The men who made The Scotsman: Part two

ROY Herbert Thomson was born on 5 June, 1894, at 16 Monteith Street in mid-town Toronto - a terraced house in a small cul-de-sac. His father, Herbert Thomson, was a telegraphist turned barber, and his mother, Alice Coombs, was an Englishwoman who had emigrated from Bath to work as a hotel maid.

Like any self-respecting millionaire, Roy Thomson started right at the bottom - delivering Sunday newspapers. At the age of 13 he began his commercial education, working his way through a course of typing, shorthand and book-keeping at Elliot's Business College; and because the family could not afford the college fees, Thomson paid his way in kind - working as the janitor.

In 1917, at the age of 22, he married Edna Irvine, a typist who, like himself, was of Scottish descent. Nearly two years later, to the dismay of family and friends, he announced his intention to become a farmer. But farming did not turn out to be the idyll he expected. Within six weeks, he realised he had made a major blunder. As winter approached, he first rented, and then sold, his 640-acre farm; but the buyer could not keep up the payments, and Thomson grimly wrote it off as a bad debt - having lost most of his $15,000.

In 1920, with what remained of his capital, he bought a small business distributing car spare parts, in partnership with his brother. Five years later, the firm faced bankruptcy. Undismayed, Thomson made arrangements for repayments of all the debts, and founded another firm in Ottawa with his brother, Service Supplied Ltd; one of the sales franchises was to sell radios.

This, as it turned out, was to be the start of his career as a press baron; yet nothing could have seemed less likely. Thomson was now in his mid-thirties and had spectacularly failed to achieve his ambition to become a millionaire.

Two years later, and still teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Thomson decided he must expand or bust. So he opened a radio station, this time in the gold-mining town of Timmins, which helped to keep his head above water. He was doggedly working to the slogan he would later incorporate in his coat-of-arms - "Never a backward step".

In 1934, aged 40 and still very far from the fulfilment of his ambition, and simply because there happened to be a newspaper in the same building as his Timmins radio station, he bought the weekly Timmins Press - again on promissory notes, this time for $6,000. A year later, on the assumption that more advertising would come if the paper were read more, and printed more frequently, he turned it into a daily.

How Thomson survived is little short of a miracle. His business deals were hair-raising, walking a financial tightrope. Yet out of this experience came the remarkable financial expertise that was later to make him one of the world's most formidable press barons.

For the next decade, his radio business - and his one newspaper - began to prosper. When the Second World War started, Thomson's eight radio stations were a booming asset - and he had learned a great deal about the economics of publishing.

When he met the overseas delegates at the Empire Press Union conference in Ottawa and escorted them on a tour of Canada, he could not resist asking the British newspaper-owners present his favourite question: "Got any newspapers to sell?"

He asked Colin MacKinnon, who was there as a delegate from the Scotsman Publications. Was The Scotsman for sale? Mr MacKinnon smilingly assured him that it was not. Although Thomson did not know it at the time, The Scotsman was ripe for takeover.

Thomson was not exactly unprepared when he received a letter from MacKinnon dated 17 April, 1953, written with the guidance of James Whitton, The Scotsman's financial adviser.

Thomson replied promptly, on 24 April. "I feel an infusion of Canadian capital and ideas, from Canadians of Scotch descent, would be valuable for the paper and might add a lot of colour to the whole Scotsman situation.

"I know that I personally regard it as a culmination of my newspaper career to be associated with such a great newspaper."

The final arrangements for permitting the sale of The Scotsman were completed on 4 August, 1953. Sir Edmund Findlay signed the mandate and letter of instruction authorising the sale of his interest for not less than 500,000.

Meanwhile, Thomson was preparing for the biggest deal of his life. As he packed his bags for Britain, he got an accountant to give him a bargaining figure for The Scotsman, but suspected he might have to pay rather more than its actual value. Thus armed, Thomson flew from Canada on Friday, 14 August, to London, for a weekend of preparation before marching on Edinburgh.

He flew to Edinburgh, where he was met by MacKinnon and Peter Findlay. But he didn't want to do any business that day. He went straight to the Roxburghe Hotel in Charlotte Square, where he was booked in for three nights - and then went for a tram ride, alone.

He wanted to see the city he was already half-planning to make his home. So he boarded a No 14 tram which took him along Princes Street and down Leith Walk, past the docks and through the picturesque little fishing village of Newhaven and along the coast to Granton, then back towards the city via Goldenacre and Pilrig, up North Bridge and past The Scotsman building and the university, on its way out to the quiet residential suburbs of the South Side.

Thomson sat on the top deck, clutching a sixpenny ticket, peering myopically at the sights of Edinburgh he could scarcely see, chatting to the tram conductor whenever opportunity arose. It lasted 75 minutes. After this reconnaissance he felt better prepared to meet Whitton for the days of hard bargaining that were to follow.

Thomson was now the only possible buyer in the field. The urgent problem now was to devise some means of ensuring that Thomson maintained The Scotsman as a responsible national newspaper and did not attempt to sell it to anyone else in the hope of making a quick profit.

On Thursday, 20 August, the discussions continued for seven and a half hours, going over the balance sheets and valuing the property. Eventually, a figure of 775,000 was arrived at as the total value of the company on which the sale of Sir Edmund Findlay's interest would be based.

Peter Findlay and MacKinnon joined in, and it was agreed each of them should retain 10,000 ordinary shares (12.5 per cent each of the equity), and Thomson should buy the remaining 75 per cent - 60,000 shares, at a cost of 393,750.

After an exhausting day, an Edinburgh lawyer, Alistair Blair, took Whitton and Thomson round to his flat in Ainslie Place for a drink. Thomson, a teetotaller, sat back and relaxed happily with an orange squash while Whitton and Blair gratefully sank a large whisky. Then, out of the blue, Thomson said: "Say, I kind of like you two guys. I guess you're a pretty good accountant and you're a pretty good lawyer. I'm going to need a good accountant and a good lawyer when I take on The Scotsman - what about you two joining me?"

They had been on the other side of the fence for three days of hard bargaining; now, they joined him without hesitation. They had done a good job safeguarding Scotland's interest in The Scotsman: only the next week, Lord Beaverbrook was offering Thomson a quick profit if he would part with it. But Thomson was not remotely interested.

Thomson, despite his hesitation over the magnitude of the deal, knew perfectly well that he had got The Scotsman for a bargain price at 393,750. The huge block of property on North Bridge, including the office of The Scotsman, was worth 1 million alone, Thomson reckoned; and soon he was to pay off the whole of the company's 500,000 overdraft by selling parts of the block not occupied by the newspaper business.

Thomson was not attempting to recoup the money he had spent in acquiring the paper, only in clearing a debt which was crippling. As he was to say later, "I didn't come to Scotland to make money, but constituted as I am I can't entirely forget the subject."

News of the takeover reached the staff of The Scotsman on the afternoon of Wednesday, 3 September. The immediate reaction was one of relief that the company's survival was assured after so many uneasy months of dismaying rumours about its financial difficulties. But one man greeted the changeover with implacable hostility - the editor, J Murray Watson.

Murray Watson was due to retire that autumn, and, to him, Thomson represented a brash and unfeeling commercial ruthlessness that had nothing to do with the traditions of journalism he had been brought up in. At Murray Watson's request, it was his predecessor, Sir George Waters, who wrote the announcement of the takeover.

Thomson had no intention of alienating either his staff or Edinburgh itself. In fact, he went out of his way to create an atmosphere of bonhomie.

On his very first day as the new proprietor, he had gone round the whole office, introducing himself to everyone he met with a cheerful "my name's Thomson, call me Roy." The door of his office was always open - literally. Sometimes, he would lunch in the staff canteen, clearing up his own dishes. Thomson was everywhere, from early morning till late evening, relentlessly cheerful, relentlessly inquisitive, relentlessly watchful.

He and the experts he brought with him from Canada quickly realised that there had to be economies - and changes of personnel - in the running of the paper. Thirty women of the clerical staff were fired. Other heads rolled. In his first week as owner of The Scotsman, 41 people were sacked. And Edinburgh disapproved.

In several public utterances, Thomson had chided Edinburgh's commercial interests for the lack of advertising enterprise; and to encourage their sluggish reactions, he brought over from Vancouver a Canadian expert in advertising, Ray Barford. But Edinburgh's commercial interests were singularly unimpressed, and Barford was soon recalled to Canada.

Thomson's early months in Edinburgh were rather tragic, in a way. In January 1954, he had made his final break with Canada and moved to a suburban home in Edinburgh. He desperately wanted to be socially accepted - but Edinburgh snubbed him. He went tirelessly - and quite indiscriminately - to all the functions to which he was invited, and he sometimes threw parties and dinners of sumptuous and glittering hospitality, but he could never break through the wall of chilly disapproval the city felt for him.

He made the most appalling gaffes. Whenever he met the proprietor or editor of the rival Evening News, he alternately asked them to sell out or threatened to drive them off the streets - blithely ignoring the fact that the News had gratefully picked up 15,000 new readers as a result of his policy over the Evening Dispatch.

He had to be dissuaded from importing a flashy Cadillac from America and coaxed into using a 1939 Daimler as presenting a more suitable image for the proprietor of The Scotsman.

Of Scotland he once said: "There must be something wrong in this country when a fellow like me can make so much money." He capped this with a public remark he made in Canada: "Edinburgh's idea of stop-press news is a picture of some mouldy old ruin with a description of what it was like two centuries ago."

His parsimony became legendary, too - his reluctance to spend anything on himself, and though he was persuaded, reluctantly, to make large donations to Scottish charities, he was too frank a man to be able to conceal the pain it caused him to part with money.

Worst of all, in this city of rigid social castes, Thomson was quite openly a social climber, a man who loved titles for their own sake and made little secret of his own wish to acquire one.

Wherever he went in Edinburgh, he was told: "Don't change The Scotsman." This preservation of the status quo was Murray Watson's philosophy. The most inconceivable innovation that he could contemplate for the paper was Thomson's determination to do away with the traditional and hallowed front page, with its packed columns of advertising, and turn it over to news; Murray Watson was convinced that this move would alienate a large section of the paper's faithful readership.

Murray Watson stayed on as editor until the end of July 1955 - long enough to celebrate The Scotsman's centenary as a daily on 29 June. The Queen sent a message of congratulation: "I have learned with pleasure and interest that The Scotsman has attained its centenary as a daily newspaper. I send my sincere congratulations to all concerned in its production and my warm good wishes to its readers in Scotland and elsewhere."

Murray Watson produced a special centenary supplement summarising the history of the paper and carrying congratulatory messages from prominent figures including Sir Winston Churchill, who wrote: "I am glad to send my congratulations to The Scotsman upon its centenary as a daily newspaper. The Scotsman is a journal worthy of the proud city of Edinburgh in which it is produced. It represents the highest traditions of British journalism, and has long since earned its title to be regarded by Scotsmen - and by Englishmen too - as a national institution."

A month later, Murray Watson was forced by ill-health to retire. His had been an arduous and distinguished editorship, and he had served the paper with devotion. A few weeks later he underwent an operation, and was showing signs of recovery when he suddenly relapsed and died.

Long after his death, Thomson was to speak generously of the editor who had been his implacable opponent: "Heck, maybe Murray Watson was right after all. I made a lot of mistakes in these first few months; I didn't realise how conservative Edinburgh was, and I tried to push it along too fast. Murray Watson may have helped me avoid other mistakes, by keeping the brakes on when I wanted to go too quickly."

For the rest of that year, John Buchanan, one of the paper's principal leader writers for 30 years and deputy editor to Murray Watson since 1944, ran The Scotsman as acting editor. But Thomson was determined to find new blood.

He had already brought one new man into the management side - a man who was to become his closest aide, James Milne Coltart.

Coltart's aptitude for figures was as formidable as Thomson's own, as was his drive.

But apart from his aptitude for figures, Coltart had another skill that was to serve Thomson just as well - his flair for picking men. For when, in the autumn of 1955, Thomson was searching for a new editor, it was Coltart who proposed the name of the man who was destined to lead the paper's breakthrough into 20th-century quality journalism: Alastair MacTavish Dunnett.

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