Ayrshire Magazine Pays Tribute To Prestwick’s Community Hero
By Gill Sherry
Once we’d decided to focus our attention on Prestwick in this issue of Ayrshire Magazine, one
name repeatedly came up in conversation: Billy Herd.
Billy, known locally as ‘Oor Billy’, sadly passed away in September last year but his friends and neighbours still talk of their local hero with much fondness. I met with Billy’s good friend, Alister Firth, to learn more about the man he still refers to as ‘the biggest wee man I’ve ever met’.
With the help of Billy’s nieces, Morven Cameron and Mary Blyth, Alister fills me in on his old friend’s life.
“Billy was born and bred in Paisley with three older sisters. The family home was always full of people… neighbours, family, friends… and anyone else in need of care. This was Billy’s grounding for the rest of his life. He gave to everyone and carried his values throughout his life.”
He went on to become Chief Draughtsman at Yarrow’s Shipbuilders in Govan. He took early retirement so he could move to Prestwick and live by the sea with his wife, Ann. Billy and Ann were devoted to each other. They were childhood sweethearts and always did everything together.
Unfortunately, only a year after moving to the seaside town, Ann was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Billy nursed her throughout her illness but the couple also received help from both Ayrshire Hospice and Ayrshire Cancer Support. Before she died, she told Billy he must keep himself busy, to immerse himself into the community and get involved with as many things as he could.
“So he went to Ayrshire Hospice asking if he could volunteer,” says Alister.
Aware that only a few weeks had passed since his wife’s death, the charity advised him to take some time to grieve and come to terms with his loss after which they would, of course, welcome him with open arms.
“A few weeks later,” Alister continues, “he was walking along Prestwick Promenade and saw Malcom Sargent House, a charity holiday home for children with cancer. He just walked in and asked if they needed any help.”
Billy volunteered there for many years, driving families to places of interest, picking up families from the airport or the train station, helping out on Christmas Day and, his biggest passion of all, entertaining kids at parties. In fact, his good work continued right up until the day the charity closed its holiday service in Prestwick.
“We tried to save Malcom Sargent House,” Alister tells me, “but I think we knew it wasn’t going to happen. So we decided to set up our own charity. That’s when Whiteleys Retreat came along.”
Maxine Allan, founder and CEO, was the driving force behind the project with Alister named as Ambassador. Billy became a trustee and volunteer, having helped drive the idea forward.
At the same time, he was also volunteering with Ayrshire Hospice, Ayrshire Cancer Support and Spotted Zebras Club at Kidz Play in Prestwick. He also helped out with Boxing Day Dips and Kiltwalks.
“You name it, he did it!”
Billy received numerous awards and accolades for his volunteering and fundraising endeavours including a lifetime achievement award from Ayrshire Cancer Support.
Surprisingly, he also found the time to enjoy a game of bowls and had served as President of Prestwick Howie Bowling Club.
“He encouraged kids to take up the game. In fact, they’ve now got youngsters playing competitively. A lot of that was Billy’s instigation. He believed in the future and always engaged with the youngsters. That’s why he was so good with children.”
Later, Billy was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a progressive illness affecting the lungs and making it difficult to breathe. But even this didn’t stop him from helping others.
“He was told to self-isolate,” says Alister, referring to the challenges of lockdown during COVID, “so he signed up with a befriending charity.”
During lockdown, Billy provided regular telephone support to people who needed to hear a friendly voice. This helped countless people with loneliness and mental health. He also set up a daily blog, entertaining people every evening with tales about his own life experiences.
“He’d learned how to use Facebook and there was no stopping him! It was almost like a podcast. Sometimes he’d be dressed in a dinner suit. Other times he’d have a rugby shirt on. Other times he wore a Whiteleys T-shirt or a Santa outfit… or Captain America! It was totally off the cuff and very funny.”
At the mention of Santa, Alister recalls how Billy would always grow his beard at Christmastime so he could dress up as Father Christmas and entertain the children.
“He loved kids, he was so good with children. And he loved being out in the community. He followed his wife’s wishes to the end.”
Billy passed away suddenly in September 2021. A few weeks before, he had received an invitation to attend the opening of the Scottish Parliament and to meet Queen Elizabeth II. Sadly, he died two days beforehand and never got to attend.
A memorial bench, dedicated to Billy and Ann, is situated on Prestwick Promenade overlooking the sea where the couple’s ashes were scattered together. It looks out towards the Isle of Arran and Ailsa Craig, one of Billy’s favourite views. It’s a fitting tribute to the man who dedicated much of his life to helping others: a place to sit, reflect and appreciate the beauty of Ayrshire’s magnificent coast. Just like Billy and Ann used to do.
“If there were a few more people like Billy, it would make the world a far, far better place,” Alister concludes.
We couldn’t agree more.