Obituary: Colin MacLean, journalist and publisher

Colin MacLean. Picture: Contributed
Colin MacLean. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 3 June, 1925, in Glasgow. Died: 27 June, 2013, in Glenrothes, Fife aged 88

He has been variously described as a cross between a dominie and a guru, a gentle giant and a human search engine – the latter on account of his ability to instantly dig out a book on any given subject during any conversation.

Add to that journalist, critic, television presenter, author, editor, publisher, sometime lyricist and composer, champion of young musicians … and an image begins to emerge of 6ft 4½in Colin MacLean, an inquisitive, multi-talented man, one who had once considered the relatively restrictive career of a lawyer.

Fortunately for the worlds of newspapers, education and music he ditched that plan, fearing the adversarial and confrontational nature of the law was not for him.

He went on to turn his journalistic hand to a range of ventures, including editing the Times Educational Supplement Scotland and running Robert Maxwell’s Aberdeen University Press, whilst in his spare time relishing a love of music and becoming one of the architects of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

That he achieved all that he did was extraordinary, given his brush with death at the age of three when he underwent a tracheotomy after he, his three sisters and brother all contracted diphtheria, then one of the leading causes of fatalities in children.

A son of the manse, he was born in Glasgow to Rev Alexander MacLean and his wife Isabella. His father died when he was seven and subsequently young MacLean was raised by his Aberdeen-born mother, attending the Granite City’s Mile End School and Robert Gordon’s College.

At 17 he began his MA in English literature and language at Aberdeen University in 1942 but his studies were soon interrupted by what he described in his memoirs as “my undistinguished and inactive war service”. Having failed to meet the Royal Air Force air-crew eyesight standard he became a radar mechanic, serving from 1943-7 and stationed, after training in Arbroath and Hull, at Rabat in Morocco and then Castel Benito in Libya.

He finally graduated in 1950 and, having earlier considered a career in law, was then drawn to journalism, most probably as a result of his love of language. He began on the Glasgow Bulletin newspaper in 1951 and the following year was given a then unique role in Scotland, as a television critic. Television was growing in popularity and he was among the first TV reviewers in newpapers. Sitting in front of the only TV set in the Bulletin offices he reviewed the 1952 broadcast of the funeral of King George VI and then regularly wrote reviews of various broadcasts over the years.

Towards the end of the 1950s, and while still doing his day job on the Bulletin, he found himself on the other side of the camera – as one of Scotland’s first presenters of a televised Sunday evening discussion programme. Working for the BBC Religious Broadcasting producer Ronnie Falconer, he fronted editions of Meeting Point, notably interviewing Malawian president Hastings Banda and pastor, concentration camp survivor and pacifist Martin Niemoller.

The programmes went out live and the only way he could review his own performance was if his wife recorded the sound on a tape recorder as the edition aired. He could then listen back to the audio tape when he got home. Fifty years later he was delighted to discover that his meeting with Niemoller had been archived on film. He received a DVD of the programme and was, belatedly, able to watch his 35-year-old self conduct the interview.

In 1960 he left the Bulletin to head to London where he spent a year at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph before joining the Times where, from 1961-65, he was one of the editors of Letters to the Editor, working under the editorship of Sir William Haley. He was on duty alongside Haley on the night in 1963 when the editor wrote his famous leader on the Profumo scandal, declaring: “It is a moral issue”.

A couple of years later, when it was decided to create a Scottish edition of the Times Educational Supplement, Haley sent him to Edinburgh to set up the publication. He was the founding editor and ran TESS, as it was known, until 1977.

A total non-conformist – he had refused to share the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, football-obsessed existence of many of his fellow Glasgow reporters – in the late 1970s he switched to publishing, eventually running Aberdeen University Press, (AUP) then recently acquired by controversial media mogul and former MP Robert Maxwell, who aimed to create a Scottish academic imprint.

MacLean became publishing director, then managing director of AUP, overseeing publications including the Concise Scots Dictionary, Scots Thesaurus and the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. He left in 1990 to become managing editor and subject editor (politics and media) of the ten-volume Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics.

Meanwhile Maxwell had been awarded an honorary degree, with a room at Aberdeen University named after him. The name was removed after his dodgy business dealings were revealed following his mysterious death at sea and when MacLean saw the room again he admitted: “I felt as if I too had, along with Maxwell and AUP Publishing, been drowned.” Describing Maxwell as the most brilliant bully he had ever known, he added: “If I ever respected him, it was with hesitation and often with distaste.”

In his own time at Aberdeen University, MacLean had written an entire student charity show – script, music and lyrics – and went on to produce a considerable body of literary work, some of it music-related. It included: The Reeve’s Tale, an adaptation into Scots of a Chaucer tale, which won the Scottish Community Drama Association National Festival in 1955: his own memoirs: a libretto of the opera Hugh Miller, winner of an Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award; The Crown and the Thistle, the Nature of Nationhood, and the book Nurturing Talent, marking 25 years of National Youth Orchestras of Scotland.

Between 1977 and 1979 he had been instrumental in establishing the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (NYOS), chairing the steering committee set up to consider its creation. There was some opposition to its formation, as the country’s 12 regional authorities were then developing their own orchestras, but in his quiet, calm and careful way, he smoothed over any dissent, aided by the rest of his committee. He was a key player, gathering influential individuals together and motivating them to create the company. For the next ten years he was vice-chair of NYOS, serving as a most supportive chairman from 1988-94 and then as a trustee of its endowment trust until this year.

He was also an elder of St Giles’ CathedraI from 1979 until his death, had been convener of its kirk session restoration appeal committee and supported its work in many ways, always giving measured, never dogmatic, advice in his characteristically gentle voice. Having organised events concerning the previous Scottish devolution referendum, he was once debating in church the case against a Scottish Assembly when he was challenged for making nit-picking points. His typically quiet response: “Well, if there are nits, they need picking.”

Predeceased by his wife Moira, he is survived by his three sons, Keith, David and Fraser and extended family.