The funeral of my Dad will be held in the Greenock Crematorium, Thursday April 28th at 11am. All are welcome to celebrate this amazing man’s life.
Please don’t send flowers, instead if you feel so inclined, help preserve his beloved St Kilda by making a donation to the St Kilda Club charity. It is connected to the National Trust for Scotland who look after the World Heritage listed site. Please make any donations payable to St Kilda Club, and post to The National Trust for Scotland, Hermiston Quay, 5 Cultins Rd, Edinburgh, EH11 4DF. Many thanks.
Below is an obituary that I’ve written for my Dad.
My father Archie was born in 1920 in the Scottish shipbuilding town of Renfrew, two years after the Great War ended. When he was young, his father (also Archie) had to travel to the USA for work, and so his early years were spent with his sea captain grandfather John Nicol who doted on him, giving him the nickname of ‘The Little Captain”. Young Archie grew up in the heyday of the Empire playing amongst the big engines and even bigger ships that were being built in the yards that lined the river Clyde.
Life became more regimented when his father returned in 1927 from San Francisco (where he’d been working on the Golden Gate Bridge) to become a shipwright in John Brown & Company. Renowned as a master craftsman, my grandfather fitted out prestige liners such as the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. At 6’3”, his nickname was Big Archie and according to my Dad he had an ego to match, however the real power sat with my grandmother Jean, who was under five foot tall but ruled the roost.
Despite Dad’s yearning for a more academic life (he was offered a sponsored place at medical school which his father turned down as charity), he followed his father’s footsteps into the shipyards, becoming an apprentice patternmaker in 1934. He had uneventful war, spent ‘listening’ to the blitz bombers on a sound detector and peeling spuds. With so many ships being sunk by the U-Boats, his skills as a patternmaker were needed to replace the lost tonnage and build warships and so he was called back to ‘civvy street’. He didn’t escape military service entirely as he had to serve with Dad’s Army in what spare time he had. His long shifts in the yards followed by nightime blackout patrols meant he was so exhausted that he learnt to get by on very little sleep, a habit he kept for the rest of life. A hallucinogenic tale of leaving organ practice with J S Bach ringing in his ears while incendiary bombs flashed and clattered around him on the cobbled street is one of his most filmic tales.
From the end of the war until he met my mother, my Dad tried to forge a new career and take up a profession rather than a craft, however he was thwarted in each attempt. He tried to become a professional photographer, but he didn’t have sufficient capital to make a go of it. He studied organ music at the Royal College of Music and Drama, but ended up fixing the organs instead of playing them. And in 1947 after several years at night class, his qualifications in physiotherapy and chiropody weren’t accepted by the newly created National Health Service. Finally he sat entry exams for teacher training but was defeated by maths. In later years he came to recognise this was a lucky escape for both him and prospective pupils as he didn’t really have the temperament to teach.
When he wasn’t working or studying to try and change his career, Dad spent his twenties and early thirties on the move. He cycled extensively in Scotland and Ireland, and was a keen harrier and climber, spending seasons in the Alps. He thought nothing of jumping on his 200cc motorbike to hare down to London for a frantic cultural weekend, the highlight of which was the Festival of Britain in 1951.
In 1955, Archie met the love of his life, my mum Margaret Fairweather Prophet, and they were married a year later. Mum had the university education my father craved, and her double first class honours degree in English and History from St Andrews University undoubtedly helped inspire my father’s later literary pursuits. Two children followed in quick succession, my sister Lizbeth, known as Liz, and me. I was christened Archibald John, was Johnnie at home, John at school, and gained a college nickname of Sam which stuck.
We moved to Greenock where Dad became foreman patternmaker in Scott’s, the world’s oldest shipyard at the time. He built the components in wood which were then cast in metal to create huge Sulzer engines. Archie held this position for over 30 years until his retirement in 1981, two years before the company closed, ending a 270-year history. Although in later life we became best friends, it is fair to say at times Dad’s frustration with work meant we had a difficult relationship when I was growing up.
My father always said that it would break his heart if he died before he retired. In the end, he spent as long retired as he did in the world of work. As well known and respected as he was in the shipbuilding world, it was his achievements outside of work and in his retirement that gave such breadth and depth to Dad’s character.
Like his father before him, and me after, Dad had a passion for photography and the Scottish landscape. As a family, our holidays were spent travelling from one area of Scotland to another, as he “did” Orkney, Ardnamurchan, Skye and all points in between. My sister and I both remember many rainy days, sitting in the car as Dad jumped a fence to ‘get a shot’ of some wet moor or mountain. He built a unique photographic archive of Scotland with no people in it. He turned these into photographic slide shows, which were much in demand. It was a special event when the lights were dimmed in our living room crammed with friends and family who had come to see ‘Archie’s latest slide show’. I can still smell the projector.
In 1970 whilst giving a slide show on a National Trust cruise he met Alan Aitken, a man who would ignite Dad’s childhood fascination for St Kilda. He was 10 when St Kilda was evacuated, an event which was widely covered in the national press. Dad discovered that Alan ran working parties out to the island and from then on, he was hooked. In winter he spent hours working with all the other passionate devotees of St Kilda, planning how best to restore the schoolhouse and the church on the island. His tales of scrounging materials from local shipyards, schools and businesses to make the restoration as authentic as possible are legendary. For many years, especially during the 1980s, his summer holidays were spent in Village Bay deep in wood shavings, pews and pulpits, at last finding a real reward for his woodworking career. It is here he made many good friends for life.
He would light up when he told tales of stormy nights at sea, scrambling on the towering cliffs and the beloved church bell that he had proudly blagged. His work there lead to him being elected to the National Trust for Scotland Council and ultimately being invited to the ceremony to turn St Kilda into a World Heritage Site in 1986. As tolerant as my Mum was of his obsession, sometimes it did wear even her down. In a wheelchair in later life, she once declaimed, “If you mention St Kilda once more, I swear I will walk again, and then I will kill you!”
He grew up with strong Presbyterian influences from his mother and father, who were both active in Christian mission and the temperance league which promoted complete abstience from alcohol (this is one thing Dad never understood). My father’s parents slept with a long bolster pillow between them, and he always said he and his sister Kate were the second and third cases of Immaculate Conception. Despite this somewhat strict religious upbringing, Dad was a devoted adherent to the Church of Scotland. He was an elder in Trinity Church, Renfrew and Union Church, Greenock where he served in the presbytery. After encouragement from his dear friend and former minister Professor William Barclay, Dad studied for seven years to become a lay preacher at Trinity College Glasgow, although he never preached. It was these years of study combined with regular encouragement from Willie and my mother that finally gave him the confidence to start writing.
During the 1970s he wrote regular articles for Scotland’s Magazine on industrial archaeology and at the age of 84, he published his first book, a biography of William Barclay. His archaeology writings and lecturing led him to be made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in the late 1970s. Dad also paid back his love of organ music through many years of service on the committee of the Renfrewshire Musical Festival. He sang in many choirs, most notably the Greenock Philharmonic Society.
In later years, my Dad and I often took holidays together which became known as the Maynard and Maynard Grand Tours. We made a voyage to St Kilda in 1999. Although we’d both visited St Kilda separately on many occasions, this was the only time we visited together. What I remember most from that trip was how he captivated the others on the boat. Dad was many things, but most of all he was great storyteller. Give him a dram, an audience and the slightest hint of an opportunity to enthrall and you could be there all night.
It’s been just over a week since he died. I’ve found writing about him has helped me understand more about my father, myself and my family. I have never felt or seen his influence so strongly in me and the generations that have followed as I do now. While he may not have achieved the potential he felt he had I am truly proud of what he made of his life. It is his perseverance, sense of adventure and spirit that stands out the most. As we prepare for the funeral and let folk know of his passing, we’ve been overwhelmed with the response from others. He’s touched many people in his 91 years, and left a legacy of great love and respect.
My Mum Margaret died in 1992, and Dad is survived by me, his daughter Liz, grandchildren Duncan, Laura, Liam, Douglas and Ross, and three great grandchildren Tiree, Drew and Jack.