People Past & Present

A rock in the community

If we had a time machine, the place to visit would be Stromness in the 1960s and the Bankhouse in Victoria Street where John grew up, with Erlend and Ingirid and their parents Jackie and Maria.

It was in the heart of the community, with warmth and hospitality, and an open house at Hogmanay and the Saturday night of Shopping Week. The tradition came from both sides of the family. Jackie’s father had been the Stromness postman, knowing so many people and stories, and Maria came from the Fletts of Kingshouse, a fine farm in Orkney’s innermost parish of Harray. Jackie’s brother was George Mackay Brown, and a cousin of Maria was Eric Linklater; and the mix of people from town and country who visited the Bankhouse could fill the pages of any book.

All three children were born in Kirkwall, after Jackie had been posted to Skaebrae aerodrome, following earlier wartime service in India. John arrived on the morning of November 14th 1945 with, in Jackie’s words, “a powerful set of lungs”. After sleepless nights, Eric Linklater’s wife Marjorie suggested John was just a good eater and needed an extra spoon of cream in his bottle of milk – and that solved it, to John and Jackie’s mutual relief. The family soon had a house at The Willows, with John joined by first Erlend and then Ingirid, and these were wonderfully happy years. By now Jackie was back in his pre-war banking job, and a promotion took them to Aberdeen and a house in Deeside, and then came the return to Orkney to manage the Bank of Scotland’s Stromness branch.

This was the opportunity for John, Erlend and Ingirid to enjoy so much of Orkney life. At weekends at Kingshouse they met up with their cousin Roy Drever who became like a brother, with adventures like tunnelling from opposite sides of the hay in the barn to try to meet in the middle. There were visits to the farm of Redland where another cousin, Eoin Scott, had many memorabilia to show, and ghost stories to tell.

The Bankhouse had one of Orkney’s first black and white TVs, in time for the great European Cup Final at Hampden between Real Madrid and Eintracht, followed by some football in the street. Jackie got a boat with an outboard motor, and the boys would take their friends on evening outings fishing for cuithes, coming home in the twilight to fry them for supper.

And as time went on, John’s thoughts were turning more and more to the sea and the shore. The family always had a holiday in Birsay towards the end of the summer, just next door to the cottage where the shell expert and poet Robert Rendall used to stay. Birsay was a special place for them all, and indeed Jackie and Maria later bought the house of Breck for retirement. And maybe the walks along the Birsay shore, and around the West Shore of Stromness, were part of John’s growing interest in Orkney’s rocks. The Customs and Excise Officer at the Scapa Distillery, Ted Kellock, was very active in the study of Orkney geology, and he took John on outings and field work.

So when the time came for university, John went to Edinburgh to study geology, and walks with him around the West Shore became even more fascinating. He would describe how Orkney’s rocks formed as sediments in a great lake in the middle of an ancient continent, with the heat drying its margins, with fossil mud-cracks and ripple-marks from the lake visible in the rocks at our feet. He showed how the layers of rock were like pages in a book, telling the story of a land shaped by time and sometimes fire and ice.

Edinburgh University also brought him lifelong friends, with some like Ian Mason becoming part of the family. They shared a flat at Bruntsfield Place, with a great gathering from near and far to celebrate John’s 21st birthday. One of the highlights at Edinburgh was a climbing expedition in Afghanistan. A small group of geology students, along with their tutor, drove there in a Land Rover across Europe and Asia. One of the group says that John was a solid team member and the kind of person you knew you could trust in difficult situations – of which they had a few.

He went on complete a doctorate at Oxford, and then teaching and research: at Florida State University as assistant professor of geology, and then lecturing at St Andrews. And best of all, Cynthia was now with him, who he had known from school. They married at Twatt Church, Birsay. Then followed their life in Tallahassee, Florida, making lifelong friends, with great experiences for Paul, Nicky and Inga.

John then took up a post as geologist with a company in Aberdeen and went on to become chief geologist and exploration superintendent for Mobil Oil in Libya. He later moved to Veba Oil for whom he also oversaw production. Track record is everything for an oil geologist, who has to precisely guide the drilling, and John’s track record was so good that he was always in demand. Eventually he was able to move into consultancy and work from home in Orkney; he never stopped working, and he later spent two years in Kuwait assisting a company which had much valued his earlier groundwork.

Having more time in Orkney meant he could do all the things he loved. He’d sailed with Captain Willie Tulloch in an old wooden Snipe, and they bought a fibre-glass one between them and enjoyed points racing and the various regattas. Willie would take them out in his own boat, the Ragna, over to Longhope and on one occasion  up the west coast from Ullapool. There was rough weather in the Minch but a fine supper from a hospitable boat in Lochinver.

John was much involved in the superb Stromness Town Heritage project that re-opened Liddle’s Quarry, the source of the original flagstones in the street, and replaced the stretches of post-war concrete slabs.

He was elected to the Islands Council and became chairman of Leisure and Recreation, and took forward a series of projects, with the completion of the Pickaquoy Centre and the refurbishing of the Stromness Swimming Pool; and he was the driving force in establishing the Community Development Fund for the Millennium. The resulting projects were so successful that the Council has kept up the funding ever since.

After his Council time he continued to work for the community, helping business developments in fishing, renewable energy, and latterly the business sector’s efforts for post-Covid regeneration. One of those involved says that John’s experience was invaluable in seeking to create real change, and that whatever the obstacles, he never gave in.

And indeed he had some tough times to come through over the years, with the loss of Nicky, who inherited all the warmth and gentleness of her parents, and then latterly the loss of Roy and then Erlend within just a few months. He had to cope with illness and the loss of part of his leg in 2016, but his hospital room in Aberdeen was a haven for many visitors, and his Facebook page was full of photos of them. He carried on travelling and in 2019, on holiday with Cynthia in Italy, he walked all the way up to the top of Mount Vesuvius. It was quite a climb but he was very determined.

He so much enjoyed the visits to their family. Paul and Ingrid, with Nia, Arran and Ryan, live in Bridge of Alford today. In the past they lived in Houston, Angola, Australia and finally Canada, great places for an Orcadian geologist to visit. Inga and Adrien, with Léa and Aymar, live in Aix-en-Provence. John loved his yearly trips to France, visiting the family, driving all the way there and back in his beloved Delica. The challenge always was getting there in record time!

And indeed the grandchildren loved outings with John to see the rocks at places like Cruaday Quarry and hear the stories of the fossil fish and the evolution of mammals in later periods of time. After one such outing with Nia and Léa, Nia remarked that: “Grandad even made dinosaur poop sound interesting!

He also enjoyed travels around Orkney with his long-time colleague Adrian Hall, making films for the Science Festival, which he helped in so many ways from its outset.

Foundations for the future

He helped from the start too the Orkney Fossil and Heritage Centre in Burray, as chair of its board, and with interpretation material, and in identifying the varied rocks that people brought in to ask about. His work there was so much appreciated. Others working there speak of how he quietly got on and eased things along their way, and encouraged everyone around him.

He found the Stromness Museum was the perfect home for the big collection of rocks and slides and papers he had inherited from Ted Kellock. Just recently he was delighted to see the Museum’s new petrographic microscope, and he brought in some of his own slides to try it out.

He had a wonderful collaboration with the late Brian Murray, gathering and publishing the collected poems of Robert Rendall. They found numerous poems previously unknown, and much enjoyed their work together. He was increasingly in demand for collaborations with artists and sculptors who wanted to explore the dimension of “deep time”, the long slow ages of geological change producing the rocks we see today. He was so much a part of the fabric of Orkney and all his dedicated work will help the whole community long into the future.

The new Orkney Landscapes website which John developed with his friend and colleague Adrian Hall is now online.

About the author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.