Obituaries: John Cairney, actor best known for solo performances as Robert Burns

John Cairney, actor, writer and artist. Born: Glasgow, 16 February 1930. Died: Glasgow, 6 September 2023, aged 93

With the death of John Cairney, who has passed away peacefully in Glasgow at the age of 93, Scotland marks its last farewell to an actor, writer, artist, film and television celebrity, and dedicated man of the theatre, who became a true Scottish icon of the second half of the 20th century.

John Cairney was a breathtakingly handsome, charismatic and thoughtful actor, best known for his magnificent solo performances as Robert Burns, both on stage and on screen, which began when he first performed Tom Wright’s play There Was A Man at the Traverse Theatre in 1965. His profound creative relationship with Scotland’s national poet – forged across divides of class and religion that made many modern Scots feel that Burns was not for them – arguably helped rescue Burns from a dusty fate as a nostalgic establishment figure; and linked him powerfully with the rebellious mood of social change and liberation that swept the UK in the 1960s.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

John Cairney’s career as an actor, though, encompassed many other elements; and by 1965, his rock-star looks and powerful presence had already won him a series of major stage and screen roles, from the Citizens’ Theatre company in Glasgow – where he played Hamlet in a hugely successful 1960 production – to major films including the 1958 Titanic story A Night To Remember, Jason And The Argonauts (1963), and Cleopatra (1963). In 1966-67 he also shot to television fame as idealistic young schoolteacher Ian Craig in the BBC series This Man Craig, set in a 1960s Scottish new town.

John Cairney first played Robert Burns in There was a Man at the Traverse in 1965John Cairney first played Robert Burns in There was a Man at the Traverse in 1965
John Cairney first played Robert Burns in There was a Man at the Traverse in 1965

Yet after the success of There Was A Man, John Cairney became ever more fascinated by the business of solo live performance, touring the world with shows about Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Service, among others; and pursuing an independent course as a writer, producer and performer of his own work, and as the author of 16 published books. It was an unconventional path, for an actor on the brink of a stellar film and television career; but John Cairney was a man of exceptional gifts, and driven to forge a career that matched his own passions and interests, including an ever-evolving relationship with Scotland itself.

John Cairney was born in Baillieston, Glasgow, in 1930, the first child of delivery driver Tom Cairney, and his wife Mary. He had one younger brother, Jim, who became a professional footballer. The family moved to Parkhead in 1931, and the two boys grew up in a big Glasgow Catholic family, strongly aware of its Irish origins. According to his own account of his childhood in his autobiographical book East End To West End, young John was fascinated by the theatre of the mass from an early age, and would try to re-enact the services at home; and his faith remained important to him throughout his life, as did his love for Celtic Football Club.

He was not, though, even slightly deterred by any of the constraints that a young working-class Glasgow Catholic might have experienced, in the highly sectarian culture of the time. “John hadn't a sectarian bone in his body,” says his friend the writer Gerry McDade, who knew him in the last 15 years of his life. “Just couldn’t be bothered with it at all.”

At school at St. Michael’s Primary and St. Mungo’s Academy, Cairney became ever more fascinated by both art and theatre, and after school, he took up a place at Glasgow School of Art. His course was interrupted by compulsory National Service, which took him to Germany, and to work with the entertainment corps; and on his return to Glasgow in 1950 he was literally “first in the door” when the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music And Drama launched its first-ever acting course, that autumn.

At the RSAMD, Cairney also met Sheila Cowan, whom he married in 1954. The Cairneys had four daughters and a son, and lived near London in the 1950s and ’60s, because of the demands of John’s stage and screen career. It was Sheila’s father Willie, though – a Fife miner whom Cairney greatly admired – who, in 1959, first gave him the volume of Burns poems that triggered his interest in the poet; and as John’s relationship with Scotland’s cultural story became more intense, and the family came back to live in Fife, the pressures of John’s decision to pursue a solo touring career, about which Sheila always had doubts, meant increasingly long periods away from home.

The couple finally divorced in 1980; and later that year, John Cairney married Alannah O’Sullivan, a New Zealand actress, writer and singer who first won fame in her homeland as part of a family group – with her six sisters – known as The Singing O’Sullivans. Like Cairney, she came from a big family with strong Irish roots; and over 43 years, the two built a hugely warm and successful personal and professional partnership.

In 1990, the couple moved to New Zealand, where John – who had already been awarded a M. Litt. from Glasgow University – won a Ph.D. from Victoria University, Wellington, at the age of 64, for a study of Robert Louis Stevenson and theatre. In his later career, he was much in demand as a speaker, performer, writer, consultant and lecturer; and after the couple returned to Scotland in 2008, he also increasingly returned to his first love of painting, creating – among other commissions – a series of stations of the cross titled A Glasgow Calvary, for St. Peter’s Church in Glasgow.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

His return to Glasgow, though, also gave John Cairney the chance – in his final years – to enjoy the life of his family, and to spend more time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in whom he took a deep and loving interest. “John was an encourager,” says the actor and director John Bett, who cast Cairney as Macbeth in Richard Demarco’s remarkable 1989 scratch production of the play, staged on the rain-swept island of Inchcolm in the Forth.

“He was a famous man, a real celebrity, and I had no idea how he would react to this last-minute chance to play Macbeth in what were frankly pretty terrible conditions. But he absolutely loved it; and what I learned about him was that his charm and charisma were absolutely real, not a surface thing. He truly cared about people; and I guess he wanted everyone to have the kind of creative life that he had succeeded in making for himself.”

John Cairney is survived by his wife Alannah, by his five children, nine grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. And he will also be remembered across Scotland as a rare, beautiful and gifted free spirit of a man, who helped to transform his country by using his tremendous, restless theatrical talent to create work that would link Scotland’s literary history to its ever-changing present; and ensure that those great creative spirits of the past could live and speak again, in our time.


If you would like to submit an obituary (800-1000 words preferred, with jpeg image), or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.