Obituary: John Ritchie, broadcaster and historian

Author John Ritchie at Rosslyn Chapel.  Picture: Greg MacVean
Author John Ritchie at Rosslyn Chapel. Picture: Greg MacVean
Share this article
0
Have your say

BORN: 25 February, 1947, in Roslin Village. Died: 8 March, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 67.

John Ritchie’s sudden death at the age of 67 came as a grievous loss to family, friends, his local community and the world at large. It is fitting that his funeral service tomorrow will be held in Rosslyn Chapel, for the chapel had been part of his life since childhood.

Born in the neighbouring Roslin Village, his earliest memories centred on Rosslyn, where his grandfather was caretaker. Regaled with tales of the historic chapel from both grandparents, he spent years of his adult life in painstaking research into the chapel’s mysterious history.

Two best-selling books – co-written with Alan Butler – revealed many hidden facets of the building, while demolishing most of the myths presented to a multitude of tourists.

The traditional story of the “Prentice pillar” was supplanted by detailed scrutiny which showed that the intricate carvings were linked to St Matthew, the chapel’s patron saint.

The discovery of an ancient lightbox, which threw a red beam onto the altar twice a year, reinforced the saintly connection – one of the days was St Matthew’s Day.

Eminent historians dubbed him the world’s greatest expert on Rosslyn and he was regularly consulted by foreign academics and media. In this respect his one-time employment as a TV cameraman was an unexpected bonus.

John’s enduring interest in Rosslyn did not preclude other activities. He studied the History of Art at Edinburgh College of Art and in Derby, in the course of which he acquired an appetite for old photographs and expertise with movie cameras.

His aptitude for the latter led to several years employment as a TV camerman with West Deutsche Rundfunk in Germany and, on return to UK, as Scottish stringer for Reuters TV.

For a dozen years he also provided Edinburgh Festival footage for companies in Europe, America and the Middle and Far East. Collecting rare old photographs became a profitable hobby and he referred to his growing archive as “my pension”.

John was a man of many parts but was always concerned with the society in which we all live. Living in Gorebridge, he was a long-time member of the local community council and became secretary of the Midlothian Federation of Community Councils. This zeal for local betterment fuelled his pioneering drive for a community radio for the area.

Ten years ago his efforts led to the establishment of Black Diamond 107.8FM, broadcasting locally and online. As chairman and de facto chief executive, he planned schedules, organised programmes, assembled a team of volunteer announcers and presenters – including numerous young people anxious for media experience – and went on air regularly himself.

His abiding interest in Rosslyn Chapel, with its reputed Templar connection, drew him to the Scottish order of Knights Templar and John became Grand Herald of this order, Militi Templi Scotia, which aimed to bring the Templar ideals, honour and truth, into modern life, and participated in archaeological digs at known Templar sites.

For nearly 30 years John was a fixture on the Edinburgh Festivals scene. Faith Liddell, director of Edinburgh Festivals, recalls him as a knowledgeable companion. “He was part of what made the Festival season,” she said.

Technological advances eventually ended the demand for John’s video coverage but he embraced the change with enthusiasm.

A founder and editor of the edinburghguide.com website, he built it into a prime source of information, news and reviews of Edinburgh events and Festivals. He also organised the Hogmanay website, which brought all the world into touch with the annual celebrations.

Thelma Good, former theatre editor at the guide, said John was very supportive of her attempts to build a year-round reviewing team. “John was very good at trusting people to find their talents and achieve their dreams.”

John’s eagerness to nurture young talent found a new outlet four years ago when he linked up with the Scottish Arts Club to provide an annual prize for the best Scottish drama in the Fringe Festival.

As an ever-present basis for all this, John had a secure refuge and rewarding home life with Catriona and their daughter Hynde. He was immensely proud of Hynde, who joined the army and was commended for her work as a dog-handler in Afghanistan.

Geraint Lewis, a friend for some 25 years, said no-one ever knew more than half of what John did, adding: “The biggest thing John did was that he helped people and never even asked for a thank you. He was the angel we all needed.”

For a time John indulged his taste for antiques, with a shop in Stockbridge called Victorian Images. At a chance meeting there with a young photographer, John encouraged him to press on with his speciality and Robbie Jack is now recognised as one of Britain’s leading performing arts picture-takers. They became close friends and Robbie says that the chance encounter showed John’s readiness to help others without regard for his own benefit.

That concern to help others was a constant factor in John’s life. A prime example of this was the help given to the elderly violin maker living in squalor in the adjoining shop. Long after closing Victorian Images, John visited regularly to make sure the man had enough to eat.

His charitable interests extended beyond UK. Through filming the final of the International Indian Chef of the Year Competition, John became involved in support for the Bangladeshi orphanage founded by former BA stewardess Pat Kerr.

He flew to Dhaka to make a short fundraising film there. On that visit he saw the efforts being made to make the orphanage self-supporting in food. Back in Edinburgh, he arranged for a hundredweight of top-class Scottish seed potatoes to be safe-handed to Dhaka.

An even better idea – to ship old tractors lying in need of repair on Scottish farms to be reconditioned in the charity workshop by youths learning to become mechanics – was thwarted when Bangladesh Customs ruled that full new tractor import duties would be levied on the old ones.