A lot of family stuff has accumulated for John over these past 250 years, most of it with a story that can be unlocked only by many hours of patient reading.  A widely-scattered family united only in its resistance to hyphenation of its distinctive surname, it attracted into its ranks by marriage (and even by naval officers changing their surname in admiration of their commander) many notables with their own tales to tell – and attendant “stuff”.

John’s chain-smoking Godfather dumped on him two trunks and three fire-damaged portraits, although their contents were in better condition than the mildewed stuff that came from other sources. Saltire featured in the items from his Dad, a Society member from 1946.

The first Scott Moncrieff (a Robert) kept a deeply depressing diary of life and mostly death at Fossoway Lodge near Yetts of Muckhart, in possibly the most rain-sodden part of Scotland.  Despite (or because of?) his having been a cofounder of the Royal Bank of Scotland, the all-pervading atmosphere was of Presbyterian guilt, relieved only two centuries on by the youthful John being able to use gravestones in the family “plot” as football goalposts.

“Always keep one step behind the client” was the advice of John’s father, also a lawyer, and even well-off members of the family were not brash about their wealth, despite one living on George Square in a house that has survived the University’s depredations – while another created a weird chapel at Gatehouse of Fleet. There were accountants and civil engineers, and a most notable incomer in Second Lieutenant John Irving, who sailed on HMS Terror in the ill-fated Franklin exhibition to find the North West Passage.

Probably best-known is John’s great-uncle C K Scott Moncrieff, about whose life the Branch heard in December 2019 from his biographer, John’s cousin Jean Findlay. Charles Kenneth translated the seven volumes of Proust, also tackling those of Luigi Pirandello and Stendhal. In a short, but industrious, life he also served as a British spy in Mussolini’s Italy. John is proud to wear his ring today.

In addition to heavyweight literature, miscellaneous items in the family collection of documents include a photograph of a very young John held by Charles Laughton, and a letter from Robert Louis Stevenson to his maternal grandmother, rebuking her for describing Scotland as North Britain on her headed notepaper. She was a Murray, with whom Noel Coward was reported to have had a fling, and nursed John’s grandfather back to health from wounds suffered at Gallipoli.  Down the generations, a pattern emerged of heirs to the material not wanting anything to do with curating it, while expecting instant access when there was something of interest. John’s father, who was very laid back about it all, nevertheless demanded (what he himself never did) that John should pledge to read all seven volumes of the Proust. A much-travelled but dull volume by George Scott Moncrieff about Edinburgh was added to the Archive by way of Edinburgh and back via Cape Town, Kenya and a church fete in Kent. John, though, was left feeling that he owes it to his ancestors to make an effort, and lockdown seemed to provide an opportunity to do better than catch up on boxsets of The West Wing!

Women featured too, Joanna Scott Moncrieff becoming in 1946 the first Editor of Woman’s Hour on the BBC Light Programme – she was a friend of Joyce Grenfell. Then there was David, who wore a monocle by which he said John would know him when they had their one and only meeting at the Oyster Bar of the Café Royal – known as Bunty, he specialised in converting hearses into “horseless carriages”. It was admiration for Admiral Sir Alan Scott Moncrieff that caused two Royal Navy proteges of his to change their surnames to his, bringing their children also – a woman once told John that she was a Scott Moncrieff but did not know why, to which he was able to supply the answer. A shareholder of the Tennent’s Lager brewery seemed rather perversely to deprive her inheritors when she left a fifth of her wealth to the fiercely anti-alcohol Moral Rearmament movement. Two artists in the family included a creator of stained-glass windows in country churches, many dedicated to the victims of the First World War, which also took its toll in that his grandmother was the only one of nine sisters who got married. John’s maternal grandfather told great stories about a tinker woman in the baggage train of Bonny Prince Charlie and about smuggling in North-East Scotland, while his other one, who died at his own hand in 1920, had sent letters home from Cyprus where he served as a vet, an occupation very untypical of the family. His son, John’s father, played with a little boy who would grow up to become known to the World as Archbishop Makarios.

John’s long-suffering wife has learned to put up with a vast horde of diaries, letters and books which their daughter suggests should be buried in the garden. To the accumulation of scrapbooks, he has added his own, recording his observations of Edinburgh and, in particular, of Hibernian FC.  He was taken to Easter Road for the first time by his father on 6 April 1964, when they saw Airdrie defeated 2-1. To this day, John respects the commentators’ skills in having to cope with players of the same name, as with an Arbroath-Hamilton game where two of the eponymous team and no less than three from the other side were all called Hamilton! However, his love of football cannot be as great as that of the Theatre, of which he has three times as many programmes, starting with those of pantomimes that he attended as a child. How he now regrets that he did not take up an offer of playing an extra for ten days during the shooting of Chariots of Fire at St Andrews and in Edinburgh. It won an Oscar as “Best Film”!

Thus, without always knowing why, John has made his own significant contribution to the accrual of material already gifted, inherited or otherwise acquired from previous generations and carrying with it the duty to read Proust, reread Buchan and the rest before passing everything on to his executor. If he has thirty years of reasonable health left in him, he might just achieve it!  There was almost a sense of relief to discover that a notebook headed “Unimplemented Obligations” supposedly kept by Walter Scott’s lawyer was found to be devoid of any content! Authors seem to abound wherever he has been, as with on the Inner Hebridean island of Soay, which boasted three among its resident population of ten – naturalists Gavin Maxwell and Tex Geddes and writer Lilian Beckwith, whose dislike of Tex prompted her to attack him with a pitchfork and pepperpot, prompting the Police’s only visit, after which they charged her with a new crime of Assault by Implement and Condiment.

Soren Kierkegaard said that Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. While not entirely true, bringing children into the World certainly helps move the story along.

His interest in Theatre being a practical outlet, John will be directing “The Importance of Being Earnest” - which incidentally features an Algernon Moncrieff - at the Church Hill Theatre from 4 to 7 May 2022. Performers and Audiences need to be cheered up!