William McIlvanney awarded honorary degree at Glasgow memorial service

The memorial service for William McIlvanney at Glasgow Universitys Bute Hall yesterday. Picture: Martin Shields
The memorial service for William McIlvanney at Glasgow Universitys Bute Hall yesterday. Picture: Martin Shields
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William McIlvanney has been honoured with a posthumous doctorate by his former university at a memorial service.

A host of famous figures paid tribute to the author, known as the Godfather of Tartan Noir, at the service at Glasgow University’s Bute Hall yesterday. Guests included authors Val McDermid, Allan Massie and Ali Smith and journalist Hugh McDonald.

His friend, broadcaster Ruth Wishart, introduced the service which included readings by Glasgow-born actor David Hayman. Traditional musician Sheena Wellington, who sang at the opening ceremony of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, also performed.

The author of the acclaimed Glasgow detective Laidlaw trilogy and numerous other works set in the city, such as Docherty, The Big Man and The Kiln, died aged 79 at his home there on 5 December.

McIlvanney was also an influential poet, journalist and broadcaster, and contributed to political and sporting life in Scotland through a series of columns and TV programmes.

His brother, journalist Hugh McIlvanney, spoke at the commemoration along with his daughter, Siobhan McIlvanney, who said the “last piece of writing” her father did was an acceptance note for the doctor of literature honorary degree.

She said she was proud to accept the degree on his behalf.

She said: “The University of Glasgow was dad’s alma mater – as it was my brother Liam’s and my own – and I know how pleased he was when the university contacted him last year to tell him that they would like to award him the degree.

“In fact, the last piece of writing he ever did was a brief note confirming his acceptance. Attending the University of Glasgow as an English and history undergraduate in the late 1950s not only instigated his deep affection for the city itself, an affection to which his writing repeatedly bears witness, but represented a significant stage in dad’s intellectual development.

“Above all else, he valued the atmosphere of openness the university fostered and relished the opportunity to exchange ideas with his peers. His time here confirmed his belief in learning as a lifelong objective, whether through reading, writing or discussion.”

Professor Roibeard O’ Maolalaigh, vice-principal and head of the college of arts, who conferred the degree, said: “The college of arts and the University of Glasgow are very proud to have William McIlvanney as one of our most distinguished and talented alumni. He was an inspirational figure who made an outstanding contribution to Scottish life and culture in an astonishing array of different spheres.

“He was one of Scotland’s most accessible intellectuals who captured accurately and gracefully so many facets of the human condition.

“It is entirely fitting that his alma mater should honour and recognise his extraordinary contribution.”

The son of a miner from Kilmarnock in East Ayrshire, William McIlvanney studied English at Glasgow University, graduating in 1960 – when he said he was “transformed” with a desire to be a writer. He spent most of the next two decades as a teacher at an Ayrshire high school before he pursued writing full-time.

His first novel, Remedy is None, came out in 1966 but it was Docherty, in 1975, which brought him into the limelight. It earned him praise as “the authentic voice of the Scottish working class”.

McIlvanney once said: “I remember an old ex-miner shaking my hand and crying and saying ‘you’ve written my story, son’.”

His crime novel Laidlaw, published in 1977, is credited with being the first example of the Scottish crime fiction genre known as tartan noir.

Rebus author Ian Rankin has described McIlvanney as “a truly inspired and inspiring author and an absolute gent” and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh called him “an inspirational writer”.