Obituary: Bill Hill; former Scotsman journalist who became the ‘father of e-reading’

Bill Hill pictured as Deputy News Editor of The Scotsman in the 1970s
Bill Hill pictured as Deputy News Editor of The Scotsman in the 1970s
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Born: 16 September, 1949, at Lennoxlove Castle, Campsie Glen. Died: 17 October, 2012, Redmond, Washington State, US, aged 63.

GLASWEGIAN Bill Hill will probably be best remembered as the “father of e-reading”. It was his obsession to make onscreen reading as easy and accessible as it is on the page, as a result of which millions of people around the world now buy and read books electronically.

However, those of us who knew him will remember him for so much more. He was an 
accomplished journalist for nearly 18 years. He was a 
talented musician – guitarist, sitar player and songwriter, his lyrics often reflecting his great passion for the environment. He was a gentle, loving and patient friend, an adoring 
husband and wonderful father.

I first met Bill when we were reporters together at the Paisley Daily Express, and later in the Glasgow office of The Scotsman. Our shared passion for music led to a collaboration in writing, playing and recording music – talking, dreaming, knowing that the future must hold more. He could never have dreamt then where it would take him.

Bill’s story is one of extraordinary achievement against the odds. Born and brought up in a working-class housing scheme in the East End of Glasgow, his father died when he was just 14, and he took on the mantle of man of the house and breadwinner. However, Bill was smart. Really smart. He won a scholarship to Glasgow’s Alan Glen’s school, where he excelled academically. But he was also a rebel, and rejected the conventional academic route through his university years at Heriot-Watt’s, to carve out a niche for himself as a journalist.

But with his long hair and thick, bushy beard, and his restless talent, he pushed at the boundaries of accepted convention.

Spotted once by a rival newspaper busking in Buchanan Street in Glasgow, he was hauled over the coals by his editor at The Scotsman after a story appeared in the gossip column of the Sunday Mail, suggesting that Scotsman reporters were paid so poorly they had to go busking to make ends meet.

Bill quit The Scotsman in 1986 to join the Aldus Corporation, a software company in Edinburgh. It was where he 
co-invented ClearType, which revolutionised the readability of text on screen, and led 
Microsoft to pursue him in the 1990s to head up its typography group in Seattle. There he found that while his IQ of nearly 160 had usually made him the brightest guy in any gathering, he was now – in his own words – “the dumbest guy in the room”.

But Bill went on to become one of the brightest stars in the Microsoft constellation – addressing audiences of 3,000 people in his kilt – and sharing the stage with one of the world’s richest and best-known men, Bill Gates.

Bill’s new life was telegraphed to him in a dream, where he saw himself as a wolf running with other wolves through the woods.

It wasn’t long before he was living in those very woods outside Seattle, absorbing the wisdom of Native Americans, learning how to track the creatures of his dreams. His artist wife, Tanya, reflected those dreams in a wonderfully evocative series of paintings, and Bill returned to his musical roots to write and record an album of songs to tell the story.

The couple went on to buy a beach house on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and in his late fifties Bill started surfing waves instead of the internet. He had learned, ten years before, to face life fearlessly following a stroke that had nearly robbed him of his life – it was a stroke that killed his steelworker father, aged 44.

“It made me not afraid any more,” he once told me. “To face life, to express myself, to stand up in front of 3,000 people… I’m glad now that it happened.”

His was an extraordinary life, that in keeping with the rest of it began in the most peculiar of circumstances. He was born in 1949 in Lennoxlove Castle in Campsie Glen, which at that time was a psychiatric institution – two wards had been petitioned off after the war for use in childbirth.

He used to joke: “I was born in a mental hospital.” But Campsie Glen was a place he loved, and where he took his future wife on their first date.

The last time I saw Bill was in a hotel in Seattle five years ago. I had been best man at his wedding 30 years previously, but we had not set eyes on each other for nearly 20 of them. We spent several hours catching up, and he grinned at me across the table and said: “Sometimes I find it hard to believe I’m here in Seattle, living this life, that I’ve come this far, by this route… wee Willie Hill fae 

It was an emotional reunion. And when, finally, we parted, we hugged, and our lives went off again on their separate and very different ways.

And I found it hard to believe, and almost as hard to accept, that we should meet so briefly after all that time, and might never meet again. As it happened, we never did.

Bill died suddenly from a heart attack at his home in Redmond, Washington State. He is survived by Tanya and their two children, Yssa and Eldon.

Peter May