Margaret McGilvary Gillies
By: Margaretta Wells
Mrs. Gillies was of quite a different temperament from her sister, Mrs. Harris. She was an extrovert, always gay and laughing and able to keep the country women in fits of laughter. When she was ‘touring’ with Dr. Gillies all meetings began on an optimistic up beat.
Allie McGilvary was the youngest missionary ever to come to Siam. She was eighteen when the Board, with some reluctance, let her come. “I was so thin, pale and scrawny that the Board had father (Dr. McGilvary) sign a statement that if my health failed and I had to return to the United States insider of three years, he would reimburse the Board for the expense of sending me out.”
But Chiang Mai air seemed just the thing for Allie McGilvary and she flourished. Besides being busy at the girls’ school, she and Nellie did a lot of sewing, and made themselves very smart riding habits. Allie was an excellent horsewoman and even ‘jumped’ her horse, though, she told me, ‘the gates were never really very high.”
In 1902 a handsome young Scot from the Isle of Skye joined the Laos Mission. This was the Rev. Roderick Macleod Gillies D.D> Not long after that. Margaret Alexandra McGilvary became Mrs. Gillies.
They were first stationed in Lampang and then moved to Prae, where they were for many years. While in Prae the Gilles home burned down and they lost all their possessions. “I had some lovely old silver bowls that I received as wedding gifts. They were all melted into blobs of silver. We could find just about enough to have a small silver bowl made for each child.”
Mrs. Gillies told me an amusing story of an interview with the doctor in the mission station. Feeling sure she was pregnant, she felt that she should be under the care of a doctor and finally brought herself to the point where she could face him with the news. However she felt shy and diffident, as one did in those days.
Mrs. G. I’ve been feeling very seedy lately.
Doc. (nodding sagely) I’ve often felt that way myself.
Mrs. G. I have this queasy upset stomach.
Doc. (pursing his lips) I’ve often felt that way myself, hot weather.
Mrs. G. (in desperation) I’m pregnant.
Doc. (in alarm and surprise) Oh.
There were four Gillies children; Cornelia, Roddy (Roderick), Mac (McGilvary) and Isabelle. Theyr were all at school in the United States by 1927 when we got to Siam.
In 1913 Dr. and Mrs. Gillies were transferred to Chiang Mai to head up the proposed Seminary. No better choice could have been made. Both Dr, and Mrs. Gillies were able linguists, being fluent in both Lao and Thai. Dr. Gillies was so facile with languages that once, when going on leave to the United States, they went by the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland to visit relatives. On being invited to preach, Dr. Gillies accepted, in his usual courtly manner. He immediately stood up and preached his sermon in Gaelic. When Mrs. Gillies told us this, we were certainly impressed. Both Dr. and Mrs. Gillies were able and willing to give that individua attention and direction of thought that Thai seminary students required. Together they laid the foundations of theological education in Siam.
Dr. Gillies and Dr. Campbell were the last of the great ‘touring’ teachers. It is in the villages that I remember Mrs. Gillies as her most vivacious and enthusiastic self. They would camp out at a village for three weeks at a time. There were men’s’ meetings and women’s’ meetings, general services and a health clinic on a Sunday when a doctor could come out from the city. There was a Daily Vacation Bible School ending in a splendid program with all the children performing. The little folding organ seemed to be going all day. After six weeks at two villages, Mrs. Gillies would return to the city for a breather. They were out all over the valley into the mountains all during the dry season.
We used to walk over in the evenings for a variety of games. Dr. and Mrs. Gillies were great game players; those they had played with their children. Then while shuffling the cards we would hear tales of the children or I’d get her recipe for “cream of scrap” soup.
Dr. Gillies could be delightfully absent-minded. One time Mrs. Gillies lamented to me “I never can have artistic molded food like Nellie does, because Roderick is always inviting some one in at the last minute and then forgetting that the one mold cut in half goes to ourselves.
Mrs. Gillies also told of a story of a visit, while on furlough, to friends in Pittsburgh. Their hostess, a patron of the Pittsburgh Symphony, had excellent seats for a concert. It was quite a gala occasion and Dr. Gillies looked very distinguished in his tuxedo. After they were seated, many members of the audience would stop and speak to Dr. Gillies. He would rise politely and reply courteously to the greeting. He said to his hostess, “I must be very absent-minded, but I can’t remember any of these people.” His hostess burst out laughing and replied, “You don’t know any of them. They all think that you are Andrew Mellon, until you stand up and they see how tall you are.” (Andrew Mellon was rather short and I believe the hostess was Mrs. Mellon.)
I had never known the Harrises or the Gillieses to be really ill, so it was a shock to learn that Dr. Gillies had a heart condition and must return to the United States, which they did (1935). We fell heir to their waffle iron, a constant reminder of the two who set the pattern for theological education in Siam.
Presbyterian Historical Society, Kenneth and Margaretta Wells Collection, “Complete 1950, 1969, 1980s-1995 and Undated ‘Wives of the Six Musketeers of the North and Women of Faith material.’” (Box 7, Folder 13)