For more than half a century John Laurie was the cheery face at the top of the stairs that many Scots met when they first attended St Columba’s Church in Pont Street, London, just round the corner from Harrods. He acted as the beadle to the Kirk’s famous church and was much involved with many senior figures there, instructed baptismal families and calmed many nervous brides. He was in attendance to the Moderators on their annual visits.
The Very Rev Dr John B Cairns, a former moderator and a locum at St Columba’s in the 1990s, first attended the church in his youth in the 1950s. “When I returned as locum John remembered me and where we as a family sat in the kirk”, he told The Scotsman. “John served St Columba’s and its congregation with much grace and total dedication.”
He added: “He was, for many, the face of St Columba’s. When I was the locum he was incredibly encouraging and supportive – and discrete – as he was for all the ministers he served. When I conducted his funeral at Killin there were six other ministers with connections to St Columba’s and we all remembered John’s generosity of spirit.
“He was a most active Elder and voiced strong opinions at kirk session meetings. But it was always for the good of the church. I greatly admired John: he was a man without any personal vanity.”
John Laurie – known within his family as Jake – was brought up in Killin and attended Lochearnhead Primary School and then McLaren High School in Callander. At the latter he regularly appeared in their Gilbert and Sullivan productions and recited at Burns’ Suppers. He did his national service with the RAF and then studied for civil service exams. When he passed, Laurie secured a position in the personnel department with the Stationery Office and moved to London.
Central to his life, from the outset, was his association with St Columba’s, joining in 1955. He contributed to its good running and the wellbeing of the congregation in so many ways that he was recognised by succeeding generations as “the heart and soul of St Columba’s”.
He had an encyclopaedic memory for names and the delightful habit of addressing parishioners with both of their Christian names or, if he knew them very well, by their surname. It was relaxing, friendly and made all feel welcome.
A lifelong passion of Laurie’s was Scottish Country Dancing, of which he was an acknowledged authority. Laurie attended regularly at the Monday evenings in the church hall – and the many other groups that met throughout the south of England. He was one of the vice presidents and a former chairman of the London branch of Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RCDS).
His love of Scottish country dancing led him to create a new reel. Fraser’s Favourite was published by the RCDS in 1976 and has been danced at many Scottish evenings across the world. Laurie edited the newsletter The Reel from 1978 to 1991.
His renown in the world of Scottish Country Dancing was recognised by Robbie Shepherd on BBC Radio Scotland’s Take the Floor programme. Shepherd paid fulsome tribute to Laurie’s wide knowledge of Scottish music on the announcement of his death.
Laurie worked well with all the ministers at St Columba’s but he especially admired The Very Rev Dr Fraser McLuskey (Laurie once said, “Fraser was St Columba’s”). So it gave him a particular pleasure to be present as a senior Elder when the Queen visited the kirk in 1983. That year, the church was celebrating the centenary of the Church of Scotland’s occupation of the site.
The incumbent minister was Fraser McLuskey who happened to be that year’s Moderator. His locum was a previous moderator (and former minister at St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh) the Very Rev Leonard Small.
Laurie much enjoyed the unique occasion: the Moderator, a former Moderator and the reigning monarch all at St Columba’s.
Laurie was very well read and had a wide knowledge of hymnal music and psalms. He had been given a small organ for his 21st birthday and studied the history of hymn tunes through the ages.
In his eulogy at Laurie’s memorial service in London, Michael Stevenson, the Session Clerk, said: “John never forgot his Scottish roots. He always loved his native Perthshire and Iona in particular. He was returning from Perthshire when he died.
“He would visit Scotland several times a year to see his family – his surviving brother and two sisters. He had 13 nieces and nephews and 30 great and great-great nieces and nephews.”