samaritans in those days tended to be much more pro-active in trying to help people with many of the problems they were experiencing. That might mean finding overnight accommodation for the newly homeless, handing out clothing vouchers, trying to sort out debt problems or pleading with the electricity board to reconnect impoverished families. However, at an international conference held in Oxford in 1964 Kay first heard suggestions that this superficial approach was not getting to the root of callers' distress. It was the first realisation that their feelings had to be explored more carefully to truly address suicidal urges.
Eight years later the BBC's transmission of an 11-part series called Befrienders, based on the work of the Samaritans, doubled the charity's caseload but also brought Glasgow around 100 new volunteers. Kay and Donald both had stints as chairman as the branch continued to develop and improve its training and service provision. Modern technology began to make an impact, with pagers issued to Leaders to free them from the necessity of having to stay at home for 12 hours at a time in order to be within reach of their phones.
Finance, though, remained an issue for the branch. This led in 1983 to the McMillans – both then in their sixties – being asked to start up and run a fundraising group, Friends of the Samaritans. This they did with their customary enthusiasm and efficiency. Family and acquaintances were recruited and cajoled into taking part in dinner dances, concerts, silent auctions, bridge drives and fiddlers' rallies. Friends groups in Newton Mearns and Bearsden still contribute thousands of pounds each year to the coffers of Glasgow Samaritans.
Kay, however, retained her enthusiasm for shifts as a listening volunteer and as a driving force and inspiration. She was thrilled by the move to larger premises in West George Street, Glasgow, in 1993 and took great pride in 2004 when her branch was named as a winner of the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.
Deservedly, Kay was also the recipient of personal accolades. In 1981 her family accompanied her to Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth presented her with an MBE for services to charity. East Renfrewshire Council honoured Kay with a civic reception in 2010 to mark her 90th birthday and 50 years of Glasgow Samaritans. Two years later she was a guest speaker at a reception in the Scottish Parliament to celebrate the diamond anniversary of the Samaritans movement.
Sadly, her beloved Donald was not present at the last two of those events. He passed away in 1991, almost 50 years after he'd first fallen for the young comptometer operator he'd spied in the accounts office of engineering firm Mirrlees Watson, where he then worked as a draughtsman.
Born Cynthia Kathleen Dawson in London on March 25, 1920, Kay was brought up by her grandparents in Mount Florida, Glasgow, after her parents split up. She attended the local primary school then the nearby Queen's Park Secondary. Her marriage to Donald in 1943 was held at the city's Grosvenor Hotel during his four days' leave from wartime service as an RAF radio operator.
Their first child, Ian, was born the following year, followed by daughter Anne in 1947. Kay gave up work to raise her family while her husband worked as manager for a firm that sold shop equipment. As well as being a Samaritans listening volunteer for 52 years, Kay continued to be an active support volunteer, working hard with the Friends to raise money, and was appointed the branch's Honorary President. She also served for several years as a Justice of the Peace. Kay passed away on Christmas Day, 2018, after a short illness. Her funeral was held at Giffnock South Parish Church.
Kay is survived by Anne, five grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Her photograph takes pride of place in the entrance hall of the Samaritans' Glasgow branch, which now has more than 180 volunteers who deal with in excess of 50,000 calls and other contacts each year. Kay, though, was always humble about the part she played in supporting the distressed and suicidal through the Samaritans, which she described as “this amazing enterprise”. Her daughter Anne explained: “When people made a fuss about what she'd achieved, Mum would say, 'I'm just an ordinary housewife and mother who did what she could.'”
Kay McMillan, 25/4/1920 to 25/12/2018