GOTT School was a hive of activity on Saturday night when the Althing Social Group detoured from their usual order of proceedings to provide an evening of entertainment in tribute to the late John Graham.
One of the longest serving members of the Althing, councillor Florence Grains introduced the various speakers who were all keen to pay their own personal tributes to “a great man of Shetland”.
John, with his brother Lollie, set about organising the group in 1950 when a meeting was held at the old hall at the Veensgarth junction to see if a discussion group could be formed to discuss the social issues affecting Shetland at the time and into the future.
After some debate the name Althing Social Group was chosen and John became the secretary and began organising debates. He spent his whole life on the committee, ably assisted by Lollie who spent 29 years on the committee. Brian Smith was the first speaker of the evening and he spoke of how privileged he felt to be able to pay tribute “to one of Shetland’s greatest sons”.
Brian gave an interesting talk which detailed John’s biography from his early childhood spent in Tingwall on the family croft, to his time working for an Aith knitwear firm and then in the grim 1930s in Shetland he worked for the health board as a medical officer dealing mainly with patients suffering from TB.
John spent the Second World War years in the RAF in bomber command and his experiences in the war may have coloured many of his feelings and opinions in later years. He was always a thoughtful and compassionate man who had time for everyone, and whilst his views on many subjects could be forthright, he would always respect other people’s opinions.
Long before the outbreak of the war John had discovered a love of poetry and literature, beginning with reading Haldane Burgess’work whilst he was still working in Aith.
After the war he went to university in Edinburgh where he devoured English literature and edited the University journal.
On his return from university, John walked into the job of principal teacher of English at the Anderson Educational Institute before becoming head teacher of the Lerwick Central School in 1966.
Several speakers throughout the course of the evening spoke of John’s patience with pupils, the way he treated his pupils as adults, never spoke down to them and the way in which he maintained tremendous enthusiasm for his subjects (English and history) which never wavered throughout the years.
He was, however, much more than a teacher and a headmaster even. His love of literature took him into editing The New Shetlander magazine for many years, as well as encouraging his own writing which resulted in the novels Shadowed Valley and Strife in the Valley, along with the well-known Shetland Dictionary and latterly his book Shetland Humour.
Storyteller Davy Cooper told some of the stories from Shetland Humour which provided a lightsome interlude for the audience. They were well aware that while many of the stories were perhaps well embellished, they were founded in truth which only served to make them even funnier.
Davy’s retelling of the tales included the story of the young doctor who many years ago went to visit an elderly lady in Scalloway as she was bedridden.
Being new to the area and unfamiliar with the lady’s case history he thought that he should give her a thorough examination to familiarise himself with her condition. Having done this, the doctor asked before he left the patient if she would like him to say a prayer for her and the elderly lady agreed that he could. After praying, and as he was leaving the room, the elderly lady became rather confused and asked the young man if he was the doctor or the minister to which the man replied: “I am the doctor.”
“Oh that’s allright then,” said the elderly lady, “because if you had been the minister, I thought you were being awful familiar.”
John’s love of poetry was remembered too when Althing committee member Kevin Learmonth played recordings of him reading dialect poems. No-one stirred as John’s familiar deep voice filled the hall. It was wonderful to have the poems brought back to life for those few brief moments.
Before the break young vocalist Erin Sandison sang wonderful a cappella versions of Rowin’ Foula Doon and the lesser-known Isles Asleep, to pay tribute to John’s love of traditional music and singing.
During the break for tea and home bakes the audience had the chance to peruse a volume of the minutes of Althing talks and debates from the first meeting up until 1985.
The large volume provides a wonderful record and it constitutes an important piece of social history for Shetland. Debates ranged from the deadly serious to the very humorous and included motions such as “Shetland’s tourist policy should be revolutionised” in the 1950s and “Polygamy would halt Shetland’s population decline!”
After the interval, councillor Jonathan Wills reminiscenced about his school days as a pupil of John’s and told several humorous anecdotes, including the tale of the one and only time he witnessed his teacher really lose his temper.
School pupils were about to perform a production of the Importance of Being Earnest at the High School, when the siren sounded to announce a boat was in trouble and the lifeboat was being launched.
The pupils all ran down out to the Knab to see what was happening with the result that as the stricken trawler returned to harbour it was greeted by a crowd of people dressed in full Edwardian costume waiting to greet them. The costumes were dirty and muddy and John was absolutely livid, but fortunately by the time of the last night party he was beginning to see the funny side.
In later years Jonathan remembered going sailing with John and one trip in particular when the men became stranded in Skerries due to fog and the boat’s engine breaking down. There was little else to do, he recalled, other than go for walks and talk. On these walks John talked of his wartime days and said that as the mortality rate was about 50 per cent for the men in bomber command he felt very lucky indeed to have returned from the war.
Donnie Morrison was keen to remind the audience of the importance of John’s own writing, in particular the two historical novels Shadowed Valley and Strife in the Valley. These books, as well as telling an informed tale, also provide an historical document of events including the clearances that affected Shetland in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Donnie talked of the clever way that John could put flesh on the dry bones of history and how he also made his subject entertaining, to a point that often the reader or the pupil did not realise that they were learning important historical facts as they became absorbed in the tale being told.
Laureen Johnson read one of John’s own poems, A Parody of Mansie’s Crö. The crö was a landmark in Bressay by which people could tell the time as the sun moved over it, but the crö was usurped by the arrival of the Ward Hill television mast. Because of this, according to the very funny poem, Shetland culture was about to fall into socio-economic decline as the TV invaded homes. Several members of the audience were able to relate to important tasks being left unfinished or even not done at all as something “even more important” was about to start on TV.
The evening would not have been complete without traditional music of which John was also a great advocate.
In 1982 John presented the young fiddler of the year award to Margaret Scollay. On Saturday Margaret was present, along with her son Ryan Couper, Linda Irvine and Darren Stewart, to play a selection of traditional tunes from Unst and Yell as well as a tune called The Zephyr, written by Linda about her father’s boat and then the very apt Saturday Night.
The music went down very well of course and after Bobby Hunter had given a vote of thanks Margaret and the band members were asked to provide another tune, to see the evening out.
Everyone in attendance agreed, as Bobby said in closing, that the evening could only barely scrape the surface of all that John achieved for Shetland in his lifetime.
Everyone also agreed that Shetland is a poorer place without John Graham.