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Gordon McInally turns ethos into action

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The second Rotary president from Scotland embarks on his hope-filled agenda

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A young bagpiper parades out of a hotel banquet room playing the familiar refrain of "Scotland the Brave." Behind him, carrying a plated ceremonial haggis and wearing blue, green, black, and yellow Gordon Modern tartan, is 2023-24 Rotary International President Gordon McInally.

It's Burns Night, celebrated every January with folk music, drams of Scotch whisky, enthusiastic renditions of the songs and poems of Scotland's greatest poet, Robert Burns, and, of course, haggis with neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). It is quintessentially Scottish, and McInally is in his element with friends as he marks the occasion in Galashiels, a town in Scottish Borders close to his home in Yetholm.

Heather McInally, his wife of 42 years, is wearing a sash of tartan — checks of green, light blue, and dark red — created for the 1997 Rotary International Convention in Glasgow. A classically trained former professional opera singer and music teacher, she belts out songs by Burns learned from childhood.

Contented wi' little, and cantie wi' mair,

Whene'er I forgather wi' Sorrow and Care,

I gie them a skelp as they're creeping alang,

Wi' a cog o' gude swats and an auld Scottish sang.

Now the haggis is something else.

It is made of a sheep's pluck — the heart, liver, and lungs — minced with onions, oatmeal, suet, salt, pepper, and other spices, mixed with stock and then, originally, boiled in the animal's cleaned stomach. It sounds like a culinary nightmare, but on their travels the McInallys have been spreading word of haggis's appeal throughout the Rotary community.

Heather McInally explains how, on their visits to the States, they have sourced local supplies of haggis and even warmed up the Scottish delicacy in their hotel room microwave. "The smell of haggis lingered in the room the entire week," she recalls. "We served it to other RI Board members while in Chicago.

Everyone seems to love it, even though they were not quite sure what they were eating."

Heather and Gordon McInally on the banks of the Firth of Forth.

Gordon McInally grew up in Portobello, a picturesque seaside area of Edinburgh, notable for its beautiful beach with light-colored sand and wooden groynes (barriers to protect the shoreline) jutting out into the water of the Firth of Forth. His mother owned and operated a private nursery, and his father worked for Macdonald & Muir, which makes Glenmorangie whiskies. His late brother, Ian, was three years younger, and the two spent much of their childhood playing and watching rugby.

Gordon and Heather met in their late teens, and their relationship blossomed on a trip to Florence, Italy, with a combined choir from their separate schools in Edinburgh. "We're not in each other's pockets; we do our own thing," Heather McInally says. "Even with Rotary, I belong to the Borderlands passport club [a satellite club of the Rotary Club of Selkirk], and Gordon is a member of South Queensferry. Our lives have always worked like that, largely due to work commitments, where we go off in different directions. We're both independent people, but we always come home at night and tell each other what we've been doing."

Her husband agrees. The couple have two daughters, Rebecca and Sarah, and two grandchildren, Ivy and Florence. He describes Heather as "a very, very tolerant lady who has been a great support to me over the years."

He adds: "She's always a good sounding board. I can rely on Heather to tell me it as it is. If I give a presentation, everyone's going to tell me it was great, but Heather will always tell me the truth! I know I couldn't do this job without her support."

When they married at Craigsbank Parish Church in Edinburgh, Gordon McInally became a member of the Church of Scotland, having previously been a member of the Methodist Church. Now an elder and trustee in the church, he has also served as a presbytery elder, chairman of his parish congregational board, and a commissioner to the church's general assembly.

The McInallys with daughters Sarah Wardell (left) and Rebecca McInally in Yetholm

McInally skips around a maypole with his granddaughters, Florence (center) and Ivy, in East Lothian.

"My parents instilled in me and my late brother a sense of helping and caring for others that has remained with me for life," he says. "My personal faith, and my upbringing within a family with a similarly strong faith, has definitely impacted my life choices and career."

McInally owned and ran a busy dental practice in Scotland's capital for more than three decades, retiring in 2016. He held teaching and examining posts and served as a branch chairman of the British Paedodontic Society (now the British Society of Paediatric Dentistry). After living for many years in South Queensferry, the McInallys relocated to Scottish Borders when he stepped back from day-to-day practice. The move was over 30 years in the planning.

"All the time I was working as a dentist, we said it would be nice to ultimately make our home in the Borders, because it's where my forebears came from," he says. "My mother's family were farmers, and my mother was born on a farm about 15 miles from here. I've said to people since we came here that I feel as if my DNA has come home."

For McInally, this is a night off, listening to youngsters from Galashiels' schools deliver dramatic recitations of Burns' works, including the "Address to a Haggis" read by young Poppy Lunn, who then theatrically cuts it open. There's more pipe music and fiddle playing, plus community singing, until the evening rounds off with a hearty rendition of "Auld Lang Syne."

A few days later, McInally is at Abbotsford House, which towers over the gently flowing River Tweed in the heart of Scottish Borders country. The countryside is a tapestry of greens, and in the distance loom the three conical peaks of the Eildon Hills, steeped in Roman history. It's a beautiful spot and one of McInally's favorite places to take visitors, as he has done today.

Abbotsford House was the home of Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, poet, and historian, who popularized the wearing of tartan, created the historical novel, and counted Queen Victoria among his fans. Abbotsford's architectural style inspired many buildings in Scotland, including Balmoral Castle, Queen Elizabeth II's summer home. Now, Scott's works such as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy have been adapted for the screen.

On this day, the 19th century Scots Baronial building with its crow-stepped gables, "pepper-pot" bartizans, and elements taken from medieval structures in Scotland, is shut to the public for the winter. Dust sheets hang over the furniture, and one poor soul is in the middle of cleaning the 9,000 books that line the library's shelves.

Scott's connection to the Borders began when he contracted polio at 18 months old. He was paralyzed in the right leg, and so his parents sent him to recover at his grandfather's farm outside Kelso. "It was because of polio that Sir Walter was brought to the Borders where he heard the stories and songs which would inspire his writing," explains Mary Kenny, Abbotsford's heritage engagement officer. McInally and Kenny agree that Scott would have made a great Rotary member.

McInally at The Borders Distillery in Hawick, Scotland.

The McInallys talk with Anna Hinnigan, senior operations manager at Lochcarron of Scotland, a manufacturer of tartan cloth in Selkirk.

McInally's own Rotary journey began at 26. He joined the South Queensferry club after being invited by a farmer friend who was a member of the family's church. "Initially I saw the Rotary club as a great way to make friends in the town and to do things in the area that would benefit the wider community," he says. "As time went by and I realized the work done by Rotary all around the world, I was hooked."

Except for a three-year period when McInally was a member of the sadly now-closed Rotary Club of Kelso, he has remained a member of the South Queensferry club. He served as district governor in 1997-98 and marked Rotary's centenary year in 2004-05 by serving as president of Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland.

Shortly before becoming RIBI president, McInally visited Rwanda and South Africa to work with children orphaned by the 1994 Rwandan genocide and by HIV/AIDS. He subsequently helped set up an RIBI partnership project with Hope and Homes for Children, which had been operating in both countries, to support orphans there with food, shelter, medicine, and education toward a sustainable future. McInally is a proud patron of Hope and Homes for Children, which is now supporting the Rwandan government to develop a national child protection system that minimizes family separation and provides family-based alternatives.

McInally's work in Africa has spread to Kenya. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, he traveled to the country to volunteer as part of an initiative led by Scottish Rotary members. There he carried out dental screenings in Nyumbani Village, a self-sustaining, purpose-built eco-village that provides homes and support for orphaned children and grandparents who serve as their guardians. He also helped renovate residents' accommodations.

"I have found Rotary to be a great vehicle for being able to care for and help others," he says. "Rotary has also given me friends all over the world and, as a consequence, a better understanding of the world in which I live. All that, together with the personal development, is what makes it continue to appeal to me and what makes me want to share it with others."

While McInally stayed close to home, his brother, Ian, after graduating from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, lived outside of London, where he was a member of Rotaract and met his wife while working in the computer industry. The two brothers and their families would visit one another over the years, but little did McInally suspect that his brother was suffering from the "black dog" of depression, as Winston Churchill called it. Ian McInally took his life on 8 February 2014.

That moment forever changed the lives of those who loved Ian, and they continue to ask themselves questions: Why? What signs did we miss? What more could we have done?

McInally recalled all of this in a speech at the International Assembly in Florida in January, the first time he spoke on a public stage about his brother's suicide. He had gotten emotional when he practiced the address. "I might tell you, it was not an easy presentation to give," he says. "That day was the first time I had ever been able to get through it without breaking down."

His goal in telling the story was not to seek sympathy but rather to let people know mental health issues can touch anyone, to illustrate why he feels so strongly about this subject. "A number of people came up to me afterwards and said, 'Your story is very similar to mine,'" he says.

Last year, McInally became an ambassador for the charity Bipolar UK, which then launched a partnership with RIBI. After his brother's experience, he shares a deep resonance with the organization and has supported it by hosting a webinar about suicide prevention and producing a video about the condition.

And one of his presidential initiatives is prioritizing mental health. "My call to action in this new initiative for Rotary," he says, "is that we advocate for removal of the stigma of talking about mental health, help people to find better quality care, and also support them through their journey to recovery."

It's another opportunity for McInally, through Rotary, to put his personal ethos into action.

After Abbotsford House, McInally's next stop is the grounds of the Kelso Rugby Football Club for its local derby against Gala in the Tennent's National League Division 1. If there is one passion that unites Border folk, it's rugby. The region has produced some of the best rugby players to come out of Scotland, many of whom have gone on to play for the revered British & Irish Lions.

The McInallys with Rotarian Andy Ireland (left) and friend Eric Williamson at Murrayfield rugby stadium in Edinburgh.

Joining the McInallys at the clubhouse for a pre-match meal of lentil soup followed by steak pie are six friends from their Rotary clubs. The conversation is rich and the laughter frequent with friends catching up on the latest news.

A former police officer, Doug Forsyth has good instincts and takes the opportunity to approach Kelso RFC President Neil Hastie to talk about joining the new Borderlands passport club.

"Neil is someone who knows what Rotary is about in the community, but he likes the flexible approach of the passport club," says Forsyth. "We don't have weekly meetings, we don't have meals. We meet maybe once a month for a coffee and a scone, and we do projects. ... We're here to do Rotary, not talk Rotary. We're all about making Rotary active and attractive."

McInally looks on approvingly. "This is flexible Rotary, and this is the future," he adds.

Around the table, there's widespread admiration for the man who will become president of Rotary International — the second Scot and the sixth person from the UK. Out of earshot, Sandy McKenzie, president of the Rotary Club of South Queensferry, insists everyone is very proud of the achievement. "We are absolutely delighted," McKenzie says. "Gordon is a down-to-earth, coalface Rotarian. He is a man with his feet on the ground."

Club colleague Kate Gibb reveals how she always knew her good friend of almost 30 years would reach the pinnacle of Rotary International. "I remember telling our [Queensferry Parish Church] minister, David Cameron — not the former British prime minister — that he would be Rotary International president one day," she says. "Call it instinct. Gordon is self-effacing, humble, and hardworking."

McInally was a second row forward and a number 8 in his rugby playing days — "a promising career cut short by a severe lack of talent," he concedes. After the meal, at the Kelso rugby match with his friends, he watches from the stands wedged in the front row between boisterous fans of both teams. It's a fast and flowing match with plenty of tries and plenty of good-humored advice being dished out by the spectators.

Rugby is a big part of the family's life. McInally's former dental practice is just a drop kick from the Murrayfield rugby stadium. When he sold the practice in 2016, one condition was that he had permission to park there for Scotland internationals.

The McInallys take a walk in Roxburghshire.

Heather McInally recalls one occasion when the television cameras were at Kelso and they homed in on daughter Sarah, then a toddler, who was with Gordon watching a match. "Aye, they start them young in the Borders," sang the lyrical tones of legendary BBC rugby commentator Bill McLaren.

Gala steal victory over Kelso 36-31 with two late penalty goals. As we're getting ready to leave the ground, Heather notes: "Gordon jokes in his speeches how he is waiting for someone from the nominating committee for RI president to come along and say, 'Sorry, we called the wrong person with the invitation to be president. We meant to call the next person on the list!'"

"It is such an honor. We're meeting heads of state, visiting glamorous places, and I'm pinching myself thinking, 'I am just Heather. What on earth are we doing here?'" she says. "We're from a small village in Scotland of 500 people, and here we are representing Rotary International."

Before we part, she acknowledges being immensely proud of what he's achieved: "Of course," she says, "but please don't tell him that!"

This story originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

Members of the Rotary Action Group on Mental Health Initiatives strive to improve the mental health of our communities and build friendships.