Obituary: Jim Grassie; Former Scotsman journalist never hesitated to take on the political establishment

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Born: 1 December, 1934, in Dundee. Died: 26 May, 2012 in Edinburgh, aged 77.

Jim Grassie was an old-school journalist whose quiet determination, incisive mind and immaculate shorthand took him from cub reporter to the very heart of Scotland’s business and political circles.

As an industrial correspondent he was a tenacious yet gentle investigator, with a real nose for news and the doggedness required to get to the bottom of any scandal or story that he felt was in the public interest.

When he had the chance to shape the information services of the new Highlands and Islands Development Board, he leapt at the opportunity and gained a ringside view of the inner workings of the quango, writing a book, Highland Experiment, which told the story of the public body.

However, his true vocation was as a leader writer for The Scotsman, a role he relished with a passion, never fearing to take on the political establishment if he was convinced of the truth and the merits of his argument.

It might all have been so different though, had he succumbed to the lure of another great lifelong love – football.

Once a star player, selected to play for Scotland in the schoolboys’ international against England at Wembley, he may have followed a very different career path.

But by the time he got to university his pen was already a powerful force, as he took on the editorship of the university paper, and an indication of things to come.

Born in the jute, jam and journalism city of Dundee, he was the second youngest of a family of seven. His father, Fred, a socialist and manager of a local jute mill, was a great believer in education for all and encouraged each of his children to go to university.

After schooling at Arbroath High and Morgan Academy, Dundee, young Grassie duly went up to St Andrews to study history and politics. In addition to running the student newspaper, he continued to play football, representing the university, and became charities convener.

After graduating he was called up to do National Service. Among one of the last batches of young men to be conscripted, he served in the Royal Army Pay Corps. Safe to say, the army life was not for him and he was notorious for reporting on parade sporting his gaiters upside down.

Fortunately, he was determined to become a journalist and successfully applied for a job at The Scotsman. He began as a reporter in 1960, moved up to become industrial correspondent and remained at the paper for six years.

The Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) had just been formed to aid the economic and social development of the vast region and, on the lookout for a new challenge, he applied for the job of establishing its information services.

Based in Inverness, he threw himself into the role and held the post of information officer for 14 years. It was through this work that he met friends including author Alan Campbell McLean, photographer Oscar Marzaroli and graphic designer Bill McKay.

Together they toured the Highlands, putting the area on the map and collaborating on various promotional projects for films and journals. Grassie returned to The Scotsman as a leader writer in 1981, often writing editorials which, though controversial, echoed the popular public views of the time.

In 1983 his book, Highland Experiment, was published, giving a unique, first-hand account of the operation of the HIDB. It remains in print.

Several years later, he produced Shades of Scotland, a collection of the photographer’s images of Scotland with words by Grassie, and which was published as a tribute to Marzaroli, who had recently died. One colourful passage detailed an incident during the book’s gestation that led to the journalist’s long-standing fear of flying.

On a trip to Tiree, Marzaroli had suggested that Grassie and Campbell McLean join him on the ferry rather than in the hired aircraft from Dalcross, Inverness. The pair declined the photographer’s offer only to suffer a white-knuckle ride flight which, as Grassie explained, “contained almost every nightmare endured by the apprehensive flyer”.

It transpired that the little Piper Aztec’s starboard door burst open at 5,000ft and again at 6,000ft. The propeller iced up, forcing the pilot to lose height to an altitude lower than the summit of the island’s only hill. And the passengers cowered in their seats as the ice later broke up and “whanged against the fuselage like bullets”.

On his landing approach, the pilot lost radio contact with Tiree and had to make three passes out to sea before, in low clouds and driving rain, he spotted the runway. Meanwhile, Marzaroli was “waiting comfortably in his old but heated Volvo” ready to pick up the rattled passengers at the terminal.

Although the experience did not prevent him travelling by air, the fear of flying to could only be cured by a stiff dram before take-off.

Away from work, life was dominated by his love of his family. He wooed his wife Wilma while at university, asking her out with a romantic gesture that illustrated his passion for the written word: he cut out a column by one of his favourite journalists on a national newspaper and edited it, turning it into an invitation to a performance at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Rather than simply send it or hand it over to her, he displayed it publicly on the student notice board. The move worked and the couple married in 1957.

They went on to have two children, daughter Gill and a son Neil, who has Asperger’s syndrome. He is supported by Edinburgh charity The Action Group, of which his father was one of the founding committee members in the 1980s.

The two men shared a passion for football, attending Hearts matches together until recently, Grassie senior still able to salute his team with a thumbs-up after their five-one victory over Hibs last month.

Other interests included fishing, which he took up in Inverness; golfing with his former Scotsman friend and colleague Jimmy Frame at Royal Musselburgh Golf Course and painting watercolours with Blackhall Art Club.

A man who was generous to a fault and would do anything to help anyone out, he was also an inspirational father and mentor as well as a first-rate journalist with a principled pen in his hand.

He is survived by his wife Wilma and children Neil and Gill.

ALISON SHAW