A Bigamy Scandal that Left a Church Empty’

Lydia KendallSource

Hello my dearest lads and lassies,

I have a little story for you. And it’s not a happy one

Not so long ago, six-year-old Astrid found a home in the Highlands. But that home cast her out as a pariah. 

It all started when her mom, Elsa, married the minister of Foss Kirk. 

An Estonian citizen, Elsa had been married before, to Bruno, a medic who was taken prisoner on the Russian front and put in a concentration camp. There, executions were fairly common. So, after five years of not hearing any news of Bruno, he was presumed dead. Then, a golden ticket came for Elsa: the Baltic Swan programme offered women work as nurses in the UK, and Elsa landed a spot at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire.

With two children, Astrid and Dagmar, Elsa had a lot on her plate. The family’s journey to Perthshire started in a refugee camp in East Germany after the Russian tanks tightened their grip on Estonia in 1944. Astrid, who tells the story, was used to sleeping on train station floors and eating the worst food imaginable, as the world was shattered by the war around them. 

And then, a letter came. 

Elsa Gilles (far right) is pictured heading for a picnic at Loch Tay with her father (left), friend Leida and children in 1947. Image source.

William Gilles, a recently ordained minister in Edinburgh, who had been Elsa’s pen pal when they were young, found her again. Mutual visits to and fro Scotland and England led to a marriage proposal in 1946. Nothing seemed to be able to harm them there. The Highlands had not been ravaged by the war

“We were in a beautiful little valley with heather-covered hills on one side and, what is now, Loch Tummel on the other. I was deliriously happy.” Astrid said. 

But then, Bruno emerged, in 1947, unscathed. He had escaped death by performing an operation that saved the Camp Kommandant’s life. An allegation for bigamy befell the happy family in the Highlands. But of course, this was common in the life after war, and the court declared no guilty parties. Elsa had to choose a husband: she chose the minister. 

But the allegations were enough to ruin their life forever. “The parishioners of Foss were not so happy. They made their feelings clear. As an entire body, they stopped attending church,” Astrid remembers being just her and her mother sitting in the pews. William actually had to relocate to Australia for a while, but he eventually came back. They lived together at Redford Barracks in Edinburgh.

Astrid is pictured sitting on the bench, surrounded by friends, at the Foss Manse in 1947. Image source.

Despite all, Foss is still remembered fondly by Astrid. “And then there was the wonderful walk back to the manse, with the singing of the larks and the beautiful flowers. Yes – it was paradise.”

Until next time…


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