Tributes paid to Polwarth cobbler and World War II ‘Dambuster’

Jock Robertson ran a cobblers shop for 71 years.
Jock Robertson ran a cobblers shop for 71 years.
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Tributes have been paid to well-loved Polwarth cobbler and Second World War “Dambuster” veteran Horace “Jock” Robertson, who has passed away aged 99.

Jock’s shoe repair shop at 30 Merchiston Avenue was famous for its “frozen in time” window display that remained static for decades.

Pamela Robertson (right) and Ailsa Anderson (left).

Pamela Robertson (right) and Ailsa Anderson (left).

Held in high regard by the local community, Jock and his shop have been a constant fixture in the area for the past 72 years. Due to health reasons he was forced to quit working just last January.

Born on October 8, 1919, the son of second generation shoemaker Horace Robertson, Jock’s lifetime vocation as a cobbler began as soon as he was old enough to handle a needle and thread.

His cobbling career was put on hold temporarily, however, ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War, when Jock joined the RAF to train as an electrician with the heavy bomber squadrons in Lincolnshire.

Incredibly, Jock was part of the ground crew of the legendary 617 “Dambusters” squadron that successfully breached Nazi Germany’s Möhne and Edersee dams. Today the raid is regarded as one of the most famous air operations of the entire war.

Jock's window display pictured in 1986.

Jock's window display pictured in 1986.

Last May, to mark the raid’s 75th anniversary, the 1952 classic Dam Busters, which famously dramatised the event, was shown in cinemas around the UK with a live link to celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall hosted by the BBC’s Dan Snow. The audience clapped and cheered when Mr Snow announced that Jock Robertson, a surviving member of the raid’s original ground crew, was present at the Edinburgh Odeon. At the film’s end, Jock was surrounded by a crowd of people, all eager to grab a selfie with the veteran.

Following VE Day, Jock returned to civilian life, married soulmate Maud Auton and in 1947 took over the existing shoe repair shop at Merchiston Avenue.

After some time living and working at the shop, Jock and Maud moved to a comfortable flat at Montpelier Park and within a few years had welcomed daughters Ailsa and Pam to the world.

Speaking to the Evening News, Jock’s eldest daughter Ailsa Anderson said the shop meant everything to her father.

“The shop was his world,” explained Ailsa, 67. “He ran it as sole proprietor and the entire workforce for 71 years.”

While the shop was a big priority, it couldn’t quench Jock and Maud’s wanderlust. Over the years the pair travelled the globe together with their two girls.

With Jock enjoying self-employed status and Maud following a path in education that would see her rise to eventually become head of the Royal High Primary School, the family were able to head off on regular adventures during the school holidays.

“We didn’t really think anything of it at the time. That was the holidays for us,” said youngest daughter Pam, 63.

“You’d be back at school and asked ‘where you been on holiday’, and we were often the only ones that had gone abroad in those days.

“Mum and dad went everywhere. It got to the stage that they didn’t know where to go to next because they were running out of places.”

Maud sadly passed away in 1985. Jock never remarried, but found companionship with a woman named Helen Murray. The two became great friends and would go dancing and travelling together over the next quarter of a century.

Jock was part of a long line of cobblers in the Robertson clan. In 1931, his own father, also Horace, opened a shoe repair shop on Castle Street. Five generations on, the family business continues to thrive to this day.

Meanwhile, among the usual clientele that frequented the Merchiston shop, Jock enjoyed the custom of a number of famous faces.

“A few years back, Ronnie Corbett popped in to the shop,” recalls Ailsa. “He was doing pantomime at the King’s and had rented a flat around the corner for the run of the panto.

“Gavin Hastings and his brother used to come in from time to time, too.”

Despite a gradual decline over the years in the number of people seeking his services, Jock remained dedicated to his trade and could be seen most days cycling up the road from his home on Polwarth Terrace.

“If the weather was good he’d cycle, if the weather was bad he’d get the bus. He was always in,” said Ailsa.

Naturally, Pam and Ailsa always made the most of their dad’s ability to repair fancy footwear.

“We were always bringing shoes to him,” revealed Pam. “Now, everybody just throws shoes away. Most of them aren’t even re-heelable these days.”

She added: “It was mostly, in the end, proper men’s leather shoes that were coming in to be re-soled.

“But nowadays, when you can buy boots for £3, why would you spend God knows what getting them heeled? Shoes are so cheap.”

Early last year, a sign was put on the door of Jock’s shop to inform the public that the 98-year-old was ill. A serious eye infection would keep him cooped up in hospital for several weeks.

Sadly, as fate would have it, Jock Robertson had re-soled his last shoe and, following another sudden illness towards Christmas, he passed away on January 7.

Ailsa and Pam revealed their relief that he departed peacefully and that he’d been somewhat chatty and in high spirits the day before.

“On the Sunday he was brighter and he was chatting away,” explained Pam, “he wasn’t in any pain or anything.

“It was 4 o’clock the next morning... he’d pulled out his oxygen and was just gone.

“We were lucky. He wasn’t unconscious or anything like that and we were able to talk to him in the days prior. Of all the ways to go, it was the best way.”

At the dry cleaner’s shop next door, worker Kate Moore paid tribute to a “great guy” with whom she’d been sharing daily chats with for more than a decade.

“I got on really fantastic with him. Every morning he’d pop his head in for a chat... he’ll be very much missed,” said Kate yesterday.

With the arduous task of clearing their dad’s shop now well under way, the sisters concede that it won’t be reopening.

“We’re in the process of clearing it out and eventually it’ll be put up for sale,” said Ailsa.

Having worked continuously for more than seven decades, maybe we can all learn a little something from the late Jock Robertson.

“Generally his health was extraordinary,” added Ailsa. “Perhaps standing all day at work then cycling home is good for you?”

The funeral of Jock Robertson will take place at 10am tomorrow at Mortonhall Crematorium. All are welcome.

david.maclean@jpimedia.co.uk