Obituary: Ethel Simpson, pioneering and inspirational Scottish journalist

Ethel Simpson, much-respected journalist
Ethel Simpson, much-respected journalist
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Ethel Simpson, journalist. Born: Banff on September 2, 1926. Died: Aberdeen on December 12, 2017, aged 91.

It was too much to bear for one news editor when a young female reporter turned up for a shift in the then austere offices of the Press and Journal in Aberdeen wearing a trouser suit. The strict disciplinarian told the journalist to go back home and change into a skirt.

Ethel Simpson, who has died aged 91, was livid when she heard what had happened to her colleague.

The chief reporter, who always fought for equal rights for women employed on the newspaper, complained vigorously to the management and they decreed that from then on it would be perfectly proper for a woman journalist to wear trousers to work.

In a career spanning more than 40 years with the North of Scotland’s foremost regional newspaper, Simpson came to be considered the doyenne of women journalists there.

A farmer’s daughter, Ethel was born at Burnside, then a cottar house for Bloodymire farm near Banff. The family left there for Keithhall and eventually, in 1945, took up residence at North Affleck, Whiterashes, a hamlet in the Formartine area of Aberdeenshire. She lived there for the next 72 years.

Simpson was educated at Keithhall primary school and Inverurie Academy, which she left at just 14. She joined Aberdeen Journals as a shorthand typist after a course at Webster’s College. Her excellent communication skills were swiftly noted and she transferred to the Press and Journal’s editorial staff.

She said: “I was the first girl to start raw as a junior reporter on the Aberdeen Press and Journal, totally raw. At 17 in 1944, I started right at the nitty gritty rock bottom.”

Ethel moved steadily up the ranks, rising to the role of chief reporter at a time when the P&J, edited by Elgin-born James Grant, boasted a circulation approaching 120,000.

She and the late Pearl Murray, the P&J’s features editor, were formidable journalists and pioneers of women in the media in Scotland.

Their reputation is illustrated in a tale about a small tavern close to Broad Street and much used by Aberdeen Journals’ staff, almost all of them men. The pub was so small it had only one lavatory which had a large Men Only sign on the door. A young journalist drinking there one night observed Simpson using thefacility and pointed this out to the owner.

The proprietor, Poppy Mitchell, was indignant, raised her eyebrows and observed haughtily: “Ethel and Pearl don’t count as women – they are reporters!”

The City Bar was the main haunt for Aberdeen journalists. Ethel, who enjoyed a tipple, loved holding court there and mixing with the granite city’s great and good, including city councillors and officials, solicitors and advocates from the nearby courts.

Simpson was a fervent socialite and with her farming background knew all the bothy ballads – some of which are considered near the bone. James Naughtie, from rural Rothiemay, a P&J graduate trainee who became a distinguished writer and broadcaster with the BBC, was also a great exponent of the bothy ballad. He and Ethel were often the life and soul of any impromptu party.

He said: “For more than a generation, those of us who served on the deck of the P&J, Ethel was a stalwart friend. She seemed to embody the story of the paper, knowing its hinterland intimately and understanding its voice and its readers. On top of all that, she was the life and soul of the party.

“For me, like so many others, the years roll back easily and I can remember so many good times – usually with Ethel on the news desk telling a story, puzzling over a peculiar death notice, explaining to a new reporter the twisted back roads of Aberdeenshire. Caring about the paper, and having fun too. A precious colleague.”

The P&J was acknowledged to be a marvellous training ground and many youngsters went on to successful careers in the UK’s national newspapers and television and radio.

When they came under her wing in the office and out on the road, Simpson nurtured these trainees. She helped them to polish their reporting skills and mentored them about accuracy and integrity.

She was a staunch royalist who later in life canvassed for the Conservative Party at elections, but she never allowed her political affiliations to influence her journalistic values. Retirement gave her the freedom to campaign in elections, doing door to door leafleting on behalf of her local candidates. She also used her journalistic skills to fire off stinging letters to newspapers about the state of affairs in her constituency.

Simpson’s colleagues describe her as “a strikingly attractive and vivacious woman who regarded the editorial team around her as her second family”.

One of them, Susan Dean, said: “I feel so very, very sad. Ethel was a marvellous woman who was a mentor to young journalists and a trailblazer in the profession. I, like many others, held her in great affection. They don’t make them like her anymore.”

Simpson’s daughter, Emma, also a journalist, did work experience at the P&J during school holidays as a student. She joined the BBC’s News Trainee scheme after graduation from Edinburgh University and is now one of the BBC’s national news business correspondents in London.

Emma said: “I always remember getting the call to say I’d been accepted onto this scheme. It was a bit like filling in your pools coupon for would-be journalists. I was at North Affleck when the BBC rang to say I had a place. Mum’s response was, ‘Ach, Emma. You’ll never be a writer!’ And of course, even if I ended up in print I could never have matched her writing talent. I wish I had her mean shorthand skills as well.”

As Simpson’s health deteriorated, she was sanguine about it. She insisted she was coping and wanted to maintain her independence right to the end.

Her daughter said: “She wanted to end her days at her beloved North Affleck and pretty much did so, apart from those two final weeks in hospital. These were tough, but it could have been so much worse. She didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. My mother was resilient, determined and selfless to the very end.”

Hamish Mackay, who was head of news at the P&J, knew Ethel as a colleague and friend for 50 years.

He said: “Ethel had a heart of gold and was generous in every respect. She was always concerned about the welfare of others. In retirement, she launched an annual social gathering for former and largely retired colleagues at Aberdeen Cricket Club. It was a highlight of the city’s social calendar. We will miss her kindness, her jollity, her respect for both man and beast and her dismissiveness of any airs and graces and affectation.”

Ethel Simpson, who never married, is survived by Emma, son-in-law Neil, and grandchildren Alex and James.

BILL HEANEY