John Byrne (playwright)

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John Byrne
Born (1940-01-06) 6 January 1940 (age 81)
Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland
Alma materGlasgow School of Art
Alice Simpson
(m. 1964; div. 2014)

Jeanine Davies
(m. 2014)
PartnerTilda Swinton (1989–2003)
Children4; including Honor
In his stage set for The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil now on display at the V&A Dundee's Scottish Design Galleries[1]
2013 mural in the King's Theatre, Edinburgh

John Patrick Byrne (born 6 January 1940) is a Scottish playwright and artist. He wrote The Slab Boys Trilogy, plays which explore working-class life in Scotland, and the TV dramas Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart. Byrne is also a painter, printmaker and theatre designer.


John Byrne was born into a family of Irish Catholic descent in Paisley, Renfrewshire, where he grew up in the Ferguslie Park housing scheme and was educated at the town's St Mirin's Academy before attending Glasgow School of Art (1958–63). His mother, Alice McShane, was married to Patrick Byrne at the time of his birth. Byrne was conceived of an incestuous affair between his mother and her father, Patrick McShane.[2] He did not know the truth about his parentage until he was informed by his cousin in 2002. He was initially angered by the revelation, but eventually reconciled with the truth of his lineage.[2]

Byrne has received several honorary doctorates: in 1997, from the University of Paisley; in 2006, from the Robert Gordon University Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen; in 2011, from the University of Dundee; and in 2015, from the University of Stirling. In 2004, he was made an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy.

Byrne married firstly Alice Simpson on 1 April 1964, with whom he had two children in the late 1980s before separating. They divorced in 2014. He and the actress Tilda Swinton were in a relationship from around 1989 to 2003. They have two children, twins Honor and Xavier, born in 1997.[3] Byrne married theatrical lighting specialist Jeanine Davies in 2014. They live in Edinburgh.


Byrne is perhaps best known as the writer of The Slab Boys Trilogy. He has also been regarded as one of Scotland's foremost television writers. He designed for the Traverse, 7:84, Hampstead Theatre, Bush Theatre, Scottish Opera and the Citizens Theatre. For the original 7:84 production of The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil he designed a seven-foot-high pop-up book of stage designs, which is now on display at the V&A Dundee's Scottish Design Galleries.[1]

As an artist, Byrne's first London one-man show was held at the Portal Galley in 1967, while he was working as a carpet designer with A. F Stoddart in Elderslie. His work is held in collections in Scotland and abroad.


Year Title Notes
1977 Writer's Cramp radio play[4]
1978 The Slab Boys
1979 The Loveliest Night of the Year
Normal Service
Hooray for Hollywood
Play for Today TV version of The Slab Boys
1980 Babes in the Wood
1981 Cara Coco
1984 Candy Kisses
Crown Court TV series
1985 London Cuckolds
1986 Scotch & Wry video
1987 Tutti Frutti BAFTA award-winning series for BBC Television
Double Scotch & Wry video
1988 Normal Service TV movie
Arena writer/director
1990 Your Cheatin' Heart TV series
1992 Colquhoun and MacBryde
1993 Screenplay writer/director
1997 The Government Inspector
2004 Uncle Varick
2006 Tutti Frutti Stage adaptation for the National Theatre of Scotland, co-produced by His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen
2008 Nova Scotia
2010 The Cherry Orchard
2014 Three Sisters


From 1964 until 1966, Byrne designed jackets for Penguin Books. Having had his work rejected by various galleries, Byrne had success following an exhibition of works at London's Portal Gallery in 1967. Painted under the pseudonym of "Patrick", Byrne claimed the dream-like paintings were created by his father, an alleged self-taught painter of faux-naïf images.[5] Byrne's career as a professional painter started in 1968, when he left Stoddard's.

As well as designing the scenery for his own plays Byrne, in collaboration with director Robin Lefrevre, also designed the settings for Snoo Wilson's The Number of the Beast (Bush 1982) and Clifford Odets' The Country Girl (Apollo Theatre 1983).[6]

Byrne has also designed record covers for Donovan, The Beatles, Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly, and The Humblebums. Singer-songwriter Rafferty's song Patrick is written about Byrne (the lyrics begin: "Patrick my primitive painter of art/You will always and ever be near to my heart"), and the pair co-wrote several songs together.

He illustrated Selected Stories by James Kelman, winner of the 1994 Booker Prize. Several of his paintings hang in The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, including portraits of Robbie Coltrane, Billy Connolly, Tilda Swinton (the mother of two of his children), and a self-portrait.

Byrne continues to paint from his studio in Edinburgh. He regularly exhibits new work at the Fine Art Society (London and Edinburgh), the Rendezvous Gallery (Aberdeen) and Brown's Art Gallery (Tain, Highlands).


  • Ross, Raymond J. (1983), Directed Irony, which includes a review of The Slab Boys, in Hearn, Sheila G. (ed.), Cencrastus No. 11, New Year 1983, pp. 45 & 46, ISSN 0264-0856


  1. ^ a b "John Byrne and 'Cheviot' set". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  2. ^ a b "John Byrne reveals his grandfather was his real father". Herald Scotland. 19 March 2017. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Hampstead Theatre programme, 7 August 1979.
  5. ^ "Byrne biography". Portal Gallery. Archived from the original on 23 December 2007. Retrieved 5 February 2010.
  6. ^ Bush Theatre programme notes for Candy Kisses, May 1984.

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