IT is seldom in the Church of Christ that one meets with men who have both great ability and gracious humility. Such a person was Alexander Gillies, or Alasdair, as he was familiarly known. He was a truly godly and gifted man, who had a low view of himself and his usefulness. The cause of Christ is much poorer for his passing away.
Alasdair Gillies was born in the Island of Raasay, on 3rd March, 1923. His parents, John and Catriona Gillies, although not communicants, were most circumspect. They showed their children, by precept and example, the way in which they should walk, but Alasdair, although an upright young man, continued walking according to the course of this world.
After graduating from Edinburgh University and Moray House Teacher Training College, he taught English and related subjects in Fort William High School from 1951. In the following year, on 25th December, he was married to Miss Katie MacLeod, who also was of Raasay parentage although born in Glasgow. They were blessed with four children two boys and two girls.
While he was in Fort William, and especially from 1955, Alasdair began to experience those strivings of the Holy Spirit by which he was brought to a solemn realisation of his sinnership and guilt before a holy God. Although he now distanced himself from ungodly friends, and from school extramural activities which were of a distinctly worldly nature, he knew that he could not regard himself as one of those who are “children of God by faith in Jesus Christ.” When speaking at a fellowship meeting at an Edinburgh communion many years later, he uncharacteristically made reference to those days of personal conviction of sin. He indicated that he had a profound sense of isolation and loneliness; for although he had turned his back on the world he was yet unable to identify with the Lords people. Some of those present at that meeting gained the distinct impression that his trying experience then was similar to that of the Psalmist, when he said,
“I looked on my right hand and viewed,
but none to know me were,
All refuge failed me; no man
did for my soul take care.”
That painful trial was part of the process of his being drawn to eventually close in with Christ, to find in Him the “friend that sticketh close than a brother”. But that day was yet some distance away.
In 1958 he moved from Fort William to Halkirk to be assistant Head of the Junior Secondary School there. It gladdened the heart of the Rev. William Grant, minister of the depleted Halkirk Congregation, that another family was added to his congregation but for Alasdair there was no gladness. He was yet burdened by a sense of sin, and was a stranger to “joy and peace in believing”. Indeed, his sense of guilt and condemnation intensified to the extent that he sunk into the deepest distress of soul and mind, and had to be hospitalised.
Alasdair Gillies was not a man to speak freely about the secret workings of the Spirit of God in his own soul, but it appears that about 1960 he was led to rest upon Christ alone for salvation, and to have a measure of gospel peace and comfort. At any rate, although lacking in the full assurance of his having a saving interest in the Redeemer, he was closed in to the duty of making a public profession of faith in Christ. He was given encouragement and strength through the Word of God to appear before the Halkirk Kirk Session in 1961. Having been received as a member in full communion, he sat at the Lords Table for the first time on Sabbath, 16th July.
The Rev. William Grant greatly rejoiced in this addition to the small number of professing Christians in his flock, and looked forward to having Alasdairs help in the work of the congregation. In fact, before the end of that year, Mr Grant proposed to his Kirk Session that the election of a deacon be held in the congregation and that Alasdair Gillies be nominated.
When Alasdair realised what had been proposed he stated that if chosen he would be quite unfit to be in office or, indeed, to be of any use to the Church even although he had already conducted a service which proved very acceptable to the people of the congregation. He felt that it would be better if he belonged to a larger congregation where there were many office-bearers and where therefore he would be able to keep in the background. This was part of his reason for moving to Glasgow, at the beginning of 1962, to teach there, and to worship in the St Judes congregation. He later become head of the English Department in Glasgow High School.
About a year after he arrived in Glasgow, when there was an election of elders and deacons in the St Judes congregation, he was elected to the deaconship. Although reluctant to take office he was constrained to believe that it was his duty to do so, and he was duly ordained. He was soon appointed as Clerk of the Deacons Court. Seven years later, in 1969, he was ordained to the eldership and was appointed as Session Clerk. He was a conscientious and faithful office-bearer, whose gracious contributions to the business of the courts of the Church and committees of Synod were characterised by wisdom, compassion and the fear of the Lord. He was exemplary in carrying out all his duties, for it was ever his concern to have all things, especially in connection with the cause of Christ and church of God, “done decently and in order”. His guidance was much valued by younger office-bearers. Being gifted with a most melodious voice, he was an accomplished leader of the praise in public worship.
After some years in retirement from teaching, he moved north, in June 1992, to Dingwall. There he proved to be a great help to the Dingwall and Beauly congregation by conducting services, and also by diligent visiting of the homes in the congregation, especially those of the elderly and sick. Although having doubts and fears about his own salvation a fact realised by only very few he spoke from the Scriptures in an interesting and informative manner, and to the encouragement, comfort and edification of many of the Lords tried and tempted people. His contributions to the fellowship meetings at communion seasons were always looked forward to by the people. In speaking in both the house of God and in his home he had the gift of being able to introduce illustrative anecdotes, which were not only accurately related but also apposite to the topic under discussion.
The home of Alasdair Gillies and his like-minded wife, in both Glasgow and Dingwall, was well known for its unstinting hospitality. Many of the Church people, both young and old, can testify to the warm welcome and generous kindness shown to them by the Gillies family at communion seasons and on other occasions. The profitable conversation was no small bonus.
Alasdair Gillies had an intelligent and deep appreciation of the stand made in 1893, which resulted in the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and had a thorough grasp of the distinctives of our denomination. He contributed one of the chapters to One Hundred Years of Witness, the historical volume written to commemorate the Centenary of the Church. His high esteem for the founding fathers of the Church was seen, for example, in his biographical sketch of the Rev. Donald Macfarlane (which had been delivered at a conference and was published in The Free Presbyterian Magazine). It was with evident pleasure that he emphasised that Mr Macfarlane, in making his stand in 1893, and although not having a family, was concerned especially about preserving the truth for the sake of the rising generation of children.
Alasdair himself loved young people, many of whom in the Glasgow, Dingwall and other congregations will not forget his bright manner and kind and affectionate interest in them. It was his great pleasure to teach for a time in the St Judes Sabbath School. He was a very useful member of the Welfare of Youth Committee. He had a genuine and abiding concern for the welfare of the boys and girls in our congregations, and contributed to some Church Youth Conferences. For some years he had also the responsibility of tutoring Free Presbyterian divinity students in Rhetoric and English literature in the General Arts Course of the Church.
He also contributed to a Free Presbyterian Theological Conference. His paper, The Christian in Contemporary Society, delivered at the 1969 Theological Conference in Edinburgh, was published as a pamphlet by Westminster Standard Publications, after appearing in The Free Presbyterian Magazine. It was described as “a most able and timely article. . . It gives a deep insight into the pattern of present-day thinking and behaviour and an understanding of the so-called God is dead belief”.
Those who were privileged to enjoy the friendship of Alasdair Gillies, found in him a cheerful and sympathetic friend as well as a loyal one. He genuinely sympathised with those in sickness and sorrow. Many bereaved, sick, elderly and frail ones can testify to his timely visits to their homes when they were passing through difficulties, whether illness or bereavement. He felt deeply the passing away of loved friends, especially those elders and ministers of the gospel, such as Rev Lachlan MacLeod and Rev Alexander Morrison, with whom he had maintained close friendships for many years.
He himself passed away peacefully in Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, on Tuesday, 28th September, 1999, in his 77th year. Three weeks before his death he sat at the Lords Table for the last time that was at Halkirk, where he first communicated 38 years previously. The day after he returned home from Halkirk he suffered a severe stroke, from which he did not recover.
Not only his family and congregation mourn his passing away but also the whole Church of which he was such a devoted office-bearer and faithful friend. Alasdair Gillies was a man to whom Christ was precious, and therefore to whom the Word of Christ and the cause of Christ were precious. It was his delight to hear, in the preaching of the Word, the glory of the Redeemer set forth. His abiding objective in all his trials was, we believe, that of the Apostle, “That I may win Christ and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ.” And now that he has departed, he is enjoying what the Apostle looked forward to: “. . . to be with Christ, which is far better”.
We deeply sympathise with his sorrowing widow, sons and daughters, and brothers. May they be enabled by divine grace to say of the God of their departed loved one, “This God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.”