Obituary: Norman George Robertson Mair

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Born: 7 October, 1928, in Edinburgh. Died: 7 December, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 86.

It is the nature of newspapers to lionise one of our own on the occasion of his or her death, and far too often deceased practitioners of the journalistic trade are referred to as legends. In the case of Norman Mair, however, it seems the only appropriate word to use.

His passing less than seven weeks after the death of his former colleague Glenn Gibbons has confirmed the demise of a golden era of Scotsman sports journalism.

Chosen Sports Journalist of the Year in the Scottish Press Awards six times in ten years, last year Mair became only the second media person after Bill McLaren to be inducted into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame, an honour that says everything about the enormous respect in which he was held in the sport he enhanced with his reportage.

When Mair wrote about a rugby match or a golf tournament, you could see it in your mind’s eye, and feel yourself in the stands at Murrayfield or in the galleries around the 18th green at St Andrews or Carnoustie. Furthermore, his analysis of scrums or shots, or the way he described a batsman getting himself out, came from the deep wellspring of his knowledge of sport, not least because he played rugby and cricket for Scotland and was a fanatical low-handicap golfer who adored the game – his wife Lewine recalls that he used to practise in the dark at Duddingston Golf Club and she and their daughter Michele were roped into finding his unsurprisingly lost balls.

Born the youngest of 13 children of Alexander William Mair, Professor of Greek at Edinburgh University, and his wife Elizabeth, Mair started life in Morningside on the south side of the capital, which remained his spiritual and mostly his actual home ever after. He never knew his father who died a month after Mair was born, succumbing to the effects of fumes from a fire in his study.

Mair always liked to inform people that he was the seventh son of a seventh son, and the twinkle in his eye as he said it would indicate the sense of mischief and fun which often surfaced in an otherwise serious character.

With all his siblings, Mair enjoyed a classical education, attending Edinburgh Academy and later Merchiston Castle School, then as now famed for its prowess at rugby. Mair excelled at the sport in his position of hooker and also took up golf and cricket in his schooldays.

Mair went on to study law at Edinburgh University, and soon played for the University First XV. At the age of 22, he was called up to play for Scotland and first wore the dark blue jersey against France in the Stade Colombes in Paris on 13 January, 1951. Scotland narrowly lost that match 12-14, but NGR Mair, as he was referred to in the team selection lists, enjoyed much better fortune in his next game for Scotland, the famous 19-0 win over Wales at Murrayfield when the Scots scored three tries to nil against the reigning Grand Slam champions.

Sadly for him, Mair played only two more matches for Scotland, his last appearance being in the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham on 17 March, 1951, which England won 5-3. Like so many players of that era, he suffered from the vagaries of the selectors as Scotland embarked on a long run of 17 defeats over the next four years.

His cricketing prowess for the University First XI had been noticed, too, and he was called up to play for Scotland against Worcestershire in August 1952. The match was drawn, and NGR Mair scored four not out in his only appearance for his country. He continued to bat and bowl for various teams down the years.

Turning to teaching, Mair qualified at Moray House in Edinburgh before spells on the staff of George Heriot’s School in the capital and St Mary’s School in Melrose, close to The Greenyards where he played for the town’s famous club.

His first forays into journalism were with STV’s Scotsport which was football-orientated. Along with another teacher colleague, Bob Crampsey, Mair found himself reporting on everything from Highland League football to the rugby “championship” of the day. A spell with the Sunday Telegraph followed before Mair was summoned to The Scotsman to become the paper’s rugby correspondent.

It was soon clear that he and the paper were the perfect match, and as an ex-internationalist who was on first name terms with many players and most of the SRU Committee – some did not like his independence of mind, it should be said – Mair was soon crafting articles full of insight and description, with no little humour.

After Scotland beat France 9-8 in the Five Nations in Paris in 1967, it was such an unexpected and rare event that Mair wrote the Scottish team did not need to fly home, they should just walk across the English Channel.

He reported on all Scotland’s matches for The Scotsman for more than 20 years. He made friendships in the sport that would last a lifetime, mostly, it must be said, with players rather than blazers, though he had a keen appreciation of the work that went into the administrative and coaching side of the sport.

In those days of no instant replays or videos of every game, he was such an acute observer that Scotland and British Lions coach Ian McGeechan would often spend hours on the telephone with Mair after matches.

In the summer season, he would turn his attention to golf, and though he never stated his preference, there was a lyrical quality to his golf writing that was sometimes absent in his rugby reports which were often densely analytical.

He covered many Open Championships and other top tournaments, and at the John Player Classic at Turnberry in 1973, after it was hit by a storm, he coined the classic description of “the local church filled with villagers praying for those in peril on the tee”.

On another occasion he wrote: “It is sometimes said that only when he stands at the altar on his wedding day does a man experience quite the same sensation as he feels each week at the first tee of a Sunday morning.”

It was at a golf tournament in 1967 that he met his journalist wife Lewine who was then 21. Theirs was a happy union of more than 47 years, with four children born in quick succession. Their daughters Suzi and Michele were both at one time Scotland’s top woman tennis player, while Lewine herself went on to become the first woman golf correspondent of a national newspaper.

Mair was immensely proud of Lewine and all his children and grandchildren, and was devoted to them all.

Mair left The Scotsman in 1982 to join the ill-fated Sunday Standard, and later wrote for The Observer and The Scotsman as well as contributing to numerous publications such as match programmes and writing several books, including a history of Muirfield.

Mair’s writing style was unique, as was his ability to push deadlines to their limit, but his professionalism was undoubted – he would think nothing of driving back from St Andrews to check that his copy had been inserted into the newspaper as he wanted it. He was also kind and helpful to younger colleagues, as this correspondent can personally testify.

Mair suffered ill-health in retirement and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease almost three years ago, being looked after by devoted staff at the Thorburn Manor care home in Colinton where he died in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Norman Mair is survived by Lewine, his children Suzi, Logan, Patrick and Michele and his seven grandchildren. Details of his funeral will be announced in due course.

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