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A tribute to Mrs Newell

03 November 2011

Mrs Newell in her pew in the East Church : photo by Mary CampbellThe funeral for Mrs Newell took place in the East Church on 31 October 2011. She was 103 and the East Church had been her church for all of those years. Mrs Newell's father was beadle for the church and she had many memories of services, and of the people that attended church.

The eulogy was written and read by David Alston, and will give you a flavour of her life and remarkable memory:

It will soon be Remembrance Sunday. One day during the First World War, some 95 years ago, a soldier from the camp at Newton, where troops were trained for warfare in France, played the same harmonium which is being played at today’s service. He was a young, talented pianist and, when he had finished playing, he sat there, staring at his hands because he would soon embark for the trenches and he knew he might never play again. That moment, which in something small sums up the loss of life and talent and potential of the Great War, could so easily have gone unnoticed and unrecorded.

But it was noticed and remembered - by a young girl, not yet 10 years old Jean Campbell, who sat with her father, the church officer, in the front pew of the north aisle of the kirk. Jean Campbell - Mrs Newell - lived to the age of 103 and that is notable; her memory was remarkable; but I think what was special was that she had noticed such things. It was only because the girl of 10 attended to these details, and perhaps saw what others missed, that the grand old lady of 100 could share these memories, as she so loved to do.

My last conversation of any length with Mrs Newell was at the Fourways Club. She loved poetry and I quoted some lines from the poet Robert Browning. Actually, that’s not quite true. I mis-quoted some lines from Robert Browning and Mrs Newell, as you would expect, corrected me. So, in the correct form, here they are:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:

I would not presume to say which part of Mrs Newell’s long life was the best but I confidently say that, in her case, there was something very special about ‘the last of life’. Something special because in her latter years her keen intelligence, sharp eye and ear, remarkable memory and the warmth of her interest in other people linked us as a community with our past, in a way which happens only very occasionally in any community.

On 30 December 1915 [96 years ago] she heard the sound of HMS Natal blowing up at anchor in the firth and, with her brother, they ran to the harbour and saw the column of smoke. And, again, she took in a small, very human fragment of the conversations going on around her - the words of two sailors - both upset, one because he had lost his bankbook and all his savings; the other because he had lost his brother.

On Tuesday 15 September 1931 [80 years ago], as a young teacher in Invergordon, she arrived on the ferry from Cromarty. It was the day of the mutiny. One of the rather odd features of the mutiny was that a piano was hauled up onto the deck of HMS Rodney and sailors played it and sang songs. Mrs Newell heard the piano play as she arrived that morning.

In all her many memories, this church was a very dear place. Whenever she spoke of it there was a light in her eyes and a smile on her lips. She was saddened to see the physical deterioration of the building but - and this is something equally important about her - she didn’t just look back, she looked forward.

When the first international gathering of the Clan Urquhart was held in 1994, and they visited Cromarty, it was Mrs Newell who arranged for new red baize to be bought for the table pews. Back then she was just a youngster, with a crazy dream, that - against the odds - the church could be restored. She was heartened by the formation of the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust in 1996 and by their acquisition of the building. And I have been asked by the Trust to convey their condolence to her family and express their deep appreciation of all she did to support the repair and conservation of the church.

In 2006, at the age of 98, she insisted on being part of the Cromarty contingent which travelled to London for the final of the BBC’s Restoration Village. It was when we set off on the return journey that I discovered that she was actually christened ‘Edith Jane’, the name on her passport, not ‘Edith Jean’, the name on her ticket. You might not think it a big difference - but that was not the view of airport security staff at Gatwick. However, we did persuade them that in 1908 people didn’t worry quite so much about these things and we got her on board and back to Cromarty.

Mrs Newll and David Alston at the opening of the Victoria Park, Cromarty play equipmentOn her 100th birthday, with the same indomitable spirit, she inaugurated Cromarty’s pensioners play equipment in the Victoria Park. And this year she saw, at last, the completion of the restoration of her beloved church.

We bid farewell today to Jean Newell - to the young girl who watched the soldier pianist at the harmonium and who listened to the sailors of the Natal; to the young woman who heard the piano playing of the Invergordon mutineers; to the wife and mother; to the old lady who played in the park on her 100th birthday and who said, that if she closed her eyes, she could transport herself back to a Sunday evening service service here in the church, with the blinds pulled down and the paraffin lamps glowing.

I want to end this tribute with one more of her shared memories. Of another soldier from the camp, who stood where I am standing, and sang the opening of Handel’s Messiah:

Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people.

Mrs Newell did not simply remember that incident - when she spoke of it, she recaptured the joy of hearing that great music for the first time. Today, as family and as a community, we say goodbye to her, in her church, in the spirit of both comfort and joy that she would have wished for us.

 

 

 

 

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