October – 2023 (Vol. 47, Number 04)
The Banner Says…
That’s my uncle
Remembering John Cairney
It has been a question I have been asked throughout my life, are you related to John Cairney and my reply has always proudly been “That’s my uncle”. John Cairney was the oldest of two boys growing up, quite happily, in the 1930s in an impoverished and now pulled-down tenement in the east end of Glasgow.
Most may remember him for his association with Robert Burns, to this day many still consider John Cairney the leading exponent of Scotland’s bard. He wrote and toured shows about Burns, wrote books on him and was one of the world’s leading authorities of Burns. For me for some time I thought he was Robert Burns, I was of course much younger, but I did think for a time that was his job much like someone may be a doctor, chef or policeman.
Few would mention John Cairney without soon mentioning Burns. I have vivid memories of him calling me up on stage to hold a haggis whilst he performed to his audience, something that was so completely embarrassing for a 12-year-old. I did however always take note of how he used his voice to command a room, from great bellowing tones to the most soft and intimate tone which had people sat on the edge of their seats to hear each softly spoken word, he was a true genius in live performance.
I recall as a boy every time he flew in from Scotland to see us (which generally involved a performance by him both on stage or around dinner table), I was so excited, this is back in a time where you rarely received an overseas call as they were so expensive, and an international visitor was something to get excited about. I would always draw my uncle a welcome picture on my school paper, and I was always filled with excitement when he would tell me all the tales of his travels. From working on film sets in far flung places to finishing off a script for a show touring Scotland, it all sounded so exotic to me as a child, and I was fascinated by him.
For those who enjoy the Scottish Banner today might be also interested to know it was partly because of my uncle’s performances in Canada that the seed was planted to start the Banner, we had tickets to sell and had to tell people! This of course was in a time of no internet and 47 years later the Scottish Banner still is enjoyed by readers across the world, a small part of his great legacy.
That boy from Glasgow’s east
Uncle John had a multi decade career in the arts. His acting resume included films such as A Night to Remember, Cleopatra and Jason and the Argonauts, as well as starring in the BBC 1960s show This Man Craig. His live performances took place all over the world and he really was a true global citizen. Uncle John penned several books, mostly on Scottish topics and well worth a read. His creative flow also was expressed through his art, many would think he was a late bloomer with paint, but he actually loved art from a young age, but fate would lead him to Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s very first acting program and art would come back into his life at a later stage. However my uncle, that boy from Glasgow’s east, was so much more.
Firstly, for me, he was my uncle, whom I am half named after. Both my parents had just one sibling, both called John and I am lucky enough to be named after these two great men, as Sean is the Irish form of John. He was my father’s big brother and such a very proud Glaswegian, the city which he loved and like my father, carried with him wherever he was in the world. Uncle John was also passionate about his family, his craft, football and his spirituality. He was a true performer and anyone who even had dinner with him will know what I mean, my uncle had an incredible voice and language ability which he used to great skill.
A life well lived
My Uncle John passed away in his beloved Glasgow last month at the age of 93. I was very fortunate to see my Uncle John a couple of times in Glasgow earlier this year. I could and would never not see him if I was in town. A few months later and the final time I spoke to him he sounded really good and told me how he still enjoyed his days in Glasgow.
He was also a regular reader of the Scottish Banner and said what a wonderful publication it is and that I was doing a great job with it, this for me was the highest form of compliment, coming from a man who was the best wordsmith and mind our family has ever produced. He also told me his life was like a beautiful cake and he was at the stage of simply enjoying the icing of an incredible life, and a life very much well lived.
Uncle John leaves behind his beloved wife Alannah, five children, nine grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren. Thank you, Uncle John, for leaving the world with an outstanding lifetime of work. And as you take your final curtain call and exit the stage, I will continue to give you a standing ovation not just because of the gift you left us all with, but because quite simply… that’s my uncle.
Do you have a favourite John Cairney performance or book? Did you ever see him live? Do you have you any comments from the content in this month’s edition? Share your story with us by email, post, social media or at: www.scottishbanner.com/contact-us
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