THE MAN widely regarded as the father of Shetland’s impressive leisure and recreation network has died aged 82.
John Nicolson was a popular and well-liked figure whose contribution to the isles’ sporting development was recognised when he became a torch-bearer at the 2012 London Olympics.
John was born in Lerwick in 1937 before moving to Scalloway at the age of two with his parents Archie and Mary Nicolson and two older brothers David and Alistair. His father was Scalloway policeman for a number of years before taking the job in Unst, but the family continued to stay in Scalloway.
John’s community commitment was evident at a young age when he became the secretary/treasurer of Scalloway Yacht Club at 15 and helped organise the annual regatta and land sports.
Along with his lifelong best pal, Pisco (John Leask), John got involved in football and was picked for the junior intercounty and played right back for three years. He was also picked for the senior intercounty team but was injured in the final practice. He was captain of the junior and senior Scalloway football clubs, but ended up needing a spinal operation when he was 19 which curbed his future on the football pitch.
John did not want to go to Anderson High School and went to the Central instead, and left school at 15 for work as a police clerk, earning so little he could not afford the bus fare from Scalloway to Lerwick. His mother, who subsidised him, said “be thankful you have a job”.
His strong work ethic stayed with him throughout his career and he moved to the Shetland Islands Council finance department before securing a job back in Scalloway at the Co-operative. At that time he began courting Lerwick nurse Peggy Anderson, who he met at a squad dance in 1961, a moment he described as the “highlight of his life”.
John made jumpers to save for an engagement ring and in 1964 the couple got married and lived above the Co-op in Scalloway. The couple’s first, Andrew, was born in 1965 and his sister Rosemary in 1967 made the family complete.
During his eight years as manager of the Co-op John continued volunteering on the Fraser Park Trust, badminton club, scouts, public hall, football club and others, often as secretary, treasurer or chairman.
He began looking at a career in youth and community work and the couple moved in with his parents in Gibblestone Road to save up for college. He gave up the Co-op job and worked piece-work at Williamson’s fish factory, one week earning £100 – ten times a week’s wage as Co-op manager.
He started studying in the evenings to gain entrance qualifications for Moray House in Edinburgh.
In 1969 the family moved to Edinburgh so John could start the Youth and Community Work course at Moray House – it was to be the start of a very promising career. After college he began work for Shetland Islands Council as a youth and community worker, staying in Weisdale for a year before moving back to Scalloway.
When the council re-organised in 1975, John became director of leisure and recreation when future SIC convener Tom Stove was chairman of the council committee dealing with leisure and rec. The pair were also to work closely together when John bcame council vice-convener between 1999 and 2003.
Tom described John as a “very good friend” and a “stalwart of the community” who will be “sadly missed”.
In 1983 the leisure and recreation department’s statement of policy for community facilities and services was approved. The little blue book became the “bible” for the department. Leisure and recreation pioneered the employment of area community workers in Yell, Brae, Scalloway and Sandwick to reach out to the community with the head office in Lerwick and Islesburgh Community Centre.
He also worked up a package in partnership with the community to improve village halls and provide leisure centres next to secondary schools, starting off with the Clickimin Centre, and many more community facilities to enhance the lives of the people of Shetland.
Recognition of John’s achievement is in the number of plaques on halls and other facilities saying opened by John Nicolson, director of leisure and recreation.
He was a highly respected man and was a great ambassador for Shetland. One highlight of his leisure and rec career was the opening of the £3 million Clickimin Centre in 1985, when Tessa Sanderson, then at the height of her Olympian fame, performed the ceremony.
She was besieged by hundreds of young people, and some not so young, who wanted her autograph.
The main office at the Hillhead was a very welcoming place and all the staff thought very highly of John – he was a “great boss”.
John enjoyed a fun and there were many funs over the years, “too many to tell and some best not to.” He was a great public speaker and was invited to speak at social functions and weddings where he had many a story to tell to amuse the guests.
John retired in 1996 before beginning his new career as a councillor three years later, when he was elected to serve for Yell. He did two terms of office before retiring from council business in 2007.
He was a family man through and through and loved nothing better than heading home for his lunch to catch up with Peggy and the children.
John was delighted that both Andrew and Rosemary represented Shetland in the junior intercounty in their teens. Rosemary went on to do nursing like her mother while Andrew worked at Sullom Voe.
He liked nothing better than going off in the boat on a fine night with Andrew, spending many hours just enjoying each other’s company. When they lost Andrew in 2009 it was a terrible blow to John, Peggy and the family and it took great courage to carry on.
With the support of Rosemary, son-in-law Campbell and their grandsons Scott and John, the Nicolsons slowly started to look to the future again and started to get involved in the community and social life that they enjoyed so much.
John was very proud of his grandsons and they would spend many an hour at each others’ houses getting to know them.
They also enjoyed guizing and it was not unusual to see John dressed as a Red Indian or a nun on-the-run during the Scalloway Galas in the late 80s and early 90s. He was also a kirk elder and sang in the choir.
Peggy and John were very active in the public hall and latterly in the museum where John was secretary for a number of years, and both gave up their time willingly to help during the summer months sharing their knowledge of Scalloway and beyond.
John was presented with the lifetime endeavour prize at 2011’s Shetland Sports Awards for all his work in supporting sports and he was honoured to be one of the isles’ torch bearers for the 2012 Olympic Games.
A very modest and caring man, John will be a big miss in the community but more so to Peggy, Rosemary, Campbell, Scott and John as well as the huge extended family and friends they have made over the years together.
This obituary is largely based on an oration by Sonia Inkster which was delivered at John Nicolson’s funeral at Tingwall Church of Scotland earlier on Wednesday (16 October).