When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Paul Johnston

I grew up in a small market town in the Scottish Borders. If you drew a line from Edinburgh to Newcastle roughly half way along you’d find Galashiels, which means, in old Scots, “dwellings by the river Gala.” It sits at the confluence of the Tweed and Gala rivers, not far from Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford where I worked during my university holidays. The rivers drove the town’s economy over the years, in particular tweed and woollen mills, which proliferated in the years after the War but disappeared in the face of Asian competition in the years of my childhood.

The town had just one secondary school, Galashiels Academy, which sat, indeed still sits, surrounded by attractive parkland. One of my favourite ways of distracting myself from the science lessons which failed to engage me was to look out over the putting green in the neighbouring park and imagine I was Peter Alliss, commentating on the closing stages of the Open Championship. Before secondary school I went to the town’s Roman Catholic primary school, St Margaret’s, which was directly across the road from the Academy, which indeed loomed over it. So that throughout my seven years at primary school, culminating in 1980, I was looking at my scholastic future in the “big school” on the other side of the street.

My journey to school was straightforward, unlike that of many of my school chums, particularly at the Academy, whose catchment area included villages, hamlets and farms some as many as 20 miles away from Gala, necessitating bus journeys of up to an hour each way each day.

As someone who lived in the town, my walk to school involved turning left at the end of our street, walking for about 7 minutes past a row of terraced houses and then turning right up a short incline into the rear entrance of the primary school. Even the most talented writer would do well to evoke anything remarkable, rather than the reassuring familiarity of the route, and the pleasant accretion every day of fellow pupils leaving their houses along the way in the minutes before 0900 to make their way to St Margaret’s. In contrast to London schools, there were very few cars dropping off pupils. You either lived so close to school, like me, that you could walk, or so far away that you came by bus.

I remember one early January day in particular, buttoned up against the snow and wind, struggling along the familiar route to school, surprised to find none of my usual fellow pedestrian commuters leaving their front doors in the minutes before 0900 and joining me on the way to school. I got to school to find the playground similarly deserted and only slowly did it dawn on my that I had set of for school a day before the start of the new term. So that day my return journey from school started at 0900 rather 1600. Looking back on my schooldays from the perspective of having lived in Paris, New York, Stockholm, Brussels and now Dublin, I’m grateful for the short and simple way to school and back that I enjoyed all those years ago.


Paul Johnston joined the UK Civil Service in 1990, working for the Ministry of Defence initially.He has served in Paris and New York and has also had a wide range of political and security roles in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Paul joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1993 as Desk Officer for Bosnia. As part of this role he was also Private Secretary to EU negotiator Lord Owen and his representative on Bosnia Contact Group.His first foreign posting was to Paris in 1995-99 as Second Secretary Political. He was Private Secretary to the Ambassador and latterly part of the UK delegation to the Kosovo Rambouillet negotiations. Then he returned to London as Head of the Kosovo Policy Team, leading work on post-conflict policy in the EU, NATO, UN and G8.Before his second overseas posting to New York in 2005, Paul held a variety of other EU policy and security appointments in London, such as Head of European Defence Section between 2000-01 and Head of Security Policy Department between 2002-04.As Head of the Political Section in UKMIS New York, he advised on major policy issues for the UK on the Security Council and the UN World Summit, including the UK EU Presidency in 2005.Paul returned to London in 2008 as Director, International Security for the FCO. He was responsible for policy on UN, NATO, European Security, arms control and disarmament, human rights and good governance.Paul was British Ambassador to Sweden from August 2011 to August 2015 and then was Deputy Permanent Representative to NATO.He was UK Ambassador to the EU for Political and Security affairs from 2017 to January 2020 and became Ambassador to Ireland in September 2020.

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us.

Have a story on this topic and want to get involved? Contact us on our social media sites, or email us at cbrowne@museumofchildhood.ie – we would love to hear from you!

By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish writer, curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.