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The Dinwoodie Interview

HARRY BURNS is one of the most modest people I’ve ever interviewed. And he probably has the least to be modest about. He answers to the somewhat grand monicker Professor Sir Harry Burns, but Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer is charming, incredibly grounded, and has a terrific origin story which explains why at the age of 68 he is still combing the world of healthcare research for any lessons we can draw on to combat poverty and boost wellbeing.

When we meet at Strathclyde University, where he is professor of global public health, he is about to leave to deliver a lecture in Australia and during our interview he cites studies from all over the world. He comprehensively demolishes the theory known as “the Glasgow effect” and talks about his latest informal collaborative project, “What Matters to You,” which aims to tackle multiple issues of poverty and deprivation one problem at a time.

The Burns’ family story demonstrates that it only takes one inspirational school teacher to change lives. Picture, if you will, a Fife miner named Harry Burns working intermittently through the dark days of the 1920s and 1930s. His son Harry Junior is already pitching in to the precarious family finances using his fine singing voice at events but when he reaches the age of 15 in Cowdenbeath to help the family he leaves school to wash bottles in a lemonade factory before, in all likelihood, following his father down the pits.

Then, just a few days after starting at the lemonade plant he looked up to see his former science teacher walking across the factory floor. “Come on, son, you’re going back to school,” he said. No-one knows how the teacher squared it with the family, but he detected a spark within the boy and was determined not to give up on him.

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Issue 59 of iScot Magazine is now available for download. The last issue before Brexit ! Jings, Crivvens, Help Ma Boab!