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Obituary: Evelyn Gillan; Former Head of Public Affairs RCN Scotland and campaigner

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It is with much sadness that Scotland has lost one of its most distinguished campaigners and former Head of Public Affairs at RCN Scotland.

Evelyn Gillan

Evelyn Gillan 1959 - 2015

Evelyn Gillan was a renowned activist in Scotland and her campaigning work has been recognised internationally for its inspirational leadership, originality and courage.

Born of humble beginnings in the tight-knit mining community of Tranent, East Lothian, Evelyn was never one to shy away from an issue that needed addressing.

Her earliest activism as a student found her leading a campaign against the Chilean Dictator Pinochet and subsequently being elected President of the Students’ Council.

She later moved to London to work a gap year as part of the International Youth Year. Amongst other things she persuaded Paul Weller and Julie Walters to become co-presidents and appear in a promo film with The Specials’ Jerry Dammers, members of Madness and a young Robbie Coltrane narrating.

As broadcaster Lesley Riddoch was to later remark: “shy and retiring – not oor Evelyn”.

However the bright lights of London were never something to turn Evelyn’s head and she soon returned to Edinburgh when in 1985 she started working for the newly created Women’s Committee of Edinburgh district council as its Campaigns Officer.

It was here that she developed one of the many campaigns for which she will be remembered. Co-created with the late Franki Raffles and Susan Hart, the ground-breaking Zero Tolerance campaign was launched in 1992, with a poster campaign pairing beautifully styled images of women and children together with shocking statistics about levels of physical and sexual violence.

The Zero Tolerance campaign raised the bar for public discussion of domestic abuse, with versions of it repeated by councils across the UK as well as internationally. Its success led Evelyn to establish the Zero Tolerance Charitable Trust, which she co-directed for six years and which continues her work today.

Other notable campaigns included; Change the Change, which produced the city’s first ever menopause clinic; improving women’s safety with Edinburgh taxi companies and annual celebrations for International Women’s Day.

In 2001, Evelyn became the Head of Public Affairs at RCN Scotland.

Seen as an inspirational appointment by the then Scottish Director James Kennedy, Evelyn had made it clear that she would not be constrained by either the prevailing ‘safe culture’ or the London centric control that dominated the organisation at the time.

With her trade mark flair for capturing the public and political imagination through campaigning she immediately instigated a number of Scottish specific initiatives. These were aimed at developing a closer link between politicians and the RCN and the public and nurses.

She launched the award winning campaign Value Nurses by persuading 50 MSPs to shadow nurses in their own constituencies for a day. This led to the first debate in the Scottish parliament on the contribution nurses make to patient care. Evelyn also initiated a political leadership course, media training for grass roots nurses and a members conference to input their ideas for Scottish Parliamentary elections.

After moving on from the RCN to complete her PhD, Evelyn returned to the campaigning front, firstly with Alcohol Focus and then with Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems.

It was around this work that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon “had the privilege to get to know her better and see at first hand that impressive ability to make a difficult case and inspire and encourage others to believe in it”. This work would ultimately lead to the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing legislation being passed at the Scottish Parliament.

Evelyn’s work amounted to one thing – sowing the seeds of change. Evelyn was happy with this interpretation and wanted everyone to consider that true aspiration means trying to leave the world a better place; she has.

On the 28th of October RCN Scotland members will have the opportunity to attend a Members Conference in Edinburgh to plan our campaign for the 2016 elections. Her legacy continues.

Geoff Earl

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Geoff Earl has got it right. Without Evelyn's influence and strategic input RCN Scotland would have been on the margins of decision making in Scotland. She lead the way in making sure that members were at the centre of campaigns and ensured that our spokespersons such as myself were well informed, coherent and trully influential. A true professsional and a great loss to her family, friends and Scotland.

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