Johnny Ramensky

It might grate on the sensibilities of the more conservative of our readers that we should include in the annals of Great Scots, a career criminal who spent more than 40 of his 67 years in prison.

But Johnny Ramensky was more than a simple criminal. Born in 1905, he was the son of a Lithuanian immigrant. His father, a miner, died when Johnny was young. Johnny followed his father down the pits in Lanarkshire. It was there that he learned how to use something that would ensure his later fame. Dynamite; the raw material required for blasting out new coal faces was also material that could be applied to the considerably more rewarding task of blowing safes open.

During the depression that followed the First World War, Johnny, his mother and two sisters moved to the Gorbals area of Glasgow and it was here that young Ramensky began demonstrating the formidable acrobatic and physical strength that would serve him both so well and so poorly for the rest of his life.

Johnny became a burglar. Not a house burglar, he was very proud of the fact that he only targeted businesses. His physical prowess enabled him to break into premises, climbing up drain pipes, jumping across roofs and gaining entrance to buildings of all shapes and sizes from banks and butcher's shops to post offices.

And once he was inside, Johnny would blow the safe open. Something he was very good at. Unfortunately he was crap at getting away with it. Hence his frequent sojourns at His Majesty's pleasure.

Getting caught also contributed to his nickname - “Gentleman Johnny”. He regarded capture as a risk of the job and always gave himself up with great courtesy and without a struggle.

He served goal sentences in both Barlinnie in Glasgow and “the Dartmouth of the North”, Peterhead Prison in Aberdeen (one of the prisons that John MacLean served hard labour in). It was during a stretch at Peterhead that he was told that his wife, whom he had married during one of his infrequent spells of freedom, had died. Showing the usual sensitivity that penal establishments are renowned for, Ramensky was refused permission to attend the funeral. So, he escaped. At the time Peterhead was regarded as one of the most secure prisons in Britain, so this was no small feat. But it was one that he repeated on a further four occasions. Always recaptured, and always with courtesy.

In 1942, while serving another sentence in Peterhead, he was given an opportunity to put his undoubted skills to better use. The army offered him commando training and membership of an elite unit that would be dropped behind enemy lines to blow up infrastructure and steal important documents. It was an opportunity that Gentleman Johnny accepted.

He served with great distinction and was among the first wave of Allied troops into Rome, blowing up the safes in fourteen embassies – in one day. For his bravery he was awarded the Military Medal and given a free pardon from his outstanding sentence.

But crime was what Johnny knew best and it wasn't too long before he was back in Peterhead. And it wasn't too long after that that he escaped again. In 1958 he escaped a total of three times, earning widespread public exposure and sympathy. This is best illustrated by “The Ballad of Johnny Ramensky”, written by the Labour MP Norman Buchan, an illustrious champion of Scottish traditional folk music.

In 1970, at the age of 65, during an unsuccessful attempt at a break-in at the County Buildings in Stirling, Johnny had a bad fall from the roof. He sustained injuries from which he never fully recovered.

He died in Perth Prison in 1972 and was accorded an obituary by every Scottish newspaper.

A police officer, Robert Colqhuon, who knew Johnny tells a story of him that is probably a good epitaph. Ramensky, and on hearing that the policeman had been seriously ill, sent him a message wishing him a speedy recovery, plus the advice that he had probably been taking too much out of himself chasing Johnny around.

Words by Norman Buchan; Tune Trad, arr. Buchan ("Jamie Foyers")

Far distant, far distant, in Peterheid Jail,
Lies Johnny Ramensky, his escape bid did fail,
Iron bars and red granite keep him frae the sun,
An' Johnny Ramensky nae freedom has won.

He has been in a prison for the maist o' his days,
An "I must hae ma freedom" is a' that he says.
There are nae horizons in a twenty foot cell
And bitter the music of a hard prison bell.

He has slipped frae the darkness an' intae the light
Tae the green fields around him he has taken his flight
For one breath o' fresh air, just one glimpse o' the sun,
- But Johnny Ramensky nae freedom has won.

Oh the cauld frosty clay whaur he lays his head
Is sweeter tae him than a hard prison bed.
Oh foxes hae holes an' the birds hae their nests,
But whaur is poor Johnny Ramensky tae rest?

Like a dog he is huntit, like a dog he is ta'en,
But sweet was the smell o' the grass an' the rain,
Forgotten his prison, on his windows nae bars,
For Johnny Ramensky walked under the stars.

Far distant, far distant, in Peterheid Jail,
Lies Johnny Ramensky, his escape bid did fail,
Iron bars and red granite keep him frae the sun,
An' Johnny Ramensky nae freedom has won.

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