Revd Canon Dr Gavin White (1927-2016)

We are sad to announce the death of a longstanding member, Revd Canon Dr Gavin White, on Christmas Eve 2016.

Gavin White was born in 1927 at Montreal, the son of a Canadian army brigadier, and on both sides of railway stock. In 1941 the family moved to Hamilton, Ontario, and the contrast between the two provinces and cultures remained with him for the rest of his life – Scotland being Quebec, England being Ontario, or some other such projection of local Canadian divisions onto the world scene. Subsequently there was a move to Nova Scotia, during which he was at a boarding school in Ontario. This was highly athletic, but he was not, and so required to run a route in the surrounding country; this pleased him and gave him the exceptional lung-power which is the one prerequisite for life as a lecturer. After the war came a return to Montreal, where he attended McGill University for one year. Unattracted by this, he dropped out and spent a year in a Toronto sales office where he learned much and enjoyed much – before yielding to entreaties to finish his degree which he did in Toronto.

His next move was to the Arctic for two years on weather stations, followed by a theological college in England – he said an isolated Arctic weather station and such a college were very similar, though the latter was chillier. After ordination (the Bishop of Oxford refused to ordain over some typical argument about Princess Margaret and opening a gate, in which argument he was not directly involved) he returned to Canada and two and a half years as a curate in Quebec City. Those were pleasant and satisfying years, as were the year and a half that followed as chaplain to construction teams on DEWline radar sites in the Arctic. The next move proved false – it was to a mining town in Labrador where Indians had been moved from further north, and while reasonably proficient in Inuktatuk (Eskimo) he never mastered Cree and found the whole business frustrating. He lasted a year and left with a permanent souvenir – a lung which whistled whenever a doctor listened to it.


There followed a move to Africa, something he had had in mind for years, and which found him (after a year in the Ottawa valley while the mission sorted out whether an dhow to fit a Canadian into its structure) in Tanganyika. Once again he was a curate, and there he met Robin whom he married in 1963. By then he was teaching at a theological college in Kenya, and there they remained until the end of 1966. Then leave in New York where he studied in the expecation of returning to Africa, but that did not happen and there was more study, this time for PhD, in London. And a temporary move to Glasgow as temporary lecturer in church history. He ended up staying at that job until retirement twenty-two years later.

He thoroughly enjoyed Glasgow University though he did not take it too seriously, and it is probably true to say that these feelings were reciprocated. In his heart of hearts he did not believe that the British were up to having universities, or railways, though on the latter subject he was in good company and could be more outspoken. Gavin White had a reputation for knowing things that nobody else knew, and it is true that he chomped through Glasgow University Library like a weevil in a cornfield, but he achieved his wide-ranging knowledge of what others did not know by not knowing what they did know. Music, sport, gardening, celebrity, royalty, those things meant nothing to him, but since everyone was assumed to know about them, nobody noticed his indifference. His publications were on a wide variety of subjects and in a wide variety of journals – his two textbooks met with scholarly approval but no great commercial success, and his major writings never found publishers. Oddly, it was his New York thesis, which circulated in photocopy form, and an article on American church history which was republished in a volume of essays without his knowledge, which attracted most attention.

After retirement he and Robin settled in St Andrews, from which his grandfather had emigrated to Canada (he preferred the verb “escape” for both his migrating grandfathers).

Gavin is survived by his wife Robin, still living in the centre of St Andrews in Fife, and by three children and six grandchildren. Rehema (born in Nairobi) lives a few miles away in rural Fife, is an academic at the University of St Andrews and has two ten year old twin boys, Ronan and Atholl; Peter (born in New York) lives in Edinburgh, works in the software industry and has a seven year old daughter Amy; and Stephen (born in London) lives in Belgium where he works for the European Commission and has three boys, Callum, Cameron and Alasdair (fifteen, twelve and seven).

Story type: