Words With Neil

Neil Mathers is currently on his way to Amman, Jordan. As Save the Children’s Head of Scotland, he’ll be looking at the organisation’s work with children fleeing the Syrian crisis. Lothian Life caught up with him first, at home in Edinburgh.

What’s your connection to the Lothians?

I moved, with my partner, Caroline,  from Dundee to Edinburgh back in 1995. Caroline was about to start university and I had landed a job with Barnardo’s. It had long been our plan to move to Edinburgh – we both loved the City. At the time, coming to Edinburgh was a new and exciting stage in our lives together. Every day seemed to offer a new discovery; we spent a lot of time exploring the streets and wynds of Edinburgh, feeling very fortunate to live here, and being inspired about what the future might hold for us.

Have you a particular childhood memory of Edinburgh?

I remember visiting Edinburgh Zoo as a small child. The whole family made the trip together one summer in the late 70s. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins. It was a roasting hot day, and although I can’t remember seeing any animals, I still recall sitting on a grass embankment with everyone laughing, playing and eating ice cream melting (us and the ice cream) in the sun.

Have you a favourite place to visit locally?

My favourite place right now is sitting on top of Blackford Hill looking out at the beautiful cityscape. We recently welcomed Angus into our home, a miniature wire-haired dachshund. He’s changed our life in some unexpected ways – we’ve met so many people in and around the area where we live, and have enjoyed Edinburgh’s green spaces more than we use to. Edinburgh, for me, is up there with the best cities in the world. It has everything anyone would need and somehow manages to balance history and modernity, great architecture with peaceful parks.  It has a calming effect on me, not something you’d expect in a city, and I feel rooted here.

Does this make you a ‘gloomy-fog-over-the-castle’ or a ‘summer-on-Princes Street-gardens’ type?

Definitely ‘gloomy-fog-over-the-castle’ – summer on Princes Street is something to be avoided at all costs. There are much better places to be.

Could you tell us a bit about your work?

I was aware from a young age that unfairness and inequality held back many children from having the life they deserve. This insight along with a determination to do something about it, lead me to get involved in working with children and young people. I trained in community education and started working in community-based youth work projects, first in Dundee, and later in Edinburgh.

I’ve now worked in the voluntary sector with children’s organisations for 20 years – and I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to be Save the Children’s head of Scotland.  My work gives me the opportunity to speak out on issues affecting children in this country and globally from the rise in child poverty at home to the desperate situation in Syria and the refugee crisis.

I work with a great team of people who are committed to making the world a better place for children. I am particularly passionate about tackling the causes of poverty and the impact that this has on children’s lives and prospects for the future. Poverty is the greatest threat to children’s rights in this country.

You’ve already done so much in your career, but what do you consider your greatest achievements so far – personally or professionally?

Neil2 (Copy)I don’t tend to think much about my achievements – but I do feel very lucky to have a wide circle of friends and to have shared almost 25 years with my partner. Being able to look back on the twists and turns of my life and the shared experiences that we have had together is something I am very thankful for.

Throughout my career the things that I am most proud of are the moments when I have been able to help someone to overcome the challenges they were facing and see a better future. I still remember the young people that I met and got to know in my time and have on occasion, years later, had the opportunity to meet them again and see what they achieved in their lives. This is always very special to see, but is also an important reminder that for some young people things didn’t work so well.

I am proud of my role in establishing Children of Songea Trust – a charity that helps children affected by poverty in Tanzania to access education and health care. This has been a labour of love for many years now and has succeeded in supporting many hundreds of children to learn and survive. This project has also given me the opportunity to spend a lot of time in Tanzania, to learn a new language, experience a different culture and meet some incredible people. My connection with Tanzania and the friends I have made there will hopefully be a life-long affair.

And when you’re not working?

I like to stay active and I don’t tend to rest on one thing. In the last few years I have become a passionate convert to running – and was amazed with myself at managing to run 52 miles in one day along the John Muir Way. I’ve recently taken up free diving, which has fascinated me for years, but I’d never had the opportunity to try it.

The thing I love most though is Gyrotonic – an exercise system, inspired by yoga, that links movement with breath, increases the natural flexibility of the spine, and simultaneously strengthens and stretches the body. I treat myself every fortnight by spending a couple of hours 1-1 at Edinburgh Bodytonic. I would highly recommend it.


You can connect with Neil on Twitter @neilmathers

And find out more about the organisations with which he’s involved at  www.savethechildren.org.uk and  www.childrenofsongea.org.uk


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