The Passing of a Legend in Scottish Sport

John Robertson with team mates

Double Paralympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist John Robertson passed away in the Borders General Hospital on 21st December, age 75. The crematorium was packed with representatives from the Lothian Fire Service where he worked for over 40 years. Members from Tweedbank Art Club, friends and fellow Paralympians also attended in significant numbers.

John was born in Tranent and had a cycling accident in 1959 when he was 16, which left him with a spinal paralysis.  While in Edenhall Hospital he tried all sports focussing on weightlifting, archery, fencing, table tennis and shooting but later on in his exceptional sporting career he turned his attention to bowls and curling. Not surprisingly, like so many Scottish wheelchair athletes of the time, John turned his hand to basketball when the occasion arose.

For many years this very talented sportsman was a regular in the Scottish team at the National Stoke Mandeville Games. Quality Team Scotland performances led to the call up for Team GB for the International Stoke Mandeville Games. John was a Team Scotland member at the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Perth Australia in 1962, Kingston Jamaica in 1966, Edinburgh in 1970 and Dunedin New Zealand in 1974.

John met his wife Val at the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Australia and they were both called up for Team GB for their first Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 1964. Val is a member of the Scottish Disability Sport Hall of Fame and as well as Tokyo, she excelled in Israel in 1968 and Toronto in 1976. John did not make the team for Canada but he travelled in support of his wife.

By this time John and Val were fully committed to bowls and developing a strong bowls community in and around Edinburgh. Innovative bowling ramps were developed at the Thistle Foundation offering green access to participant with severe mobility challenges. John’s skills as a bowler were improving by the day as he launched himself wholeheartedly into all disciplines of the sport. John became a member of East Lothian Indoor, Portobello Indoor and Jessfield Outdoor Bowling Club. John was made an honorary member of Jessfield BC in 1996.

Selection for Team GB for the Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 inevitably followed and John finished a very creditable 5th in singles. John was then selected for the IPC World Championships in 1998 where he secured 3rd place in pairs and 5th in singles. John’s finest hour was the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 where he joined forces with Ivan Prior and David Heddle to win the first gold medal for Team Scotland in front of the First Minister and many other passionate Scots in torrential rain. A very special day for an amazing Scottish bowls triple.

In the history of the Scottish disability sports movement that performance by skip David Heddle from Fraserburgh, Ivan Prior from Glasgow and John Robertson was up there with the very best that our Paralympians over the years have had to offer. The hairs still rise on the back of my neck when I spot that iconic image of the three Manchester gold medallists that proudly hangs in Caledonia House. Bob Dick was the Team Scotland Bowls Manager at the time and he has many stories to tell about that gold medal match and the performances of John and the others .

Over 50 years ago a performance disability sports movement was established in Scotland that embraced a squad of exceptionally talented all round wheelchair sportsmen and women like John Robertson. Those men and women established our nation as an international force in performance disability sport and laid the foundations for the many pan disability Scottish performances that followed from 1984 onwards.

John was a powerful and eloquent man with a wonderful sense of humour.  He was also a talented musician and a leading light in a Folk Group formed by patients at Edenhall that entertained in pubs and clubs in the 60s and 70s. John and others like him fought the good fight during those early years on issues around equality and access to sporting provision.  John had a vision of inclusion in the 80s and 90s that was progressive, relevant and appropriate for our times.

John and Val settled in Melrose and continued to develop their sporting interests through wheelchair curling. John Robertson was a larger than life character who has left his mark in Scottish sport. He will be remembered as a fierce all round sportsman who took full advantage of his many talents across a wide range of activities.

SDS Vice President Jean Stone MBE attended John’s funeral along with another iconic all round Scottish sportsman of the time, John Clark. Jean was a key player in the development of the Scottish sports movement in the early years and remembers John with great fondness. “John enjoyed life to the full and always had a twinkle in his eye. In an unsettling kind of way however, you never knew what he was going to say or do next”.

I became involved with SSAD (now SDS) in 1975 and I was in awe of all those “big men” who reigned supreme in disability sport throughout the 60s and 70s. Even as they sat in their wheelchairs they appeared to tower over me. I had to win their respect and although there were only a few years between us I often had to answer to “son”. When I was first called by my first name I knew I had earned their respect. John and others taught me so much, particularly at Tulliallan training weekends. I shall always be grateful. John Robertson is a legend in Scottish sport. Athletes, coaches and volunteers who have followed on in the 70s, 80’s, 90s and beyond owe so much to John and his colleagues for laying the foundations for our great movement.

Richard Brickley MBE