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Significant Scots
John Boyd Orr


John Boyd OrrGlasgow graduate in medicine. University Chancellor of the University of Glasgow. Member of Parliament. Nobel Laureate (Peace Prize). First Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

The following account was taken from the Scottish Review...

John Boyd Orr (Lord Boyd Orr as he became) was born at Kilmaurs in Ayrshire in 1880. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his scientific research into nutrition and for his pioneering work as the first director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Boyd Orr was undoubtedly one of the greatest Scotsmen of the 20th century, but what was he like as a personality? SR asked his family to contribute their memories of him.

There are seven of us grandchildren. The children of Dr Judy Orr (or Barton): John, Ann Marie and Callum; and the children of sculptress Minty Orr (or Lubbock): Ann Pat, Geoffrey, Andrew and Kenneth. We are now in our fifties. The Orrs also had a son Billy who was killed in the war at the age of 17, so there are no grandchildren called Boyd Orr.

Our name for our grandfather was Popeye, because of his bushy eyebrows and we termed our grandmother Nanimma because she was motherly. Her affectionate name for him was Wee Jockie and he called her Bess.

Ann Marie's reflections
A man of contradictions was my grandfather. The soldier who was in the navy, the doctor who won medals for gallantry, the nutritionist whose meals were usually over cooked, the world traveller who thought Scotland the most beautiful place on earth. He came relatively late to grandfatherhood. He was 61 when the first of his daughters' children were born, and so his grandchildren's memories are of a man already old. And yet, even in his seventies, he travelled ferociously, always with my grandmother, to meetings and gatherings and sittings, in London, America, China, Russia. My childhood was punctuated with trips to the local railway stations where my mother or father and I would wait on grey platforms for the train. Clouds of steam and squeaking brakes presaged their arrival and like magicians they would appear, descending from the train, holding stamped and decorated suitcases instead of rabbits and doves.

On the way home, sitting in the back of the car between them, they would hold my hand and say how the countryside was more beautiful here than anywhere else. Despite his forbidding appearance, he loved Scottish dancing and a good joke. He liked the joke about the Scotsmen who were sent to Hell: 'Forgive us, God, we didna ken, we didna ken.' [Pause]. And God replies, 'Weel, ye ken noo.' His favourite toast he liked with a glass of claret was: 'Never above you, never beneath you, always beside you. Kai kai Baluch.'

And he was always with you: whether asking your opinion (even though you were just a difficult teenager), listening to your reply, sharing his food – the apple cut with his penknife in the morning, his meat at Sunday lunch – or taking your arm on the way to supper. He was a great man, my grandfather.

Ann Marie Legge

General reflections
Surprisingly, we have discovered our earliest memories of Popeye are the same: that of clambering into his early morning bed to be given small slices of apple or orange, cut with a small silver knife about 1.5" long. He also had a bowl of pandrops, which we would plead for and enjoy: 'Just one more Popeye, just one more.'

Every Sunday his two daughters and their families would come to Sunday dinner at Newton of Stracathro. Mrs Mutch, known as Mutchie, used to prepare a three-course meal that started with soup. Usually it was a delicious Scotch broth with barley and fresh vegetables, parsley and snippets of curly kale. The main course was nearly always a roast beef, always very well done. It tasted much like cardboard. The milk always had 1" of cream on the top and it came directly from the farm milking parlour. Prior to lunch there was always the Bristol Cream sherry which Wee Jockie and Bess liked. We enjoyed sharing this family time with them in the warm library, with its deep red carpet, small cosy fire, and floor to ceiling books of medicine, papers, poetry and whodunnits.

At Christmas time, our grandparents would receive a great variety of cards. Our favourite was from Chou en Lai, the vice-premier of China. Every year he sent a nice one. Popeye was a great admirer of Chou en Lai, who was a mandarin before the revolution. We felt very privileged to obtain first-hand observations. He was soon disillusioned with Mao Tse Tung, although his signed photograph remained up on the wall with the other notables of the age, in 'the rogues’ gallery.'

One of Popeye's passions was croquet. He played a kinder version of the game and you were not allowed to place your foot on your own ball while sending the other to kingdom come. He was also known to help his lie with his slippered foot. We watched carefully to catch him taking this little advantage.

Geoffrey tells us how he used to sit with Popeye for hours with his little black book in which he would enter his stock trades. He told Geoff that he made more money by investing in the stock market than he ever did by working.

Popeye was very interested in all of us and spent time with us, but if he was busy, as far as he was concerned we simply did not exist, and we would certainly never have dreamed of disturbing him.

Wee Jockie had no interest in his dress or appearance and Bess had a tricky time making sure he was appropriately dressed, with socks matching. He would leave the house with his adored Bess brushing off the last of the dog hairs.

John Boyd Orr was incredibly single-minded and he could be perfectly wrapped up in his own thoughts or business to the exclusion of all else. He smoked a pipe with a lovely little round bowl and would knock it out into the waste paper basket beside him which was full of screwed up discarded paper. Nanimma found the basket smouldering away a few times while he was blissfully unaware of an impending house fire. Once he was having his hair cut and his mind was still busy on other things when the barber interrupted his thoughts to tell him he had finished. 'Well, cut it again!', he said.

Stories and anecdotes
We loved stories of incidences in his life, especially if they were politically risqué, adventurous or amusing. He always spoke in his lovely west coast burr and the story-telling often took place around the fire in the library.

When John and Elizabeth Boyd Orr had an audience with Pope John XXIII, the Pope asked if John would like him to bless anything. Wee Jockie, son of a pastor, immediately recalled the Bible passage about money (render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and render unto God the things that are God's) and asked the Pope to bless a coin in his pocket, which the Pope did. Because Popeye was in favour of population control and because he was brought up in a Protestant background, he was not a supporter of the Catholic church, although he was an admirer of Pope John. Popeye, in fact, became an atheist, but he said Nanimma was a believer and that that gave her great comfort. He would never ever have given us any direction in religious belief, unless we had asked for it.

Geoffrey remembers Popeye telling him about being asked on prime TV time in the States, what he would do to establish world peace (as a Nobel peace prize winner). In his usual subtle manner, he replied: 'Fire Senator Joe McCarthy and bomb the Pentagon.' This was almost treason during the McCarthy era. After the broadcast, people would come by him in the street and surreptitiously squeeze his hand in agreement, because it was so dangerous to be anti-McCarthy. Kenneth has unsuccessfully tried to get the FBI file on John Boyd Orr.

When Popeye and Nanimma went to China, it was when relations with the west were poor. He was impressed with the university system of specialising in agriculture and general learning for future leaders etc. He told how he was at a state banquet and that there was a toast to Mao. After this, Popeye got up and asked if he could give a toast to a beautiful woman. The head of the banquet, assuming that he was referring to his bride, said: 'Of course.' He got to his feet and asked the Chinese to raise their glasses to toast the beautiful woman 'Queen Elizabeth.' There was a stunned silence for a short time, and then they all laughed and raised their glasses to Queen Elizabeth!

On a later trip to China, Wee Jockie shamed the Chinese into taking them to one of the dams they were boasting about as being part of their magnificent progress. They flew, took a car, then went on foot. They went through villages where they had never seen a white man. The villages trooped after the Boyd Orrs, laughing and pointing. When they asked why, they were told that white bushy eyebrows were the sign of a saint. In addition, a large nose meant that the person had a large male member and John Boyd Orr's nose was prodigious.

He told the story of the soldier that he saved during the Great War. A young man was court-marshalled for cowardice because he ran from the front. Popeye said that the man was not in a fit mental state to be shot. He was therefore condemned to be tied to a wheel. Popeye managed to get the man off this punishment. The soldier returned to the front and became a hero because at night he slipped across no man's land and stole the machine gun from the Germans that had them pinned down. When the man was presented with a medal from the provost of Glasgow, he stole the provost's watch!

While he was a medic in the First World War, Popeye found that the troops in the front needed water but that water had to be carried forward in regular army vehicles. Since the vehicles were frequently blown up before reaching the front, Popeye determined that the water was required for health and was therefore medicinal and was therefore eligible to be carried forward in the Red Cross ambulances. This probably saved a great number of lives.

Another Great War story was how the medical services came to inspect the health of his battalion because no men were being sent to hospital with intestinal problems, as there were from other battalions. They thought he was covering up. Indeed Popeye was unaware of the anomaly at the time, let alone the reason for it. What had happened was that, being a practical person, sympathetic to the care of his men, he had organised that fresh vegetables from the surrounding deserted fields be made into tasty broths. These, of course, were full of minerals and vitamins, particularly vitamin C, which prevented illnesses. Vegetable broth always takes me back to this interesting accident of history.

Other accidents were not so happy. When it was his turn to wash the socks, he took time to read and he accidentally boiled them. His men were not happy!

Ann Pat Gooch and Geoffrey Lubbock, with input from Andrew and Kenneth

John's additional comments
For a nutrition expert, his diet was unusual. Apart from his orange (and vitamin pill) in bed every morning, he was subjected, by Mutchie, to bacon, eggs and fried scones floating in grease – a breakfast later described as 'a heart attack on a plate.' As Popeye lived to 90 and Nanimma to 99 they either had extraordinary constitutions or modern dieticians still have something to learn.

The investment technique he employed in his 'Little Black Book' was simple but effective. He would wait until the share price rose and then sell off sufficient shares to reduce the cost of the remainder to nil. (Sadly capital gains tax has made this more difficult for his grandchildren!). This technique does, of course, necessitate choosing shares which are going to rise in value – I never did discover what he did if the price fell!

John Barton

Last comment
He was not used to the telephone. He did not say goodbye or any other of the conversational niceties. When he was through with his conversation, he would either just hang up or say: 'That's all,' and then hang up.

Click here to learn more about him


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