Department of European Languages and Cultures

In memoriam: Derek Wagg and Sheila Wagg, née Millar

Former Hispanic Studies student, Susan Harrison, pays tribute to two long-standing members of our languages’ community.

Over the course of 2022, we were saddened to hear of the deaths of two former colleagues in European Languages and Cultures: Derek Wagg (Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, formerly Hispanic Studies) in April; and Sheila Wagg (née Millar; German Studies) in September. Former student Susan Harrison pays tribute. 

Photo of the Wagg family doorbell
The Wagg family doorbell in Morningside, Edinburgh, where Derek and Sheila lived for many years

Sheila Millar, originally from Aberdeen, studied languages at the University of Edinburgh. In her account of German at the University of Edinburgh 1894-1994 she recalled her delight at being appointed as secretary to the Departments of German and Spanish in 1955. She took up her post in Minto House in Chambers Street, where the department of modern languages was based. 

Derek Wagg arrived in Edinburgh from Birmingham a year later to teach Spanish and Portuguese. He became a warden in Fraser House, one of the halls of residence in the Pollock Halls.

Their paths must have crossed early on, and over time they became firm friends. They stepped out together for many years, enjoying arts, theatre and music events in the city. They married in 1971 at St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Morningside and set up home nearby. The community of faith at St Peter’s sustained their spiritual lives over the decades that followed.

Many generations of students benefitted from Derek and Sheila’s pastoral, administrative and academic diligence over the years.

Secretary, donor and historian

Book cover of German at the University of Edinburgh

Sheila’s role as departmental secretary required a high level of skill - technical, organisational and interpersonal. Eventually based solely in the German Department, she was adept at timetabling, booking rooms, steering students, dealing efficiently with paperwork and managing the politics of a busy group of academic staff. Colleagues remember her as being pivotal to the success of the Department.

In her lifetime, Sheila gifted a substantial amount of money to the University providing funds for the Sheila Wagg prize for the best modern language student of the year. In 1994, the Department of German celebrated 100 years of teaching at the University. Sheila researched, collated, and wrote a history of those ten decades. You can still buy that book in second-hand book sellers on the Internet. It is an important part of the archive of the University.

Teacher and mentor

Derek was first and foremost a teacher; both fastidious and engaging in his approach to life-long learning. His huge enthusiasm for Spanish and Portuguese and the history of the Romance languages was always evident.  Former students remember the methods and teaching approaches that he used. Those who in their turn became teachers incorporated into their own teaching practice some of the tricks of the trade they had learned from him.

Derek’s Christian faith, and his commitment to teaching and learning, ran wide and deep. In addition to his work in Edinburgh, he spent many holidays teaching seminarians at the Scots College in Valladolid and Salamanca in Spain.

Sociable and supportive couple

Derek and Sheila are remembered for the kindness they showed to students, especially to those who experienced personal and academic challenges during their time at the University. They were a sociable couple often convening gatherings in their favourite Edinburgh pubs.

They were enthusiastic supporters of the German and Hispanic Studies Departments' amateur dramatic endeavours and were involved in directing, producing, and providing all sorts of back-up to the departmental plays. Students who participated in those activities remember them with nostalgia. It is easy to forget how much work the productions involved for all and especially for Derek and Sheila.

In their retirement years Derek and Sheila travelled widely. They spent time playing and socialising at a bowls club where they were also involved in the gardening and the landscaping. Sheila was a long-standing member of Edinburgh’s Bach Choir and took great pleasure in singing.

The community at St Peter’s provided them with much practical and spiritual support during the last years of their lives. In 2021, increasingly frail, they moved into a care home. Derek passed away at age 96 in April 2022. Sheila joined him in September 2022, aged 89.

They are much missed and remembered fondly by former students, colleagues, and dear friends.

Susan Harrison graduated with an MA in Hispanic Studies in 1980. She went on to work in management in health care and social services in London. She retired in 2018 and has a portfolio of governance and project roles. During the first year of the pandemic, she returned to working in the NHS to manage a London-wide Covid homelessness response team.