John Cairney made his stage debut at the Park Theatre, Glasgow, before enrolling at the RSAMD in Glasgow. After graduation, he joined the Wilson Barrett Company as Snake in The School for Scandal. A season at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre followed before going on to the Bristol Old Vic where he appeared in the British premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He returned to the Citizens from time to time, most notably as Hamlet in 1960. He also appeared in the premiere of John Arden’s Armstrong’s Last Goodnight in 1964. Other stage work until 1991 included King Humanitie in The Thrie Estaites for Tyrone Guthrie at the Edinburgh Festival, Archie Rice in The Entertainer at Dundee (1972), Cyrano de Bergerac at Newcastle (1974), Becket in Murder in the Cathedral at the Edinburgh Festival of 1986 and Macbeth in the same Festival in 1989. He also wrote and appeared in his own productions of An Edinburgh Salon, At Your Service, The Ivor Novello Story and A Mackintosh Experience while continuing to tour the world in his solo The Robert Burns Story.
His association with Burns began in 1965 with Tom Wright’s solo play There Was A Man at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and at the Arts Theatre, London. The solo was televised twice nationally and was also an album recording for REL Records, Edinburgh, as well as a video for Green Place Productions, Glasgow. From Burns he moved on to other solos on William McGonagall, Robert Service and Robert Louis Stevenson until he worked with New Zealand actress, Alannah O’Sullivan at the Edinburgh Festival of 1978. They married in 1980. As Two For A Theatre they toured the world for P&O Cruises, the British Council as well as the Keedick Lecture Bureau, New York, with programmes on Byron, Wilde and Dorothy Parker until 1986.
Cairney’s first film was Ill Met by Moonlight for the Rank Organisation, followed by Windom’s Way, Victim, Shake Hands with the Devil and many more including ‘and the Argonauts, Cleopatra, Devil Ship Pirates and Study in Terror in 1965. His many television parts include Branwell Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Bruce and he has featured in all the main series: Danger Man, The Avengers, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Elizabeth R, Jackanory, Taggart etc. He also starred in BC2’s This Man Craig, which ran for two years between 1966 and 1968. In addition, he wrote and recorded his own songs for EMI at Abbey Road.
As a writer, Cairney has published two autobiographies and a novel, Worlds Apart as well as A Scottish Football Hall of Fame and Heroes Are Forever for Mainstream Publishing (Edinburgh) and A Year Out In New Zealand for Tandem Press, NZ. He wrote three Burns books for Luath Press in Edinburgh as well as biographies of R.L.Stevenson and C.R. Mackintosh and a book of essays on Glasgow entitled Glasgow by the way, but. His second novel, Flashback Forward, was published for Random House, NZ, and his book on acting, Greasepaint Monkey was published by Luath Press, Edinburgh, in 2010.
As a painter, he has been exhibited twice in New Zealand and twice in Scotland: with his Nine Lives of Burns at Alloway, and more recently his Stations of the Cross were displayed in Glasgow as part of the Lentfest Festival 2014.
Dr Cairney gained an M.Litt from Glasgow University for his A History of Solo Theatre in 1988 and, in 1994, a PhD from Victoria University, Wellington, for his study of Stevenson and Theatre. He has also been made a Freeman Citizen of Glasgow and is Honorary President of the Robert Burns Worldwide Federation and Honorary President of the Robert Burns Guild of Speakers.