Hymn Writer on the Train

Since my elder daughter Nadine took up a teaching post in Aberdeen, I try to visit her at least twice a year. As the journey takes 2½ hours from Inverkeithing, I usually prefer to sit in the quiet coach and take a good book to read. However, one thing I do not like is travelling backwards, as I find it is difficult to read or even look out of the window. Perhaps one day we will all be seated facing the same direction as on an aeroplane. 

Just before reaching Kirkcaldy, I sought to ask the conductor if I could change seat because I get sick travelling backwards. But the passenger seated across from me offered to swap, as she’s fine travelling either way. A conversation ensued. She explained that she travels once a week to Aberdeen to visit her stepmother who lives in a sheltered care home. She usually travels before 11.00am and returns to Edinburgh by 9.00pm

To make use of her time, she writes music or composes hymns, to which I mentioned that I liked the hymns in Mission Praise and Common Ground, and that I sang in a small choir, but that we were very good in quality. She introduced herself as Alison M Robertson. Yes, she wrote three hymns found in Common Ground: No 46 (Haven’t you heard that Jesus is risen), No 80 (Love is the touch of intangible joy) and No 140 (Spirit of God, I long to live). I was so excited, though more connection was to come. 

Alison is a daughter of the late Rev Jack Malloch, who was a Church of Scotland Minister in Glasgow, and later a missionary appointed as a College Principal in Akropong, Akuapem in the Gold Coast (as Ghana was then called). She enjoyed her early childhood there, where she experienced Sunday worship with a difference – full of expression and colours. I mentioned about the Ashanti people and their colourful Kente colours attending church on a Sunday. King Prempeh of the Ashanti Tribe was exiled in my country Seychelles in 1896. The Malloch family knew people called Prempeh who might have been his descendants! Ghana was the first African Country to gain its independence from the British Empire in 1957. 

Alison’s mother had sadly died in Gold Coast in 1951, so Alison and her twin sister and younger brother went to live in Cunningham House, the Church of Scotland’s Home for children of Missionaries in Edinburgh, benefiting from a good education in some of Edinburgh’s best schools. Happily Jack married a lady from his first parish and they had a long and happy marriage and three children of their own. While in Cunningham House, Alison (aged 12) was appointed as pianist for the Sunday School at St Catherine’s in Grange Church nearby, and on Sunday evenings in Cunningham House, when the Matron held family worship for all the children, Alison played (from the Church Hymnary) the favourite hymn of each child. 

Alison and her siblings were all musical and sang in choirs and quartets at school, at church and at home. Alison also accompanied a school choir on the piano and played the violin in the school orchestra. Alison went on to study geography at University and took up employment in that field. As a mature adult, she began to compose words and music for Christian songs and hymns, and once her family had grown up she had the chance to go back to Edinburgh University to take a four-year honours degree in Music. Six hymns in the Church Hymnary 4th Edition have words or music by Alison that reflect and engage with the real world and the richness of insights of Christian people across the world. 

Alison is a member of St Cuthbert’s Church, Lothian Road, Edinburgh, as well as a choir member. When she told me that their young Organist/Choirmaster puts them through their paces with much enthusiasm, it turned out that he taught my younger daughter and took the Chamber Choir when she attended school. Hymn writer, Ghana, Seychelles and Sabine: small world it is! 

Ed: Alison was asked to verify the details in the initial draft, which Alison did, and added: “Considering that Dorissia recorded all this from memory after the event, I think she did remarkably well … “What Dorissia didn’t say is just what a fabulous conversation we had. We did not draw breath for the best part of two hours, as we just ‘clicked’ in seconds and found we had so much in common. Dorissia is also a twin and so that was another connection.”