On 15 November 2013, we at Visions of Azerbaijan lost a colleague and very dear friend, when Fiona Maclachlan succumbed to illness and passed away in Perth, Scotland. Such was her spirit and courage that the news came as an even more dreadful shock to many who had no suspicion of the long battle that she had finally lost. Our sadness is tempered by the personal memories we have of her and her many contributions to the people and land she adopted. We try to convey below some measure of the woman behind the articles and projects she drove, and what she continually gave us. We are especially grateful to her husband Alastair for his great help in this celebration of Fiona’s life in Azerbaijan.
Fiona in Azerbaijan
Fiona arrived in Baku in April 2004 filled with excitement and trepidation. This was going to be a completely new life for the next few years in an unknown land. Her first short visit in January, when the icy wind blew and the streets were grey, gave her a brief flavour of how hard life could be, but also how it could make a difference if you opened your eyes and heart.
She was with husband Alastair, who was here with BP to work on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline – a major project in the transformation of Azerbaijan’s fortunes – and their young daughter Joanna. Fiona was the ‘trailing spouse’, faced with the challenge of establishing their new home and life in the expat world.
Azerbaijan was shaking off the lingering influences of the Soviet times. History had left it with some real challenges both in Baku and the regions, including poor infrastructure, poverty, waste and contamination – there were also the frantic roads. Yet through this Fiona saw the good and the opportunity – the warmth of the people, the deep-rooted culture and history, the beautiful carpets, tea and jam, the food and the music, the excitement and colour of the bazaars.
A problem that troubled Fiona deeply was the terrible condition and suffering of the street animals around Baku. This was a problem she felt could be tackled. Together with willing local helpers and a friend, Elizabeth McCusker, a great deal of patience and gentle persuasion of the authorities, the first animal welfare charity in Azerbaijan was formed – BakuPAWS. They set up feeding stations around the city, brought in vets from abroad to treat the cats and set about educating people to help them help the animals.
Elizabeth: Fiona was a brilliant ambassador for PAWS and everywhere she went she made people aware of what we were trying to accomplish. I always thought that one day we would both return to Baku and reminisce about all the hardships we had faced and all the changes that have taken place, and that we would have a few more lunches and laughs together. Just knowing that Fiona was out there wherever, doing her own brand of good to make the world a better place was always a comfort to me. I will miss her very much.
With time, a good 4x4, Mark Elliott’s guidebook and Zaur, the family’s first driver, Fiona started to explore. Initial expeditions were around the city, to the carpet museum, to the old walled city, Icheri Sheher, around Baku’s oil fields, the mud volcanoes and the beaches of Mardakan. As confidence grew, she went further afield to the observatory at Pirguli, to the Candy Cane Mountains, to the mountain village of Khinaliq, the beaches at Nabran on the way to the Russian border. Every trip excited her more. She saw land with no fences or boundaries, countryside that was beautiful, flowers that were unique and locally grown fruits and vegetables with no compare.
She wanted to share her experiences and began to record her observations and thoughts in writing and in pictures. In 2006 her articles appeared in what was the new InBaku magazine. Then she met Taleh Baghiyev, head of The European Azerbaijan Society’s Baku office, who asked her to write for Visions of Azerbaijan. This meeting was the beginning of a long and trusting friendship.
These articles became guides that others used. She was the ‘Girl on the Go’, promoting the wonders of this country with her typical energy and enthusiasm. She was also going further than other expats and seeing much, much more than many. This gave her a singular perspective that was to be valued and recognised.
Taleh reflects: I am so grateful that we met, it almost seems like fate. We couldn’t have asked for a better colleague – or friend – to help us get Visions off the ground. Fiona was always so enthusiastic and willing to take on any task that brought her closer to all her friends here. Just as she fell in love with Azerbaijan, so everyone she met, whether professionals, villagers, academics or refugees, took her to their hearts. It was impossible to resist her warmth, care and enjoyment of life – I remember her laughter most of all.
I was privileged to see her on her home ground, too, and to benefit from the generous hospitality that she and her family always offered. She shared her wonderfully optimistic spirit in the same way. We have lost a true friend, but we will always have our memories of her spirit; we hold on to them as our only solace in such a loss.
Favourites – Qabala
Two of Fiona’s favourite places were Qabala and Sheki. She and a friend were sitting one evening in the Qabala Hotel restaurant when they were approached by a gentle giant of a man. “Would you like to come and see my piano factory?” he eventually asked in excellent English. “The pianos will be the best in the world.” Not the usual kind of question an expat traveller gets so far out in the country, yet Fiona had long since learnt, ‘never be surprised’ by anything in Azerbaijan. This was the renowned cellist Dmitry Yablonsky who headed the Beltmann piano factory and is also artistic director of the town’s annual music festival. Another lasting friendship was launched. The unique and inspiring Qabala Music Festival, in the foothills of the Caucasus, was a favourite annual event for Fiona. She loved the place, the atmosphere, the majesty of the music, but best of all that it was open, that the pleasure it gave to local people and visitors was free to all. Dmitry reflects:
I don't remember when was the first time I met Fiona, because it seems as though I knew her all my life. We met in one of the hotels in Qabala, where she was having breakfast with her friend. I was building the Beltmann piano factory and had to spend a lot of time in Qabala between my concert tours. Almost right away Fiona and I started to talk about how we could do some good for Azerbaijan: for example, by making people in the world aware that there is a country named Azerbaijan. As we shared a huge love for the country, we always found many themes to discuss concerning the welfare of Azerbaijan and especially my two projects, the Beltmann piano factory and annual Qabala music festival.
I am in shock still, that Fiona is not with us, but I know that there is peace wherever she is. Her incredible, positive soul will always be with me, wherever I may be.
Favourites – Sheki
As for Sheki, this was an experience that Fiona typically loved to share with friends. Sally Woodes Rogers, whom she had enticed from Scotland into the republic for the first time, recalls: Fiona gifted Azerbaijan to me the moment I arrived in Baku. Her enthusiasm for Azerbaijan was gushing and I was rapidly infected with her passion for this country. In those few short days, she led me into the histories of the land and people. We explored her previously trodden routes and shared new experiences. She had a great connection to Azerbaijan, wanting the very best for the land and peoples as she developed her knowledge and shared it so readily.
We stayed in the Old Caravanserai Hotel; an enchanting and mystic atmosphere leads you into the teahouse, haunted by the tales of the merchants of the silk route. Sitting back into the stone nooks the two of us, Fiona and I, along with our driver Zaur, passed many hours in discussion, with our glasses of tea delicately and discreetly being re-filled from the traditional Azerbaijani tea urn. The service impeccable, nurturing, inconspicuous, facilitating an atmosphere that allows one’s imagination to be lost in a vision of the historical, bygone merchants of this embedded ancient artery of trade.
And sitting at a family breakfast table in Kish one morning was the closest we came to feeling and understanding the people, the way both she and I truly loved to see a country – from the people's heart. Such fondly remembered days....
Ismayilli with Elliott
Ever keen to share her travelling experiences, Fiona was even more pleased to accompany Mark Elliott, writer of the book that had been her early travel bible. Typical of the two characters, they found much to enjoy in the products of the region. As Mark remembers:
Travelling together to research Visions articles about Ismayilli silk and wine, I saw first hand her maternal instincts coming ever more to the fore whether in her caring, if unelicited, counselling or her unwavering insistence on seat belt etiquette! Her hospitality was legendary and splendidly relaxed, so much so that her gorgeous Thames-side house became a second home in London to her extended Azerbaijani 'family'.
Generous yet canny, dogged yet restrained, Fiona was a lady who really understood the balance and essence of life. She wholeheartedly embraced her Azerbaijan, was an unsung hero to countless friends and quietly worked away at breaking down barriers and building bridges that will last for years. She was an ambassador and a unique character who will be sorely missed and impossible to replace.
Fiona’s kindness and natural interest in people and their environment meant that she made friends easily wherever she went and she was trusted. She had a great respect for the traditions of Azerbaijan and an understanding of the values of the people. A deeply moving episode for her was a visit to meet some of the refugees from Khojaly to hear and record their stories. She was overwhelmed by the generosity from ‘those that had nothing’ and moved by the intensity of their memories of that dark night in February 1992. Of course she wanted to help, if only by relaying to a wider audience their stories and pleas to be allowed to return to their homes, and this will be done in a book to be published this year.
In stark contrast, Fiona also loved to help with the little but important things such as attending the opening of The European Azerbaijan Society’s new school, providing practical advice on science equipment to ensure the children received the best education. Her joy in watching the talented young Azerbaijan Eagles dancers at practice in Mardakan inevitably made her want to help. She did all this as a friend and for the simple pleasure of helping others. Saadat Ibrahimova and Ian Peart had many first-hand experiences of her invariably positive response to what she saw: We knew Fiona would love those boy dancers and their exuberance, so brilliantly channelled into disciplined creativity by teacher Khanlar Bashirov. She would never be put off by the dark and cold of the season as we went out to Mardakan. She did love them and she did want to help. As a result there is every chance that they will be at the Aberdeen International Youth Festival next summer – thanks to Fiona.
While Azerbaijan was a love and a passion for Fiona, she was still Mum at home and a loving wife. She loved and supported her own immediate family and her much wider extended family. She made home a home. From daughter Joanna: Mum and I always had great fun together when I was home from boarding school. She loved having a daughter to do things with; to take shopping, to take to the newest snazziest café in town, to go to the bazaars, to the Sheki Khan’s Palace, to the new beach resort... She loved showing me everything she’d found whilst I’d been away. I miss her company terribly.
Fiona had many friends who shared her passions whom she loved to see and stay connected with. She had dreams for her family and she had dreams of her own. One of those dreams was with regard to the future of Azerbaijan; it was only recently found and we will leave it to the end, to let Fiona have the last word.
Fiona was born and brought up in Thurso in the north of Scotland. She had a happy childhood growing up with her parents and two older brothers Iain and Neil. She had a great enthusiasm for nature and the outdoors from an early age, sailing, fishing, exploring the beaches and generally having fun. Fiona was a high achiever at school and graduated with a degree in botany from Aberdeen University in 1978, before returning to Thurso to live and work. There she met Alastair and they married in 1985. Fiona and Alastair have three wonderful children (Richard, Alexander and Joanna) and two grandchildren (David and Daniel).
Fiona had a varied career of her own including positions as a technical writer, ecological investigator and in a primary school. Fiona and Alastair lived and worked in Scotland until 2004 before they re-located to Baku with their daughter Joanna, for Alastair to take up a position on the BTC Pipeline Project. Fiona quickly fell in love with Azerbaijan, the people and the culture. She travelled extensively, recording her observations and experiences as she went, and making many friends on the way. While having a lot of fun she also pursued two of her passions – to explore the nature and diversity of the country and to help the stray animals of Baku. In 2007 she met Taleh Baghiyev and started contributing regular articles to Visions of Azerbaijan magazine.
In October 2008 Fiona returned to the UK due to ill health and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After a successful operation she resumed her visits to Azerbaijan and her writing, working with The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) and Visions magazine covering an ever more diverse range of subjects – from Eurovision 2012 to the TEAS marquee at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. Despite several recurrences of her illness, she thrived on the success and love of her own children at home and her enthusiasm and love for Azerbaijan continued to grow. This was reflected back to her in many kindnesses and opportunities to visit, explore and advise. In the spring of 2013 she was invited to be a board member for the Azerbaijan WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), recognition of the respect that she had attained for all her work.
We offer our heartfelt condolences to Alastair, Richard, Alexander and Joanna, and to all Fiona’s extended family, with our deep gratitude for sharing Fiona with us. Here is Fiona’s dream:
Walking down the street in Perth in Scotland one sunny spring afternoon in 2013, I was brought straight to Azerbaijan by a phone call.
I was to be invited to be involved with heading up WWF Azerbaijan, to advise on and help set up the various international initiatives which were being put in place to save Azerbaijan's natural environment.
I was to have a team of helpers, advisors and everything put in place to enable me to do this.
All this was thanks to Leyla Aliyeva's IDEA initiative, and why me?
From first arriving in Azerbaijan in 2004 I soon developed a love for the countryside. Wrestled from my beautiful native Scotland, I found myself in a fascinating environment. Wild flowers and open landscapes. Farmers with no money, their fruits with endless flavour and vegetables piled high on sale at the roadside. I loved it and yet felt a huge discomfort – I was enjoying this at the expense of poverty. It was not right.
Feeling an overwhelming desire to embrace the whole country, to wrap it up and keep it pristine, I knew I was nothing, no one, and why would anyone listen to me.
And now, just eight years on, I was being given the golden opportunity.
Thanks, largely to Visions magazine, I have been able to share this passion over the years.
Sadly, though my health won't let me take up this position with WWF, my dreams are intact.
I see an Azerbaijan without fences, without boundaries, where the landscapes are honest and open.
I see the leopards running free, leaping from mountainsides, not through narrow wildlife corridors but by unrestricted territory.
I see beluga in the ocean, breeding successfully, in plentiful numbers.
And all the little creatures in between are allowed to live in the way God intended.
And the farmers and their families allowed to live in harmony with nature, with sufficient income.