WEE, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!

SO begins Robert Burns’s To A Mouse, one of his most enduring and well-loved poems. And so began a legendary performance piece among the Burns clubs of Edinburgh, East Lothian, and beyond for more than 50 years.

John Mathers was anything but a “wee” man. Neither was he sleekit, cowrin or tim’rous. He was a larger-than-life character: loving to his family, generous with his friendship, firm in his convictions and courageous in his business and political activism.

John died peacefully on May 26 last year at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary after an accident. In his last days, he was visited by family and friends from across the globe. He died peacefully on May 26 at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Born in 1936 in Netherley, Kincardineshire, John’s early life led him to Balerno as an apprentice joiner aged 15. Arriving in Midlothian he soon met Jean Shand, whom he later married. Together they had four children: Yvonne, Brenda, John, and Sandra.

National service took him to serve with the RAF in Staffordshire. It was there that he was spotted for his football skills by the manager of Crewe Alexandra FC and offered a contract. In the end he turned it down and returned home to Jean, calculating that there was more of a living to be made as a joiner.

John’s funeral took place on June 14 at the Currie Kirk Cemetery. He and his family spent many years in Currie and Balerno, where after his early career in construction, John set up his own company, the Pentland Building Company, in 1963.

In 1973 he entered the licensed trade, operating several public houses and restaurants around the area, as well as a number of shops on Balerno High Street. His daughter Yvonne said: “As much as anything, Dad’s entrepreneurship stemmed from a desire to employ local people and – if possible – help them make something of their lives.”

When asked about the Pentland Building Company’s impact on the local area, Councillor Carl John, a friend and political comrade of many years, reflected: “If you were to come to Balerno and ask anyone over the age of 50 if they knew him, you’d be there for half an hour. He was kind and generous to his friends and employees, an early pioneer of the living wage!”

John loved Burns’s poetry all his life and became a much sought-after speaker at Burns Night celebrations across the country and beyond. He was a leading light at the Balerno Burns Club, giving dramatic readings of Burns’s poetry. Yvonne recalled at his funeral: “He became well known for performing at many Burns suppers at home and as far as a field as Benidorm, Australia and Spain, where he was a founding member of Spain’s first Burns club.”

His love for the material was clear to all who listened, never more so than his famed reading of To A Mouse, during which he would produce a living, breathing timorous beastie which would scurry up and down his arms. Yvonne recalled: “Only once that I know off in the 50 years did the mouse bite dad mid-performance. But like a true professional, it carried on to the end, blood dripping from his sair finger!”

John was introduced to the Scottish National Party by Carl John in 1969. He threw himself into campaigning for independence with gusto and kept it up for the rest of his life. He spent many nights out canvassing and fundraising, selling the Scots Independent and recruiting members. He became involved in the campaign for a Scottish Parliament and at a party conference in 1973 the Currie and Balerno branch was lauded by the leadership as being the largest in the country; the recruitment by John, Carl and others had paid off.

Surrounded by family and friends, John was laid to rest next to his wife, Jean, who passed away in 2009 shortly after she and John had moved to North Berwick. During his funeral his daughter Brenda, who also lives in North Berwick, spoke about those years: “Dad quickly integrated into North Berwick life, adapting and changing after his many many happy years in Balerno, but still following his great passions in life: family, politics, Robbie Burns and golf, the peak of his golfing career being his hole-in-one on the famous 13th hole at the Glen.” 

She shared that: “local plumber Bobby Walker struck up a good friendship with Dad and finding out about his interest in the Bard he quickly invited him to do a turn with his moose at the Tantallon Golf Club Burns supper, which was always a notoriously boozy affair. Word spread quickly so that every year thereafter he was in demand in North Berick. Between the North Berwick Burns club, the Rotary Club, the Glen and other charity events he variously addressed the haggis, did the moose, or even performed Holy Willie's Prayer in his night shirt and cap!” 

Politics too followed John to East Lothian. He quickly volunteered to have meetings in his house with members of the East Lothian SNP team. Brenda recalls: “All his organisational skills kicked in, and soon he knew every street in and around North Berwick and all the surrounding villages. He knew which ones were worth canvassing, and which ones were a waste of time. He always he was always proud to devote countless hours to help organise the canvassing, the high street stalls, the polling stations and all the rest.”

A wreath was laid by his grave on behalf of the party, and at a subsequent meeting of the North Berwick Coastal branch of the SNP – where John had held the role of organiser for many years – memories were shared by his party colleagues. One member said that watching John Mathers’s indefatigable efforts on behalf of the party and the cause of independence taught her what it means to "stand on the shoulders of a giant". 

Colleagues recalled that he was “always there early to set up for meetings in St Andrew Blackadder with the huge flask of hot water and cakes/biscuits – all homemade of course.” One said: “I did a High Street walkabout with our candidate and John one grim late afternoon in November in 2019. John was the absolute star turn who knew everyone, and to whom everyone wanted to speak, irrespective of party affiliation. It was a privilege to have worked alongside him.”

Former Branch chairman Aidan Strange wrote about working with John: “He knew so many people by name, nodding, chatting and getting in the odd surreptitious bit of campaigning. It was a lesson in being part of a community, disagreeing well with your political opponents, and never letting a chance to get a vote go to waste.”

John played an essential role in the election of East Lothian’s first SNP MSP in 2021. Paul McLennan, the MSP for East Lothian, in his New Year's letter to local members reflected that: “On the day of John’s funeral I was sadly unable to attend, as I was in Scotland’s parliament – an institution he campaigned for tirelessly in the 70s and 90s – debating the merits of an independent Scotland, the dream which sustained his activism for over 50 years. I like to think he would forgive me on that basis, but also on the condition that we finish the job he worked at for so many decades.”

John’s passion for politics was never in conflict with his keen love of community and his many friendships sustained over years in Currie and Balerno, and in North Berwick. His daughter Brenda made it clear that despite John’s support for Scottish independence which “he believed in so passionately all his days, he never let politics intrude on friendships, and made many close friends of all persuasions. Even a one-time Conservative Cabinet minister!”

Family, community, politics, Burns and golf were with John throughout his life, and it is for those things, and so much more, that we will remember him. Carl John shared that Let it Blaw, the Balerno Burns Club of which John was a member for many years, have decided to dedicate one of their annual competition trophies as the John Mathers Trophy.

In tribute to John, a passionate supporter of local communities and helping those in need, as we celebrate Burns Night 2023 – the first following John’s death – John’s family are raising funds for the East Lothian Foodbank. Donations can be made here.

The love felt for John by those who knew him was evident at his funeral. In the final moments before his coffin was laid to rest in the kirkyard in Currie, his granddaughter Karla shared some poetry. It shouldn’t be a surprise which poet.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.