Obituary

21st March 2008 at 00:00
John J. Graham was a gifted teacher, headteacher, scholar, writer, editor, politician, historian, folklorist and storyteller. His many roles reflect the various ways in which he influenced life in his native Shetland.

Born in 1921 and brought up on a croft, John longed to go to sea. So when he passed his 11-plus exam, he refused to go to the Anderson Educational Institute, opting instead for Lerwick Central Public School because he knew he would be able to leave earlier. But a disastrous voyage, during which he was very seasick, caused him to change his mind about joining the Merchant Navy.

In 1941, he volunteered for the RAF and got his first taste of teaching as a flying instructor. After being demobbed, he went to Edinburgh University, where he graduated with honours in English and chose teaching over journalism as a career.

In 1950, he returned home to the post of principal teacher of English and history at Anderson, the school he had rejected as a boy. A born communicator, he got a genuine thrill from teaching. In 1966, he was appointed headteacher of the Lerwick Central Public School. And when Lerwick's two secondaries merged in 1970, John was delighted to take charge of the new Anderson High School. He also took an interest in the broader education scene as a member of the Scottish Consultative Committee on the Curriculum.

Before he retired in 1982, John's contribution to education had been recognised nationally. He was made an OBE and became a fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland. In 1985, the University of Aberdeen gave him an honorary degree for his contribution to both education and literature.

It is largely due to John and his brother Lollie that Shetland has such a lively literary scene. They took over the reins at the politicalcultural quarterly New Shetlander in 1956 and remained co-editors until 1997, seeking out, encouraging and promoting new writers.

John loved the vitality of the Shetland dialect. Along with T.A. Robertson, he produced Grammar and Usage of the Shetland Dialect in 1952. And in 1979, he published his bestselling Shetland dictionary. He wrote two historical novels set in Shetland and his study of local education led to his 1998 publication A Vehement Thirst After Knowledge: Four Centuries of Education in Shetland.

John believed that Shetland's future depended on the islands having much greater control over their own affairs and he pursued that political ideal after he retired. He was elected to the Shetland Islands Council and was a councillor for 12 years, standing for the Shetland Movement, which he had helped found.

People remember John with respect and affection - for his generosity of spirit, his lively energy, his ability to inspire others, his passion and his commitment - aware that he really did make a difference to many lives and in many fields.

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