First Woman Moderator to receive one of Scotland’s highest honours for public service

Dr Alison Elliot OBE, already one of the most decorated people in Scotland, has become just the third person ever to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Scottish Public Service Awards.

Dr Alison Elliot OBE
Dr Alison Elliot OBE sits at the piano in her Edinburgh home

The Church elder and academic was the first woman to serve as Moderator and chaired the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Group.

The rare and prestigious award was presented to Dr Elliot in a ceremony heldMonday evening in the Scottish Parliament.

Created in 2014 through a partnership of the Parliament, the Scottish Government and Holyrood magazine, the awards recognise excellence in our public life. Dr Elliot will be just the third person to receive the Lifetime Achievement award (following Sir Harry Burns and Sir Neil McIntosh).

Lucky and grateful

Awards are nothing new to Dr Elliot. She has five Honorary degrees already and, of course, an OBE.

The Bathgate Academy graduate who became the first-ever woman Moderator—and the first Church of Scotland elder to hold the post since 1567— says she feels lucky and grateful.

“I think the award itself will be one of the things I am most proud of because it is for public service,” she said.

“That is really the heart of what I’ve been trying to do for the last 30 years and I feel hugely privileged to have found myself in positions where I can exercise that.

“And I’ve been very lucky with the family and with my husband who has been fantastic all these years.

The award is also, she says cheerfully, “a bit premature, I hope”.

Dr Alison Elliot

Keeping the Sabbath

At 68, Dr Elliot has already achieved so much that it’s hard to know where to begin.

An associate director at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues in Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity, she is an author, academic and churchwoman with an astonishing resume.

The centre has been credited with bringing together people from higher education, government and the third sector to shape public policy through a theological lens.

From her earliest years, religion was at the centre of family life, she says, and her mother “was a strong Sabbatarian.”

“I grew to love a Sunday because you weren’t allowed do homework, which was quite nice and you weren’t allowed to read fiction so that was a time where I read a whole lot of travel books and biographies and things like that.”

Psychologist at heart

Brought up in Bangour Village hospital, where her father was a psychiatrist, early exposure to people with mental illness may have helped steer her toward Psychology.

“I think that probably did have an impact on me because I was brought up in the company of people who had mental health problems,” she says.

“I was brought up to know they were people like everybody else at a time when there was discrimination against them and fear.”

The psychology of life has always interested her more than its political questions, she says.

“I think I am intrinsically a psychologist. I ask ‘why do people do these things?’

“My friend Lis, who I have remained close to for 50 years, is intrinsically a political animal and she asks ‘how can things be changed so that doesn’t happen again?’We have had a very strong friendship from there.”

Dr Alison Elliot with microphone

Rev Prof Duncan Forrester

After studying Psychology at Edinburgh University, she spent a year at Sussex University, before returning to Edinburgh as a researcher studying children’s language development.

Rev Prof Duncan Forrester, who has died this week, was a key influence in her life.

“I met Duncan when I was a student at Sussex and he was the chaplain,” she says.

“We got to know each other well and when he came back to Edinburgh he set up the Centre for Theology and Public Issues and he involved me in it in 1985.”

“He got me as a psychologist and social scientist into CTPI and that opened up a whole new world for me which I think has been the backbone of what I have been doing ever since.”

Elder, session clerk, convener, Moderator

At the same time, Dr Elliot has spent countless hours on her church work, from serving as an elder and session clerk at Greyfriars Kirk to spending 12 years on the central committee of the Conference of European Churches.

In the 1990s she became Convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Nation committee, which became the Church and Society Council. Then in 2004-5 she became Moderator, inspiring women across the religious landscape.

“That year was one like no other most certainly,” she says. “I know at the time it was inspirational for a lot of women because many of them told me so. That was a highlight of my life.”

Stellar Career

As a member of the Christie Commission Dr Elliot helped map out the future of Scotland’s public services. From 2007 - 2013 she was convener of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Perhaps one of her biggest challenges was to chair the Land Reform Review Group whose report laid the groundwork for this year’s Land Reform Scotland Act 2016.

“In 1998, when I was convener of Church and Nation, we produced a report on Land Reform so I didn’t come completely new to it in 2012,” she says.

One of the people who worked on the report for the General Assembly, she notes, was former MSP Ross Finnie, who later took the lead on land reform legislation.

“It may be slow burn but the kind of formation you can have in the Church on that ethical dimension to public questions is something which does bear fruit,” she says.

Dr Alison Elliot in windowseat

Sees bright future for Kirk

A powerful presentation by Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama at the 1998 World Council of Churches Assembly helped shape her approach to public service, she says.

“It was from Jeremiah and it was about ‘Seeking the Peace of the City. That captured my imagination and has been my inspiration for much of what I have been trying to do.

“Seek the peace of the city because in its peace you will find your peace.”

Dr Elliot is optimistic about the future of the Church of Scotland, and not just because she is a glass half-full person.

The Chance to Thrive initiative and the new Castlemilk church are good examples of the Church’s ability to bring communities together, she says.

“I think it’s a brilliant example of how to get communities moving again and how to get the churches engaged with them.

“I think the Church will continue to be there but the Church of the future is going to be very different from the way it is now.”

Through a grandmother's eyes

At the moment Dr Elliot is enjoying a break from full-time work, taking time to read novels and cook in her newly renovated kitchen in the Edinburgh home she shares with her husband Jo.

Every other week she takes the train to London where son Johnny works for the Bank of England and daughter Christina is a producer with a dance company.

“Our grandson Jamie who is 15 months old is the main person in my life. He’s just about walking so we’ll have to get our skates on to keep up with him,” she says.

For someone who has spent much of her life working to build partnerships across European churches the Brexit vote and the political shifts sweeping the globe are a disappointment, she says.

Nevertheless she remains optimistic about the future, saying it is time for her generation to pass the reins to the younger generation.

“We’ve had quite a good innings frankly and it’s not surprising that a lot of these ideas are beginning to feel a bit tired.

“It’s painful to stand aside and it’s especially painful to see the Brexit and the Trump perspective taking over.

“But you have to trust your children to take over. You have to trust the young.”