Obituaries: Rev Dr John Cameron, minister and Scotsman Letters stalwart

Rev Dr John Urquhart Cameron, minister. Born: 10 June, 1943. Died: 4 March, 2022, aged 78

John Cameron 'was the Church of Scotland’s only polymath'
John Cameron 'was the Church of Scotland’s only polymath'

I knew John Cameron for 50 years. There was no one like him, with his extraordinary range of gifts and abilities. He was the Church of Scotland’s only polymath. John Cameron was born in Dundee on 10 June, 1943. He was the eldest of the four sons of the Rev Alexander Cameron and Margaret Urquhart.

On his father’s side he was related to the distinguished journalist James Cameron and the Gaelic poet Kenneth MacLeod. His maternal grandfather was Hugh Urquhart, one of the outstanding Scottish railway engineers of the early 20th century and outdoor engineering chief of the LNER. In childhood John often spent summers in Brittany with his French grandmother.

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While adept at almost every form of sport, it was as a runner he came to national prominence and he gained his full international colours the year he left school. During his years at Falkirk High School he was also leader of the Stirlingshire Schools orchestra and tenor soloist in the school’s musical productions. He had every gift. Academically he won prizes across the board and placed in the top rung of the St Andrews University Bursary Competition going up with a major scholarship.

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At St Andrews he continued to win class medals and to compete internationally in athletics. He also became a tenor soloist with Cedric Thorpe Davies’ famous Chapel Choir. In 1962 he was offered a sports scholarship to Pomona College, California. Whilst studying business there, he competed on the athletics circuit in North America until 1964.

After graduation he returned to St Andrews and started the research which would lead to his Physics PhD. Since his studies depended on the early mainframe computers which he could only access at night, his days were free. He was thus able to continue singing with the Chapel Choir and the Renaissance Singers, to be Charities Convener, to be an active member of both the Kate Kennedy Club and the SRC, and – now that his running days were over – to play for the University golf team.

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After completing his doctoral studies he joined the international marketing division of GlaxoSmithKline. In the summer of 1970 he married Jill Sjöberg in London and shortly thereafter surprised everyone by deciding to enter the ministry of the Church of Scotland. The couple returned to Edinburgh where they bought a flat in Marchmont. John read theology at New College while Jill worked as a physiotherapist in the Astley-Ainslie Hospital. As usual he did a lot more outside the lecture room than in it, and he was soon in the Edinburgh University Golf Team, playing cricket for Carlton, and lecturing in Physics at Napier University.

John had a hunger for ministry. His father was the minister of Slamannan near Falkirk. Early in our friendship, about 1971, John told me that his father had died in 1968 when an ill-maintained chimney in the manse crashed through the roof in a storm. John was only 25 when that tragedy happened. He later wrote a booklet about the maintenance of manses which was adopted by the Church of Scotland. John very much wanted to stop that kind of thing happening again.

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After graduation he served for a year as Assistant Minister at Glasgow’s Wellington Church where his daughter Clare was born. Early in 1974 he was called to St Stephen’s and West Church, Broughty Ferry, where he would stay for the next 35 years and where his son Alex was born.

He completed his second doctorate as an external student – this time in theology at St Mary’s College in St Andrews. In addition, he lectured in Physics, Mathematics and Economics in Dundee, taught Religious Education to several generations at Dundee High School and served as a padre in the Royal Naval Reserve and latterly the Black Watch.

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As a hobby, he turned to the family tradition of journalism, first with the Pergamon Press in Oxford and then for many years with John Hill at the Good Ski Guide and Good Holiday Magazine; posts which allowed John and Jill to travel to every corner of the world.

Sport played a large part in family life. The main holiday was devoted to skiing with special memories of New Years’ in St Moritz and racing down the Cresta Club’s famous toboggan run. He thoroughly enjoyed curling and for many years he was Chaplain to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club and enjoyed matches in Europe.

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And of course there was golf. In the late 1960s he was Gerald Micklem’s caddie and in 1969 claimed Willie Whitelaw’s Captain’s Sovereign – the only “sovereign caddie” to subsequently become a member of the R&A. John was an extremely competitive golfer, achieving success in multiple events across half a century. Perhaps most notably, he was the first golfer in the R&A to win the Canadian Silver Beaver twice, testament to his near ruthless determination and notable ability to play in all conditions. Even as his game shortened, his putting never left him, and he won Elie’s over-70s world championships and the St Andrews town putting championships well into his 70s.

Golf has also always been a great family affair too, with Jill and many of the Sjobergs keen players, and both Clare and Alex introduced to the game by John during annual summer holidays in Elie. The combined towns of Elie and Earlsferry have always been a very special place for John and his family, with many great memories shared with family and friends across the years. During his final few years, John took great delight as the next generation were introduced to the game of golf, regularly playing with his grandchildren on the nine-holers at Elie and St Andrews and taking the opportunity to pass on wisdom drawn from 60 years of battling the famous Fife links.

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In retirement, desperate to maintain an active brain, he turned to the newspapers. Over the years he took pleasure in being able to reach more people through his letters than he ever did from the pulpit and built a loyal following. He used to send these to me, always with the email heading, ‘Warblings’ or ‘More Warblings’. He was particularly proud to have supported his friend Margo Macdonald in her efforts to legalise Assisted Dying in this country, as well as, Abdul Basset Ali al-Megrahi and his wrongful conviction of the Lockerbie bombing with falsified evidence. And I know that Abdul Basset Ali al-Megrahi used to send John Christmas cards from Barlinnie in gratitude for his kindness.

John’s ability to dissect problems and relentlessly attack faddish causes were part of his continuing ministry for others. A wide-ranging polymath, he used his power of intellect and penetrating observation to offer humane and rational solutions. He was someone who made a difference and we thank God for his life and ministry.

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