Galloway People featuring Jim Figgis on becoming a preacher at home and abroad

Sugar broker, teacher, Corsock shopkeeper, insuranceman, Christian charity director, evangelical preacher at home and abroad – Jim Figgis of Rhonehouse certainly has a fascinating CV.

Married to Helen for 60 years and father to two sons, the 85-year-old has called Galloway home for 35 years.

He was “brought up to go to church with my family” in Northaw village, near Potter’s Bar in Hertfordshire.

On leaving school he did his two years’ compulsory National Service with the Royal Navy from 1954-56.

“I was on HMS Owen which was a survey vessel painted white,” he says.

“We traveled around the Persian Gulf.

“We went ashore in Gibraltar and Malta but there wasn’t much to do further east in Kuwait and Basra.”

Back ashore, Jim’s working life began as a trainee in a firm of produce merchants, Joseph Travers and Sons Ltd, in the City of London.

“The price of sugar would be going up and down all the time and I traveled to jam factories to sell it,” he recalls.

“One was Frank Cooper’s at Oxford which made marmalade. It was a great rival to the marmalade manufacturers in Dundee.

“I worked there for five years then joined a firm of sugar brokers in London.”

That job, Jim tells me, began to pall after a while but at least there was the consolation of a trip abroad.

“I went to Cuba and spent a week there meeting government representatives,” he said.

“That was in 1964, after the revolution, and a year after the Cuban missile crisis.

“The Americans had lost everything in Cuba. And because of their trade embargo the Cubans had to come to London to find someone else to sell their sugar to.

“So we bought their sugar and sold it to other countries.

“The Cubans arranged for me to be in a hotel in the center of Havana.

“I had to hand over my passport and got it back three days later. I was taken to see a sugar mill out in the country.

“It was the quiet season and they were not actually producing at the time.

“The Russians had sent in bulldozers to help harvest the sugar cane.

“But a whole lot of rocks got thrown in with the crop and wrecked all the machinery.

“After five years I became dissatisfied with the business of dealing in sugar futures.

“It was like a casino – and I was not happy going on with that.

“I felt it was a good move to get out of the company.”

His next career move, Jim says, could not have been more different – ​​he switched from trading to teaching.

“I trained for four years at Goldsmith’s College in London helped by a grant from Hertfordshire County Council,” he explains.

“I was sent to a primary school in Hatfield in Hertfordshire, one of the new towns north of London, for two years.

“To begin with I found my feet quickly but life did not get any easier.

“Different children came in and the classes were getting harder to teach.

“I moved to a school in Stevenage 10 miles away for four years and taught everything.

“I found it satisfying for a bit but the pressure of work wore me out and in 1976 I left teaching after six years.”

Quitting the classroom, it turns out, paved the way for Jim and his family’s move to Scotland – the village of Corsock to be precise.

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“My parents-in-law had sold the business they were in and moved up to Scotland where my father-in-law had roots,” says Jim.

“He was a London Scot – his grandfather was an Aberdonian – and they moved to Mossend between Corsock and Balmaclellan in 1967.

“Before they moved up here I had never visited Galloway before. But when we came to visit we loved it – I especially enjoyed the sailing at Kippford.

“We had to find a means of supporting our living and later in 1976 we bought the wee shop and sub-post office in Corsock, with petrol pumps across the road.

“Helen was the sub-postmistress and for ten years we both ran the shop together.

“Corsock then was very much a farmers’ village and most people were connected to agriculture in some way or other.

“In those days there were one or two retired people but the village had a school and a village hall.”

Incidents of note in the shop were few – but the locals weren’t slow to keep the new owners going, Jim recalls.

“In our second week there a man came through the door and wanted his day’s papers. I asked ‘what’s your name?’ and he replied ‘I was introduced to you last week – have you forgotten already?’

“The job was fine but it was hard work and long hours over a six-day week.

“As our two boys grew up they went on the bus to Dalry Secondary School and learned to run the shop on the occasions we were not there.

“In 1986 we sold the shop – we only had one offer and we took it.

“We moved to Rhonehouse when I was 50 – and neither of us had worked to go to.

“My wife was working as a volunteer at the adult resource center in Crossmichael.

“I became a commercial traveler for a large insurance company. It was hard work and I would cover 100 miles a day anywhere between Carlisle and Dalmellington.

“Most of my clients were people such as farmers, doctors, shop owners and car dealers. I had to learn the trade from the bottom up and did it for three years.

“You would phone people up and ask if you could come out and discuss their personal life insurance and pensions with them.

“A lot of farmers took out private pension policies because they had never thought about wanting to stop work. A lot of them I’m sure were glad they did it.

“With state pensions when one partner dies your income is cut in half – and that’s when the rubber hits the road.”

Jim, I learned, also volunteered for Citizens Advice in Castle Douglas as part of a rota, helping out clients in financial or other difficulty.

And in 1991, he himself needed a bit of guidance on what to do next – from God.

“I was driven to pray about it,” he said.

“And I decided that if I was going to work for only a little money I would do it for God.

“My mother’s sister-in-law had just died and I was told I would get an inheritance.

“She was a widow without children.

“I picked up the Galloway News and saw a shop advertised for sale on Dalbeattie High Street. In faith I put an offer even though I was still waiting for the legacy.

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“Everything went through and I opened my Christian bookshop, the Bible Shop, in 1991. A big distributor in Carlisle had all sorts of Christian books which I had spotted during my commercial travelling.

“I immediately contacted them and told them about my shopkeeping background in Corsock and they said it seems as if you know what you are doing.

“They provided the first 500 books to be paid for by return of post, another 500 came a fortnight later and it grew from there.

“I had a small clientele then internet booksellers took a lot of the trade away.”

Divine intervention was needed again, it seems, as Jim continues his tale.

“I began getting letters from overseas, mostly from Africa,” he smiles.

“They were covered in colorful stamps with birds on.

“The shop must have been in book trade directories circulating around Africa.

“Enterprising people were looking up names of contacts in Scotland to help them buy books and stationery which they could not afford.

“They needed to obtain as much as they could free and they still do – there’s so little money in Africa.”

Jim struck up a close friendship with a man in Malawi, “an ex-Muslim who became a Christian”, he tells me.

“He was a young man who traveled around as an itinerant evangelist.

“He had tried different denominations and decided to start his own.

“It was similar to the Church of God in America.

“He wrote to say he wanted to start a school for the children and could I supply some stationery, pens and pencils, that sort of thing.

“He was in Blantyre, which is named after the birthplace of the famous Scottish missionary David Livingstone.

“I got a stream of letters and I was sending him a few small parcels.

“He began to tell me about how he had started up a string of churches in the bush along the border with Mozambique.

“The civil war there was just coming to an end then.

“People were meeting under a tree, or where they had been able to build brick walls with only sheets of tin or tarpaulin for a roof, which often leaked.

“He wanted to build proper churches using local labor and we set about raising money.

“He asked me to be their forwarding agent to which I agreed.

“Dalbeattie Post Office got quite busy sending money to Malawi by Moneygram in sums up to £800.”

Jim’s friend then suggested he come and visit to see for himself the desperate need they were in.

“My first visit to Malawi was in 1999 – it is beautiful and the people are very welcoming,” he says.

“The color of my skin was an advantage – they had never seemed a European before.

“We traveled to many villages in his minibus along dirt tracks.

“We had timed it so my visit would be in the dry season.

“He had signage on it such as ‘You have tried everything, try Jesus’.

“Africa was a fertile place – they would listen to so many people, some good, some bad.

“Certain cults got a foothold there but we did not have any truck with them because they did not share our beliefs.”

Malawi has much to thank Livingstone for, Jim believes – not least his work to end the slave trade.

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“Sadly it was not completely stamped out when he died and it carried on,” Jim explains. Zanzibar had a slave market and Arab dealers came from the Middle East to buy people. These traders sent men into the bush who would arrive in the villages at the dead of night.

“They would beat people and bind them and if people resisted they would be killed.

“Women if they were young enough would be taken with the children and the elderly left to starve. The captives were put on a boat on Lake Malawi and taken across to Mozambique on the other side.

“The people were bound hand and foot and marched to the coast tied together with slave sticks. All this went on until about 1890 – well after David Livingstone’s time.”

Jim has been out to Malawi 16 times between 1999 and 2017 and early on set up the Society for the Protection of African Children as a Scottish charity.

During his visits he often lived in mud huts out in the bush, where he was invited to preach.

“On the first occasion my friend said stand up, open your mouth and preach,” Jim smiles.

“I gave a 10-minute sermon through an interpreter in the Chechewa language.

“It helped that I had prepared a little bit beforehand!

“We did quite a lot of humanitarian work, sent money for children’s clothes and food, and funded the Maoni orphanage in Blantyre. There were a lot of orphans from the AIDS pandemic where one or both parents had died and their families could not look after them.”

Jim also visited refugee camps in northern Kenya in 2003 after hearing about the desperate plight of people there.

“There were civil wars in Uganda, Ethiopia, Congo and Somalia and thousands of people were displaced from their homes,” he explains

“Kenya was seen as the safest country and it set up refugee camps with the UN.

“It was desperate – people were making houses out of cardboard boxes.

“When we got there our accommodation in the camp was in a compound belonging to the World Lutheran Church, which was fenced off.

“We were quartered there and fed there. The camp had a women’s center where women were offered free abortions.

“I made three or four visits to Kenya and each time I was asked to preach in Pentecostal churches in Nairobi and Mombasa.”

Jim’s church work, I learn, also took him to Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa where he preached in Durban and other churches across the country.

He also made visits to Chennai, south-east India, where he preached and attended bible conferences.

Almost as an afterthought, I ask Jim how he rediscovered his faith.

“I had a religious conversion in 1984,” he says.

“I was watching Songs of Praise and a black girl was singing in a big church in Birmingham.

“I suddenly thought ‘Why am I not praising God?’

“I had not been inside a church for 20 years.

“Following that I started the Bible Shop in Dalbeattie.”

Jim has just published a new book, Africa Calling, detailing his Christian work on the continent.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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