Author and teacher Betty Willsher dies

Betty Willsher
Betty Willsher
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Much-loved and respected St Andrean, Betty Willsher, has died at the age of 96.

Born in County Durham to Scottish parents – her father, William Anderson, was an Ayrshire GP, her mother from the prominent Adam and Russell families in Elgin – Betty grew up in the mining village of Coundon. Her last book, As Time Goes By (2010) tells the story of her childhood there.

In 1933 she came to St Andrews University, and graduated in psychology and philosophy in 1936.

She went on to the Rachel Macmillan Training College, London, and began her career as a nursery school teacher from 1937-39 at Deptford and Wapping in the East End docklands.

In 1937, Betty married Rex Willsher and their first child, Penny, was born in 1939.

Air raids drove them out of London to rural Suffolk.

Their second child, Susan, was born in 1941 and, from 1943-46, Betty ran her own nursery school.

By 1949 her marriage had come to an end and, with her girls, she returned to start a fresh life in St Andrews.

Here she set up a new nursery school, first in the Lade Braes then in End Rigg, Argyle Street.

Her first books, School Before Five (1959), the Professor Popoff stories (1961-64), and Call me Person (1969), came out of her rich experiences as both a parent and teacher. They blend her expertise in child psychology with her warm empathy for children.

From 1965, Betty sought new challenges, took a teaching diploma in Dundee, worked from 1966-69 with Dr Douglas Haldane in the adolescent unit for disturbed children at Playfield House, Stratheden, then taught at primary schools in Methil and Colinsburgh.

She ended her professional career as senior lecturer in child development at Stevenson College, Edinburgh, from 1975-77.

Throughout her six decades in St Andrews, Betty was at the heart of the community. She was a member of the 1920 Club and the Play Club, the Music Club and the Film Club; she painted and wrote poetry, she spearheaded the Crawford Arts Centre and supported the Preservation Trust and fought to protect the historic fabric of the town; and through the After Many Days Club she remained a keen but critical alumna of her university.

Her books: St Andrews – Ancient City in the Twentieth Century, and St Andrews Citizens – Their Societies, Past and Present (both 2003) evoke and characterise its people and their activities.

In retirement, she and her friend, Bunty Mould, travelled the length and breadth of Scotland to catalogue and interpret its burial grounds and their memorials.

Stones (1978) and Understanding Scottish Gravestones (1985, now in its fourth edition) have been acknowledged internationally as pioneering and seminal works of social and cultural history, for which Betty was awarded the MBE in 1999.

Betty was to the end a storyteller, above all a teller of stories about her own and her family’s past.

One of her most fascinating books is A Scottish Family: The Story of Eight Generations – charting two centuries of the Russells, Mersons and Adams (2005).

In 2010, at the age of 95, she retold her own life history, interspersed with those of her brother John, who died in autumn 2011, and sister Maryan. She, Penny, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren survive her. Susan died in 1995.

Betty will live not just in her writings but in the memories and affections of the host of friends she made and kept to the end of her long life, in St Andrews and across the world.

Betty’s great gifts were humour, honesty and frankness, and the ability to make others feel almost as different, as special, as she was herself.