Journalist, playwright and novelist
Born: 21 April, 1931, in Edinburgh. Died: 4 December, 2005, in Edinburgh, aged 74.
BILL Watson was not only one of the best-liked, genial and talented Scottish journalists and writers of the post-war generation, but an enthusiast about everything imaginative that crossed his path. This is evident in his choice of subject-matter for the plays he wrote that were produced in Scottish theatres, Sawney Bean, for example, the legendary Highland vagabond and cannibal who was almost a pagan God, or his remarkable play A Footstool for God, about the famous pillar in the Rosslyn Chapel, produced in Pitlochry, that might do well again now in the light of The Da Vinci Code, recently filmed in Edinburgh and environs.
Watson was an ideas person with a strong mystical streak, who had the ability to bring together strong but opposite personalities of widely differing views and make them listen to each other. Harry Whitley, of St Giles Cathedral, who would call down the wrath of the Almighty of the Edinburgh Festival for staging biblical themes like Strauss' opera Salome, and certainly would have nothing good to say about my own experiments in promoting public discussion of taboo subjects in Writers' Conferences I organised for the same Festival, would converse reasonably and moderately when we met at Watson's hospitable table. As first literary editor and then features editor of The Scotsman in Alastair Dunnett's day, he would give space to articles that promoted new ideas and new ways of looking at the arts at a time when Edinburgh was just beginning to move ahead of London in its aesthetic awareness. Apart from the ideas he eagerly gathered from others, he had a way of looking at an art work and seeing in it something that no-one else had noticed.
The son of Sir Hugh Watson, an Edinburgh solicitor, being an author who spent his days as a working arts journalist, Watson seemed to hold out the promise of becoming a major literary figure on the Scottish scene, rooted in local tradition and history, but with a wider and more international perspective than his contemporaries. The mystical factor probably led to his growing addiction to alcohol that, in spite of periods when he successfully went off it, finally caused his mind to collapse into dementia, so that his last years were tragically spent as a total invalid in a home.
Before that, realising that he could not continue working at The Scotsman in a conventional administrative job, he left to spend a year teaching in Canada, during which time he managed to overcome the demon within him and returned to become night editor at the Glasgow Herald, a job so far below his qualifications and abilities that the editor was profoundly embarrassed, but he wanted the time to reorganise his life and was determined to continue writing while a major fictional project was taking place within his mind. Unfortunately, whatever it was that drove him to escape the conventional world of work, habit and reasonable conduct deserted him again, and he relapsed and never recovered.
Perth Theatre produced two of his plays, The Couch and Dodwell's Last Trump. The Traverse Theatre produced a collaborative play on the theme of Dracula to which he contributed. He also wrote novels. The macabre and the sinister obviously had a special fascination for Watson, but this was not evident in his everyday demeanour or his often mischievous sense of humour and general air of bonhomie. He was in many ways two people, his private side coming out in his disappearances from social life into a secret world in which he unfortunately spent his last years with no-one knowing what was happening inside his brain.
The social Watson was always full of fun, generous and cheerful with a keen intelligence that could take an interest in everything around him. It was as if the Calvinist God could not make up his mind whether he belonged to the elect or not.
Watson was married twice but the first marriage broke up 40 years ago.
His long-term companion during his periods of normality was Catherine Robins who became his second wife and survives him. She was with him at the end. The many who remember him talk primarily about his wit, quick repartee and precious ability to see the humour in every situation. It is possible that more of his writing will yet emerge.
Bill Watson's funeral will be held tomorrow at Warriston Crematorium at 3:50pm.