Major John Ross Stewart was one of North Berwick’s well-known figures who, having survived Dunkirk and “many battles with the Japanese” in Burma, returned home at the end of the Second World War and ran three businesses in the town, having converted the family’s eight-bedroomed home into a seaside guest house.
He was born in the very early hours of 20 May, 1918 in the Schoolhouse, Loganswell, to Esther Stewart, a headmistress. His father William worked in Glasgow and the family later moved there where they ran a gents’ and ladies’ tailoring business in the West End, near University Avenue.
When Ross’s father developed heart trouble, Mrs Stewart returned to teaching at a country school near Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. There, his father ran a small Post Office from their house but died, aged only 49. Mrs Stewart moved to a school near Hawick; previously Ross, aged 12, had had to cycle 26 miles to Kelso High School, “summer and winter”.
He left school at 16 and joined the tailoring firm, Montague Burton, which sent him to Leeds to study the business, working in its vast factory which employed thousands.
“War was shaping up,” he told friends, “so I joined the Army Reserves and was sent off in the first week of the war to Army General Headquarters.”
During his army service he endured seven days at Dunkirk “being bombed and shelled on the beach” and “swam out to avoid being captured by the Germans”.
Ross once told me that when he reached the small boats waiting to evacuate the soldiers, he boarded one – at first hesitating over whether to move to another but decided to remain where he was, only to see the other boat explode when it was hit by enemy action.
Later still, his leadership qualities were recognised and he was commissioned into the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and posted to the 2nd Battalion in the North West Frontier Province of British India. They were later moved to Burma for two and a half years, “engaging in many battles with the Japanese”.
He was promoted to the rank of Major, became Adjutant of the Battalion, serving with the KOSBs until the end of the war, as an instructor training officer cadets.
On his return to Scotland, Ross worked in his uncle George Annand’s tailoring shop in the High Street, North Berwick and he and his late wife Esther also ran a greengrocer’s in the same street. They converted their eight bedroomed house – “Ardgay” – on the East Bay seafront into a guest house which they ran until their retirement. One of his final jobs for the KOSBs was to write about their war in Burma entitled Borderers in Battle.
Ross’s hobbies included reading and swimming and he said his happiest memories were “getting married and having my children”. Sadly, both boys died at an early age. Colin, who was working overseas in banking, died aged 23 and Alistair was only 21 when he lost his life in a vehicle accident in Northern Ireland while serving with the army.