Making a career out of volunteering

Hilary Hawker is 78 years old. She has lived in Galloway for nearly 40 years now, and it has been wonderful. Her family are Scottish on her mother’s side – her Great Aunt Bessie had one of the first bicycles in Scotland and cycled downhill showing her ankles and upsetting the good folks of Edinburgh.  

Hilary’s mother went south during WWII, so she was raised and had an excellent education in Dover. In those days, girls were nurses, teachers or secretaries, and her stepfather believed that girls didn’t need an education, so she did various jobs in central London, meeting the Beatles and having lunch with the Kinks while at Rediffusion Television. A couple of years later, Hilary went to Uganda and discovered she wanted to be a teacher after all, so she qualified in Birmingham and went to work for the King Edward’s Foundation. 

There, she met her husband, who eventually proposed (it only took him four years!). As they both yearned for dogs, chickens and country life, they bought a burnt-out house on the side of a hill in Galloway with a fantastic view and lived there happily for 38 years with their two boys, chickens, ducks, great Danes, a peahen called Sheba (who outlived three Solomons) and a guinea fowl called the Mad Major. Both sons are now happily married to lovely wives. One is now officially French and lives in Paris with his family and the other lectures and does research at Strathclyde University.  

Hilary and her husband have recently downsized into a tiny house with a huge garden. She does a spot of volunteering here and there. That’s her future sorted!


I first volunteered when I found my life unexpectedly at a standstill at the age of 24, so subsequently found myself teaching in a bush school in Uganda as a volunteer with only A Levels and some business certificates to my name. I had to look Uganda up on a map before I left England, so haphazard was my decision. 

The education plan was that qualified volunteers taught their own subjects, and the rest of us filled in the gaps. Having gone to teach English, I found myself at the sharp end of maths, history and (with great pleasure) music. I remember teaching a class a song, and they sang it to me, so I thought I would let them do it once more then teach them some harmonies. They started again and were improvising beautiful harmony in their own style quite spontaneously – a moment of pure joy that has stayed with me for more than fifty years.  

During my wonderful time there one of the priests came and asked if I could cater for a group that were going to do a weekend course deep into the bush. Absolutely no corner shop! And so, a lifetime of volunteer cooking began. I have cooked for retreats, holidays and field workers, from Cape Town to Cornwall and the Republic of Ireland to Islay. I am just about due to go to Corrour, miles up a forest road, to feed a group of botanists for a week. No supermarket will deliver, so the same precision is required as the trip to the Ugandan bush! I think to myself that it doesn’t really matter if something goes wrong because it is really hard to fire a volunteer!

I have had a variety of different careers and still don’t know what to do when I grow up.  Now that I am retired, I volunteer in a number of different ways; it is very hard to give some of them up – my attempt to stop being Treasurer to the Clarsach Society has taken over a year, and counting, as the bank refuses to let me stop signing cheques, and let the new, incredibly respectable retired professor take over. I’m Convener of the Bakehouse Community Arts, and as I am allergic to meetings, I am very good at getting them over and done with without upsetting people. I have vowed never ever to do another Minute of any meeting of any kind. Ever!  

But the best part of the Bakehouse is helping with Big Lit, the small literary festival in a small town that manages to be big in all sorts of ways. Those who have met Chrys Salt will understand why. We get writers, politicians, actors (please come back Peter Marinker), poets and choirs all doing their stuff in the Bakehouse, the school, the carpark … and I get to feed them all, while moving chairs, introducing the occasional turn and stopping Chrys from actually taking off as she whirls from pillar to post. It is huge fun and I always find myself stunned that something so big can happen in a place so small.

I haven’t consciously thought about volunteering as achieving anything particular for me, or having any social result, it is just being asked to do something by someone and forgetting to duck, but it brings a great deal of fun to my life and lots of lovely people too. I guess I’ll carry on for a bit.

Hilary Hawker

Big Lit 2022, run by venerable literary polymath and former Autumn Voices Poetry Competition judge, Chrys Salt, will be happening in Gatehouse of Fleet from Thursday 21st to Sunday 24th July at various venues in and around The Bakehouse. If you’re based in beautiful Dumfries & Galloway or happen to be visiting on those dates, there is a fantastic festival line-up to check out with very reasonable ticket prices.

Our monthly flash theme for June consists of four themes!

This month, we’re celebrating Volunteer Week, Garden Wildlife Week and Adult Learner’s Week, as well as National Writing Day on June 23rd. Four themes, we hear you cry? Why yes! June is a month with lovely long days leading up to and after the solstice, so think of all those extra daylight hours you’ll have to write a flash submission (or two) for us:

  • Tell us about the creatures you find in your garden or your efforts to turn your outdoor space into a haven for wildlife.
  • Write something about your experience of being a volunteer and the joy you’ve found in volunteer projects.
  • Are you taking a course, doing a degree or training in something new? Tell us what it’s like to be an older adult learner.
  • Or, tell us something about your writing process, if you write regularly.

Entries will be accepted until midnight on June 30th and flash submissions can take the form of a poem, short story or flash memoir. The winning entry will be chosen by the Autumn Voices staff team and the winner will receive a copy of Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence which has been kindly donated by the Little Brown Book Group.

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