Iona McGregor obituary

Other lives: Author and teacher who was a pioneering gay rights activist in the 1970s

Hearing of the death of my friend Iona McGregor, aged 92, who was an author and teacher, several gay Scottish friends, not given to cliche, commented: “It’s the end of an era.”

What they meant, I believe, is that the Scotland of Iona’s youth and middle years was a different universe from the world we live in today – and that living through that time marked someone out. It was a harsh, unforgiving environment. Sex between men remained illegal until the early 80s; and, although that law did not apply to women, the stain of criminality seeped into the whole of gay life.

Iona was a brave and inspirational pioneer in the struggle for gay rights that got under way in the 1970s. Working with others in the Scottish Minorities Group, she helped to create safe spaces in Edinburgh in which women could meet socially, and to develop a befriending service for those emerging, blinking, “out of the shadows”, in the tabloid speak of the day.

Involvement of this kind was very courageous as she was teaching full-time and would have lost her job if her activities had become public knowledge.

Iona McGregor, age 12, during a school trip to Blackpool in the early 1940s
Iona McGregor, age 12, during a school trip to Blackpool in the early 1940s Photograph: UNKNOWN

A member of Scottish PEN, and a keen hill walker and traveller, Iona always preferred sun to shadows – unless the latter were of the dramatic kind that marked the Scottish history that she loved and wrote about vividly, both in novels and in scholarly but accessible studies. Her novels, for a core readership of young people, included much-loved titles, The Popinjay, An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty. The National Museums of Scotland commissioned essays on subjects like childhood in Scotland.

After retirement, Iona felt able to mention what had been previously been unmentionable, and in 1989 published with The Women’s Press the novel (for adults this time), Death Wore a Diadem, memorably described by a cultural researcher as “a heady combination of a thoroughly researched historical novel, a comedy of manners, a melodrama, a lesbian romance and a cosy crime whodunnit”.

Born in Aldershot, Hampshire, Iona was the daughter of Michael Joseph McGregor, a teacher in the Army Educational Corps, and Clarice Mary (nee Watkins). She was the eldest of three sisters. Based in Perthshire during Iona’s childhood, the military family was split up by war and postwar appointments.

As with many gay people of her generation, friendship was central to Iona’s life. In harsh times bonding was essential to survival. Perhaps partly because there was no form of legally recognised partnership (civil partnerships were introduced in the UK only in 2004), friendship offered a particularly broad canvas, marked by variegated and contrasting colours. Iona was a loyal friend to many, including gay men she had socialised with in the 1950s and 60s, radical (and riotous) lesbians from the 1970s and 80s, and, in later years, serious-minded members of Edinburgh U3A.

Iona’s early education at Morrison’s academy for girls in Crieff was continued at Bury convent high school, now in Greater Manchester, where the family moved in 1940. During her time at the convent, she was said to have “kept arguing with the nuns about Darwin”. Thanks to a scholarship, Iona became a boarder at Monmouth school for girls, after which she studied classics at Bristol University.

Iona’s sister Masry predeceased her. She is survived by her sister Ailsa, and by nieces and nephews.

• This article was amended on 25 May 2021 to say more about the centrality of friendship in Iona McGregor’s life.

Marsaili Cameron

The GuardianTramp

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