Tribute to former Dean of the Order of the Thistle
Published on 4 January 2024 5 minutes read
Very Rev Gilleasbuig Iain Macmillan, a former Dean of the Order of the Thistle and minister of St Giles' for 40 years until 2013, died on 13 December 2023. Rev Dr Karen Katrina Campbell, who was supervised as a probationer by him and also was an ordained assistant from 1996 to 2002 at St Giles', writes about his life.
Gilleasbuig Iain Macmillan was a man of profound intellect; a craftsman of words, who could not be rivalled in his conduct of worship. Scotland has lost a supremely gifted preacher, whose contribution to the life of the Church is immeasurable. He was also a good, kind and compassionate man whose 40 years' Ministry in St Giles' changed, not only the interior of the building, but the worship and sacramental practice of the congregation.
His father Kenneth, Minister of Bunessan and then Appin, was a formative influence and had a crucial impact on Gilleasbuig and his Ministry, during his upbringing in the Highlands and beyond. His admiration for his father was immense and he sought to live up to the example given to him by the great man. The influence of the highlands and islands, but possibly more the islands: the place, the people, the oral tradition including storytelling, as well as the wildness of the land, influenced his being. Iain Crichton Smith, who was his English teacher at Oban High School also had a contributing hand in his formation as was John MacLean, brother of poet Sorley, who was the Headmaster. After an MA and BD at New College he returned to the Highlands, to Portree for his first Ministry.
His influence reached far beyond the Congregation, with national and international contributions to liturgy, worship and innovation. During a Service at the conclusion of the First Gulf War in 1991, including different faiths, he called for a pause in the Christian worship. For those 10 minutes, our friends of the Muslim faith were given space to say their prayers, before the Service recommenced. Gilleasbuig thereafter received criticism by those who chose to misunderstand his kind gesture, long before others would be so bold. Years later word reached him, that in Nigeria there had been tensions and violence between Christians and Muslims, where an Islamic leader called for peace, because of the example given in Edinburgh, where people of faith had met together and shared a common space. Gilleasbuig reflected on his small achievement with a suitable Gilleasbuig hint of comment rather than pride.
Evidence of his ecumenical sensibility is reflected in the plaque on the west side of Parliament Square. When asked to provide suitable words for this, he requested that St Giles' be described as currently Presbyterian.
When the Very Rev Gilleasbuig Macmillan was the Moderator of Edinburgh Presbytery, he gave wise advice to the Candidates for Ministry. He told them never to get to the point when they looked on a visit to the Presbytery meeting as a good night out. His insightful reflections on the practice of Ministry were of great value to those whom he mentored through his long ministry in St Giles'. He abjured falseness and valued authenticity in all things, and so his students learned quickly not to put on airs and graces they thought were required for the High Kirk of Edinburgh. One look normally sorted that.
He had a firm grasp of what was going on, beyond his sight. One student came unprepared to read the lesson. Despite the golden rule of 15 minutes of silence before the Service, Gilleasbuig approached the unfortunate student and uttered unusual words: "Two monkeys in a zoo". "Pardon", was the reply. "Two monkeys in a zoo. The first monkey said to the second, why are you holding the Bible in one hand and Darwin's Origin of Species in the other?". The second monkey said, "I am trying to discover if I am my keeper's brother." The student, perplexed, smiled and Gilleasbuig retreated. The student then ascended to read the lesson. "The first lesson is written in Genesis 4", and began to read, until the point where they uttered, "And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my …….". The student stuttered, spluttered and managed to blurt out the correct words, and as they looked over the lectern, they could see the flash of Gilleasbuig's eyes. The student always came prepared thereafter.
Many former students in Scotland and beyond owe Gilleasbuig a deep gratitude for what they learned, about worship and liturgy: he stripped back needless words and foibles to give an authentic expression of ministry. His use of language: his cadence and images, rhythm, lyricism and a deep sense of the presence of the divine melded into calls to worship, prayers and sermons which soared to the heights and touched the heart and soul, with the most exquisite and succinct use of words, to convey so much. No one could craft prayers like Gilleasbuig.
The congregation of St Giles' deeply valued his 40 years of Ministry. Gilleasbuig was there in pastoral times of need as well as celebrations. He encouraged innovation and thoughtful reflection, gathering people together of many perspectives to lecture, preach and inspire. His Holy Week and Trinity Sermons moved and called people to holy things here on earth. To sit at the feet of Gilleasbuig was a pleasure, a challenge and a privilege.
Each August, before his annual holiday to Italy, he would inform his staff of what was to happen in the event of his calling to eternal things. "Someone must preach brilliantly, and as this will not be possible, therefore just ask the choir to sing Latin psalms". It was never clear whether to take him seriously. His love of the absurd while reflecting on his death brought humour, as did many of his pronouncements. However, we now face the eternal mystery of Gilleasbuig's death: not ‘passing' as this phrase irritated him, and we grieve the loss of one of the giants of the Church.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Maureen, the woman who knew him best and longest and his daughter Mary Jane on whom he doted. We give thanks for a life lived in the service of the Eternal Triune mystery. So much is owed to a man of remarkable talent and faith.