John Atkins

"John was born in Bexleyheath Kent on the 7th Jan 1947. He was an only child after an older sister was still born a few years previous, as I lived in the same road, and our parents were friends, we grew up together, I became his older sister. We spent most days playing together and we both went on holidays with each other’s parents.

John was a very serious fan of the Norse sagas and everything Viking. We used to attend re-enactment shows; he made swords which were perfect copies and chain mail made the original way. I remember the living room being criss crossed by brass and copper wires as he worked out the best way to twist them together for the sword hilts.

John always showed artistic talents, at the age of 14 he handmade a model lifeboat. It was so good he made the local paper. On leaving school at 15 he attended the Gravesend art college and assured me that the full 3 years were spent doing loads of daft things and having a really great time. He always advised everyone who had the chance to attend Art school to do so, he said you didn’t do a lot of art but it was a hoot. In fact he seemed to spend a lot of time in a school cupboard and causing mayhem. His spelling and writing wasn’t good. Nowadays he would have received extra help as Dyslectic, but it hadn’t been invented when he was young. At 18 he drove his beloved Vincent motor cycle to Scotland and, while looking out to sea, he slipped off the cliff and ended in being rescued by the coast guard and in hospital with two very broken ankles. These were repaired and he flew home but he had always to wear heeled boots from then.

His first job was working with a friend doing printing, and then he went on to the local silk screen printers in Crayford. He got sacked for leaving his desk and driving to the seaside because it was a nice day and he felt like it.

He worked in a plastics factory and made curb stones in a cement factory; did some building in London and worked for a day in an asbestos factory but wouldn’t go back because conditions were so bad.

Since 21 he battled with his mental health and was diagnosed as Manic depressive with slight schizophrenic tendencies. He always said that this fact made him what he was and gave him the ability to paint wonderful pictures; he painted galleons in full sail in battle, or switching to his other side modern ‘Salvador Dali’ type ones.

In 1977, John and I thought it would be good if we got together and, with the blessing of both sets of parents, we married. Dora, John’s mum, was a wonderful lady and she worried about John’s future. She asked me to promise that I would look after him as long as I could. I hope she would think that I’ve done my best. In 1980 our daughter, Jenni, was born to the delight of John even though we had a few battles over her name. John wanted to name her after his favourite ‘Norse-saga’ names, but I managed to convince him otherwise. In the end we agreed on Jenni and Belinda-Rose after John’s mum.

When John fell in love with his hospital art therapist, we were divorced so that he could marry Denise. She was a nice lady but it was not destined to last. After a manic period she left, leaving John heartbroken. It took many years and Kyle, the town he grew to love, to restore his regard for “women”.

John’s father’s people originally came from Scotland and, in his teen years, he spent most of his holidays there. After Denise left him, John bought a plot of land in Rattigan hoping to build a house. He got as far as a Marine Plywood shed with all amenities, and he lived there for some years until he was re-housed by the council in Kyle. His house plans were refused as being ‘too imaginative and modern’ for the area.

John already had a talent for sword-making and he later turned his hand to pewter jewellery and copies of the Norse chess pieces. He was unhappy with the finish of the museum copies and so, with the pictures of the Lewis finds, he set about making copies in resin that he could be happy with. His creative talent was unique.

Kyle took John into their hearts. He often remarked at how kind and friendly everyone was to him, even when he had bad days and he played Bob Dylan and the Dubliners at full sound for hours. No one complained when his walking forced him to occasionally lean or sit on people’s front walls. He only ever met concerned and lovely people. The day centre and his lunch club gave him not only a good meal but somewhere to meet a group of people who cared about him and somewhere to go in his week.

A big thank-you to his doctor, dentist, psychiatric nurse. And also to Anton, Bruce and John’s many other friends who kept a friendly-eye discreetly on him, this is something that Jenni and I truly appreciate. After John’s fire at his flat, most of Kyle went up to ask how he was and if could they do anything. A big thank-you to the council for housing him in temporary B&B, where he met another couple who were kind enough to let him do his own thing.

Last, but certainly by no means least, where would John have been without Donna? The lady that restored John’s faith in ladies. Both John and I owe Donna much more than there are words to express. Without Donna, John wouldn’t even have put curtains up in his windows. John was a bit of a technophobe and it was with Donna’s ever-patient and always kind encouragement that he was able to get Sky TV. Unfortunately, John was as impressed with all the many TV channels as he was with modern technology and I recall many a long telephone call from him complaining about there being nothing on, or that they always showed repeats. These were fun times and I’m sure John enjoyed complaining about them much more than he disliked finding nothing to watch.

There is so much more I could say about my gentle giant but there is one thing that should be remembered. John lived his life the way he wanted to. His passion for smoking earned him the local nickname of ‘smoking Santa’, but I don’t know if anyone ever called him that to his face. Living in Kyle gave John the longest happy period of his life. He was content here and couldn’t dream of being anywhere else.

When his time came, everyone continued to do their best for him. Special note should go to the kind and always-attentive staff at both the Broadford and Aberdeen Royal hospitals who ensured that his last days were as comfortable as was possible. When John spoke to me for the final time, just a couple of hours before he collapsed, he was more cheerful than he had been for a month. He wasn’t feeling any pain and had no attacks since his operation. He was looking forward to returning to Broadford hospital so his friends could pop in, and he even joked about the emergency helicopter that took him to the hospital in the first instance.

Having known John for all of my life, I know that he would not want people to dwell on his passing. He had such a full life, he was always as active as he could be given his size, and he lived life the way he wanted it to be. We must remember his unbound creativity, this gentle giant, this ‘smoking Santa’, and remember all the good times he had. I know that I shall miss him terribly but I shall remember what made him special to me. I will remember him the way he would want me to remember him and I would encourage others to do the same.

John, even though you were not a religious person, I hope that you are reunited with your mum and dad in peace.

Thank-you, Kyle of Lochalsh, for your kindness to my John and your acceptance of all his eccentricities."

Sandra Atkins 2008