Obituary: Robert Thomson, hard-working journalist much-admired in many Scottish newsrooms

Bob Thomson has died at the age of 64
Bob Thomson has died at the age of 64
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Robert Duncan Thomson (Bob), journalist. Born: 25 April, 1953 in Glasgow. Died: 
13 February 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 64.

Bob Thomson, a well-known and popular journalist, principally with the ­Edinburgh Evening News and The Scotsman, has died after a brave fight against cancer. He was 64.

Bob’s long career spanned the years of greatest change in the newspaper industry in Scotland, from the days of clacking typewriters in smoke-filled newsrooms to the bright, silent era of the modern open-plan office, but he earned and retained the respect of editors and ­colleagues alike as a safe pair of hands, “a good operator”. Most would admit they had good reason to be grateful for his knowledge and experience.

Bob Thomson was born in Robroyston Hospital in Glasgow to Iain and Margaret Thomson. His father and uncle were both successful in the newspaper industry, though in different branches. Iain worked as a buyer for the Daily Record and then the Daily Mirror in London. Uncle Jimmy Thomson was a leading photographer for the Herald for more than 40 years.

When Bob was 12, the family moved to Rochester in Kent, where he attended Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School for Boys. Initially, he was put down a year as the high-end English grammar school – “the Maths School” – considered Scottish education to be inferior, but he was quickly moved up again, as Bob showed himself to be at least the equal of, if not better than, his classmates.

Bob – or “Jock” as he was always known in England – also excelled on the sports field. He was a fine scrum-half and played for the school’s elite first XV as a fourth year (his teammates being mostly in the upper sixth). He was also a good cricketer and often played two matches at the weekend. On Saturdays he would turn out for the school and on Sundays play for the Electricity Board. He even scored a century for the EB while still a junior.

Despite his academic ability, Bob left school at 16 and immediately joined the Chatham News. Later, he moved to the North East Kent Gazette in Sittingbourne, riding his Lambretta 175 to work in all weathers. Ambitious and keen he may have been, but the cub reporter always had to ring home to tell his mother that he had arrived safely. He even admitted one day that a number of his early reports were ghosted by his father.

However, one story really tested his mettle. Reporting from an air show disaster in Kent in the early 1970s, he ­discovered a severed head in a field. The horror stayed with him throughout his career.

Keen to return to his roots, he moved to Elgin (his mother came from the area) in the ­early 1970s and started working for the Northern Scot. Here he enjoyed partying with his wild northern cousins, who thought nothing of an 80-mile round trip to Aberdeen to buy a carry-out at three in the morning.

From the Northern Scot, Bob moved to the Dunfermline Press, and in 1978 he joined the Edinburgh Evening News, where he soon made his mark as a city ­council reporter.

Though he was on first-name terms with many of the “cooncillors” – and indeed he was happy to share a pint or two with them in the Jinglin’ Geordie or the Halfway House, the favourite watering holes of thirsty Edinburgh hacks – he earned their respect as an honest and diligent reporter. It was at this time that he was given the affectionate nickname “Scoop”.

In fact, it was while researching a news story in 1980 that “Scoop” Thomson found his own love story – Erica Storey, from Cumbria, who was working as a receptionist in an Edinburgh hotel. They married in 1985 and were rarely apart until his untimely death.

After making his name as a fine reporter, Bob moved from the news desk to the subs’ desk, and it was as a sub-editor that he spent the rest of his career, his production skills ­making him much sought after by editors across Scotland, even after he retired.

His keen eye for detail and his insistence that everything was checked for accuracy saved many a reporter’s reputation. His stubbornness may have, on occasion, had chief subs pulling their hair out in frustration, but he was invariably proved right and he rarely missed a deadline.

Bob was a sub of the old school, but he kept up to speed with the rapid changes in the industry. He was at the forefront of introducing new technology into the newsroom, formatting software to suit the styles of The Scotsman Publications titles and training new members of staff. When plans were drawn up for a new sister paper, Scotland on Sunday (SoS), Bob was called in to add his expertise before and after the launch. For years afterwards, he often worked six days a week, including a busy Saturday shift for the SoS sports department.

During the 1990s, Bob was regularly promoted by Evening News editors, eventually becoming Assistant Editor, but in 1999 he decided to move to The Scotsman as Political Production Editor.

In 2000, a new challenge offered itself with the launch of Business AM and Bob, along with several other Scotsman journalists, joined the new paper. It failed to make much of an impact, however, and Bob returned two years later to The Scotsman – to a collective sigh of relief from the subs at Holyrood.

The next few years was a time of major change in Scottish affairs, with a new Scottish Government and Parliament building leading the way, but the rapid expansion of new media was proving unstoppable, and with falling circulation came staff cuts and reduced budgets. Despite the increased workload, Bob worked longer and longer hours, to the detriment of his health, and in 2011 came the devastating news that he had cancer.

Painful chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery were all bravely borne and after a year the cancer was in remission, but it had taken its toll. He went back to work on reduced hours and gradually his health improved.

He took early retirement in 31 March 2015, but continued to work shifts for many of the top Scottish papers. He often worked for The Scotsman, SoS and the Herald in the same week.

A keen golfer throughout his life, he had been warned he might not be able to swing a club again, but to his delight he found the old skills returning. Loving, as he said, a good 3-iron shot from the first tee at Carrick Knowe, he was a familiar figure on the course on Wednesday mornings, where he regularly played nine holes with his cousin Ann, Jimmy Thomson’s daughter.

He used an electric golf trolley which seemed to have a mind of its own, causing much amusement as other golfers watched him chase the runaway machine down the fairway.

Although a ferocious hitter of the golf ball in his younger days – he won the prestigious Press Association ­competition, the Wilson ­Trophy, in 1982, emulating Uncle Jimmy who had won it in the 1960s – his game in his later years was characterised by a gentle slice, mainly on to the middle of the fairway.

Bob’s hobbies included regripping golf clubs – he had numerous sets in his garage – and reading, especially Nordic Noir thrillers. He had a very individual taste in music. He loved Swedish folk music – a passion not shared by Erica – as well as Steeleye Span and The Seekers, being particularly fond of Maddy Prior and Judith Durham. In sport, he always took the side of the underdog – or, more accurately, lost causes. When his beloved Third Lanark FC went to the wall, he switched his affection to the mighty Albion Rovers.

Bob and Erica loved to ­travel. They enjoyed regular city breaks, visiting Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Bruges, Copenhagen (15 times), Krakow, Madrid, Prague and Stockholm, and in 2000 they made a round the world trip, taking in Hong Kong, Australia and the US west coast.

Sadly, Bob’s cancer returned in November 2017, and after a short but courageous battle he died on 13 February. He will be greatly missed, not only by his family and many friends, but by the whole of the Scottish newspaper industry.

Bob is survived by his wife Erica, sister Jill and brother Alistair. A funeral service will be held at Warriston Crematorium’s Lorimer Chapel at noon tomorrow, to which all his friends are warmly invited.

ALISTAIR NORMAN