Obituary: John GM Watt, minister and social activist.

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Born: 13 November, 1920, Buchlyvie, Stirlingshire. Died: 28 May, 2013, in Liberton, Edinburgh, aged 92.

JOHN GM Watt was a ­humane and ­energetic Church of Scotland ­minister, and then ­secretary of the Scottish Marriage ­Guidance Council from 1964 until his retirement in 1985.

Born in 1920 in his father’s parish of Buchlyvie, Stirlingshire, he was brought up with the strong values of Presbyterianism and a keen sense of self-reliance. A happy childhood continued in Holywood, near Dumfries, where John’s abiding memory was of his father (in his sixties) grappling with modern technology. As evidenced in the damage to the trees in his glebe, his father never did learn that four wheels and a combustion engine rarely respond to cries of “Whoa!”

But at just 13, John lost his father, and he returned with his mother to her home town of Aberdeen, where he worked hard to support her and gain scholarships for his education.

As war broke out in 1939, he took the difficult path of pacifism and followed in his father’s footsteps by studying Divinity at Aberdeen University, where he tested both his intellectual limits and his physical strength in the mountaineering club and by cycling.

Perhaps formatively, he was always grateful for the Carnegie scholarship that allowed him to study, and the Classics were ­forever central to his interests.
 Shortly after the war, he ­became an assistant minister in Edinburgh, where he met and married the love of his life, Isobel Monteath Thomson. Though his ideas and beliefs on many things evolved and changed over his long and fruitful life, his love for Isobel was abiding.

His first charge was at Bonny­gate Church, in Cupar, Fife, then from 1954, Pollokshields East, in Glasgow.

What could have been a comfortable middle-class charge became, however, formative in his life. His own frugal, even poor background had nonetheless afforded him every opportunity to gain an excellent education. Now he found he could not ignore the inequalities he found in this great industrial city and he volunteered with the newly-founded Samaritans, in part inspired by the very active ministry of Richard Holloway in Glasgow’s Gorbals.

The slum cases he was called to were often tragic and sometimes violent and he was active in his attempts to help mend relationships or help people in sometimes appalling circumstances. Even in the 1960s, barefoot children were commonplace.

He once described one family he visited, living in “a single end” (a one-room flat, with an outside toilet), the children sleeping double-decker style on and below the kitchen table, wrapped in old coats.

He wept one late evening, having visited a family with no food in the house, whose regular rations were bread and margarine with chips on Fridays. He raged furiously but fruitlessly on behalf of elderly parishioners who, after 60 years of marriage, were placed in separate care homes, miles apart.

He left the Church in 1964 in what he saw as a natural step into a closely related field, the Scottish Marriage Guidance Council. At a time when relationship counselling was a very new concept, John was instrumental in setting up the whole system in which many couples could find help. He led the Council successfully for 21 years, considerably expanding and extending its services.

Paradoxically, though all his working life was devoted to helping others, he was an intensely private man, happiest when alone with Isobel or walking the hills around Edinburgh or reading.

His easy sociability did not contradict his sense of autonomy and self-discipline. This was tested when, at the age of 48, he suffered a heart attack. In the years that followed, he walked himself back to astonishing good health and let fall by the wayside what he came to see as superficial and neurotic concerns.

Over the years, his views on religion changed quite dramatically: he came to see that this world is enough, that physics and Darwin were better explanations than any notion of a God. He had always been sceptical of the power structures of any church, and yet he remained a man of faith: a faith in Man that made him march with many thousands in February 2003 against the impending war in Iraq. And an abiding faith in the goodness of people, despite some evidence that he saw clearly over the years.

Isobel’s death in 1998, on the cusp of their Golden Wedding, was a devastating blow: it was typical of the man that the help they had received from Marie Curie Cancer Care inspired him to offer the organisation his counselling skills.

A natural leader who always sought to unite people, even in old age he was asked to lead the Residents’ Association in his retirement home, where he spent many happy years.

He remained active to the end, enjoying visits to family in Switzerland and to opera in Italy.

He leaves a daughter, two sons and seven grandchildren.

Superlative care in his last days at Liberton Hospital elicited his thanks to the staff, until his last breath.