John Stewart: 1972-2022

This is not an obituary; I just want you to understand what a special person John Stewart was. John has died, aged 49, of lung cancer. John was a good man, and a lovely one.

His (much older) husband, Neil Fletcher, has been my friend since he, Neil, was at Aberdeen Uni in the 80s.. And we had some gey times back then. I knew his life, his friends and his boyfriends……and then John arrived on the scene to study Divinity. Neil was maybe not at his sylph-like best at the time (I know, I know), and the two of them were quickly christened “Fats and the child”. John was soooo young. Bear in mind that, back then, in the early 90s, their relationship was illegal. But we were Liberals and no-one cared about such a silly law.

John was, in those days, a quiet soul. And, if you know Neil, you will realise that meant John was a bit in the shadows. But he always knew who he was. He took an Honours degree, after a subject switch, in Church History, and, no surprise, Politics. John was active in his local church, Langstane, in Aberdeen, and, always happy to serve, became the Presbytery’s youngest elder.

Given the company he kept he became, quickly, an active Party member. Having graduated in 1996, he spotted that Sir Robert Smith’s campaign was in a bit of trouble and turned up at Bob’s house, to help. He then persuaded the Feds to pay him, and donated his salary to the campaign fund! He didn’t leave for 10 years.

He resigned as an elder over the Church of Scotland’s stance on homosexuality. Although he was blessed in a long and loving (if sometimes stormy) relationship, he had to deal with homophobia, and, when it hit, he met it head on. That quiet soul never put up with it.

After being together since 1992, and two major legislative changes later, he and Neil entered Aberdeen’s first civil partnership. They were trying to be the first in Scotland, but, even as councillors, they could not persuade the registrar to get out of bed in time to beat Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was the first and only time I’ve been to a wedding where the “breakfast” was properly named. We started at breakfast time (and I will never forget the Lord Stephen being half an hour late), had a FABULOUS reception, dahlings, spent the afternoon in the pub, went for an Indian, then danced into the small hours at the Beach Ballroom. It seemed like a cast of thousands wanted to celebrate with them.

Having been elected as a councillor, as was Neil, that quiet soul took his not-unimpressive intellect and led our group into coalition administration. He became Leader of the Council, a position he held, not uncontroversially, for just under two years. He stood down when the SNP won a by-election to make them the largest group. But that whole experience- the controversies, the fights, the abuse- were too much for him and Neil, and they both stood down at the next election.

To my horror, they left the North East. (I’m only happy when my friends are in reach). But, after a false start at Manchester Pride, John (and Neil) took to Manchester like ducks to water, and wore it like a comfy cardie. And they took to Brewdog like ducks to water, too. What a wonderful way to live- holidaying from bar to bar and making money while doing it!

The two of them snuck back up here under cover of darkness in 2015 and got married. What a transformation in inclusion they have seen in the life of their relationship!

I think I am failing to explain his kindness, his wit, his laughter, his twinkling eye, his innate goodness.

Some of you will know how John’s diagnosis last June had huge resonance with us, and I feel his loss deeply. My “chat” with him since then is choc-a-bloc with the kind gentleness for which I will always remember him. His concern is all, repeatedly, for Neil. We spent the last 8 months trying to meet, but plans were doomed by chemo, radio, Omicron and, finally, pneumonia. And, in the last few months, as Neil has expressed worry, John has said, repeatedly, “I’m managing better than I expected”. His last message to me says he is “On the up for now”.

I loved and admired him and he proves the axiom “only the good die young”.

* Sheila Ritchie was an MEP for Scotland from 2019 to 2020, Convener of the Scottish Liberal Democrats from 2017-2021 and was previously a Council Leader in North East Scotland. She taught the editor of this site pretty much everything she knows.

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11 Comments

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Mar '22 - 1:24pm

    Oh Sheila, you have done John proud here. I first knew Neil in the mid 80s in Aberdeen where he was always the life and soul of any party. We lost touch a bit after I left, but when I came back to Scotland in 2000, I was thrilled to see how happy he was with John.

    Over the years we shared many late evenings at Conference, notably in 2005 when I got to bed about 4am after we drunk the bar out of red wine. Presenting the training session (which was basically a mock up of a count) first thing in the morning was fun.

    I think news of their civil partnership made headline news in Brazil. At that time they were the only out, gay couple in any legislature in the world.

    John was such a kind and loving soul, and also a very wise one. The way that he and Neil have dealt with the horrendous diagnosis has been an example to all of us. They did not waste a second of the time that they had left and seeing all the things that they have managed to do, especially when things were a lot rougher than they let on, has been humbling. I’m sure we will all send our love to Neil and John’s family and huge circle of friends.

  • Neil Fawcett 20th Mar '22 - 2:15pm

    Very sorry to hear this news.

    I didn’t meet John many times, but he was a lovely bloke and a great campaigner.

  • Fernando North 20th Mar '22 - 3:09pm

    It is a beautifully personal obituary even if not intended. It captured the magic of his life and relationship with Neil. Taken too young.

  • Richard Clein 20th Mar '22 - 3:42pm

    Spot on as ever Sheila. I was so upset when I heard this news last night. It’s difficult to know what to say. I loved John and both him and Neil were so kind to me when you persuaded me to move to Aberdeen and work for Malcolm. I’ll always be grateful to them for allowing me into their home in 1995, introducing me to The Kirkgate and all of their friends including the NE liberals. I have such fond memories of this time and celebrating their civil partnership. One of the good guys. G-d bless John and love and long life to Neil and families. RC x

  • Alison Auld 20th Mar '22 - 7:49pm

    Thank you, Sheila. I have good memories of working with John for several years. He and Neil were wonderful exemplars of a partnership and marriage. God bless them and their family and friends.

  • Sheila Thomson 20th Mar '22 - 11:43pm

    Well said Sheila. Like so many of us from the Aberdeen area I have know John a long time, I had the privilege of taking over from John when he left Bob’s team to became a full-time Cllr. I remember spending my first weeks in the job travelling around West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine with John and Bob on Bob’s constituency summer tour. Two great weeks of memories.

    We all have so many special memories, I will never forget the kind and caring way he looked after me when I stood on broken glass while we were having campaign photos taken at the top of the Castlegate with the town house in the background. Later the same story was retold with laughter as it was quite a picture me sitting on the disabled toilet in a corridor of the old town house with the door open with John on his bended knee with my bare foot in his hand.

    What ever the situation John had a tinkle in his eye and a deep love for Neil that was always visible. He will be sorely missed.

  • This is a real shock. But you’ve done a terrific job Sheila, and the pic you’ve chosen is exactly how I think of John. Always with the smile, and the fun. I can hear him muttering cheerfully to the camera-person to get on with it.
    I remember staying with him and Neil sometime in the late ’90s when I was up in Aberdeen for some reason. They were such good hosts – kind and relaxed. The whisky flowed and the details are hazy, but they were such a couple. Gently bickering over nothing one minute, all touchy-feely the next. It was beautiful to see.
    I’d lost touch with him over the years but I do have fond memories and this really is a shock. If Neil is reading this, I’m so sorry. Your man was one of the good guys.

  • Simon Horner 21st Mar '22 - 12:21pm

    I was so sorry to learn of John’s death at such an early age. He was my agent in 1994 when I was the LibDem candidate for North-East Scotland in the European election and I fondly remember his calm, unflappable efficiency and gentle amiability. It was a real pleasure to work with him.
    Thank you Sheila for such a fine tribute and heartfelt condolences to Neil.

  • Neil Fletcher 21st Mar '22 - 8:31pm

    Thank you all ❤️

  • Sheila has done more than I ever could to sum up his impact on everyone who met him. I never really knew John that well, but having said that, he’s probably the person out of all that people I never knew that well that I loved the best.

    I can’t have met him more than a dozen times but all of those left a memory. Whether it was being partially responsible for damaging the roof of his and Neil’s house, talking nonsense at birthday parties, or discussing policy issues, he was always there as a voice of reason, stability and fun.

    Suffice it to say that another of The Good Ones has gone, and that the world is sadder for his passing. My thoughts are with Neil. I can only imagine what losing such a wonderful person can be like.

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