Born in March 1945 in Falkirk, where his parents were both active in the amateur theatre, Kenneth Roy had an unhappy time at Denny High School, which he left as soon as legally possible.
He had work lined up – having volunteered as Bonnybridge correspondent of the Falkirk Mail at the age of 13, a role for which he was paid in postage stamps, the paper promised him a full-time job as a junior reporter as soon as he acquired proficiency in shorthand and typing from Skerry’s College in Glasgow. But it was not the most auspicious start to a career: the paper folded less than a year later.
After a short spell with the Greenock evening paper, and still only 19, he joined the Glasgow Herald, which assigned him to cover the criminal courts. He said later that this experience gave him a dark view of human nature, particularly as his duties were sometimes combined with a night-time trawl of the city’s police stations for copy. When he quit the paper, he treasured a note from editor Alasdair Warren, predicting that he “could have had a promising future in journalism.” A barren interlude in public relations followed.
He moved with his young family to a crumbling Victorian villa near Edinburgh, where he published, from 1969 to 1973, his own monthly magazine, Scottish Theatre, a precarious venture that quickly ran into financial difficulties. These were compounded when he diversified into the publication and production of plays by prominent Scottish writers, all of which enterprises lost money. He was left to eke out a bare living with jobbing work on Radio Scotland arts programmes and as an adjudicator of drama festivals.
Floundering in debt, he was rescued by Hugh Cochrane, newly-appointed head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, who offered him a job on the teatime news programme, Reporting Scotland, where his long, prematurely greying hair proved too much even for the urbane Cochrane: he was ordered to get it cut. For several years he co-presented the programme with Mary Marquis.
In search of more creative challenges, he seized an opportunity to work with the head of religious programmes, Ian Mackenzie, on The Yes, No, Don’t Know Show, an early experiment in audience participation, which focused on ethical issues. The series achieved high ratings for late-night religious television, but was bitterly opposed by the Church of Scotland hierarchy, which saw it as a threat to the sanctity of the God slot.
In 1979 Roy left the BBC and rented a 16th-century castle on the high street of Maybole, where he lived with his wife and two sons. It was from there that he engineered a bid for one of the first independent local radio franchises in the UK.
Fighting off competition from Radio Clyde, the little-fancied Maybole consortium brought West Sound on air in 1981 from studios in Ayr. Roy’s preference for news and talk over needle-time gained an unexpectedly large audience, but his backers decided that he lacked the expertise to make a commercial success of the business.
He then set up his own small publishing company, profitably establishing the biographical reference annual, Who’s Who in Scotland, while returning to BBC Scotland as presenter of the weekly politics programme, Agenda.
After a long absence from newspaper journalism, he was offered two berths on Scotland on Sunday when it launched in 1988 – as the paper’s television critic, for which he was twice named Critic of the Year in the Scottish Press Awards, and as a peripatetic sketch writer.
Switching to the Observer, he travelled the country for a series of observational pieces entitled Kenneth Roy’s Britain. He also contributed a weekly commentary on current affairs to The Herald, which earned him the title Columnist of the Year in the 1994 UK Press Gazette Awards, as well as a daily notebook, Kenneth Roy’s Pocket Companion, on the back page of The Scotsman.
In 1995, Roy founded the Scottish Review, an independent quarterly of topical essays, biography, contemporary history and travel. When it migrated to the internet as a weekly in 2008, its small readership was dramatically enlarged.
The online version acquired a sharper edge than the print version and was noted for its campaigning on such issues as the defective fatal accident inquiry system, the policy of detaining mentally disturbed young women in prison, and the need for greater transparency in public life. Having edited the magazine for almost 24 years, he retired in the early autumn of this year because of terminal illness.
In the hope of stimulating a social and cultural counterpoint to the fledgling Scottish Parliament, Roy established the non-political Institute of Contemporary Scotland (ICS) in 2000, persuading 800 prominent Scots – mostly recruited from the pages of his own Who’s Who in Scotland – to bankroll the venture. A row between the founder and some of his influential supporters, who claimed to find him impossible to work with or control, was soon being played out in public.
Undaunted, Roy went on to create the Young Scotland Programme, an annual series of courses for the intellectual development of people in the early stages of their careers, exporting the concept south of the border through the foundation of a separate charity. He regarded his work with young people – more than 3,000 participated between 2002 and 2018 – as the most rewarding thing he did in his professional life.
Late in his career he wrote two deeply personal accounts of the post-war Scotland in which he was born and brought up. The Invisible Spirit, which dealt with the period 1945 to 1975, was described by Ian Hamilton QC as the most remarkable book about Scotland he had ever read. Its sequel, The Broken Journey, which continued the narrative to the brink of the millennium, failed to achieve the sales of the first volume despite the endorsement of The Scotsman’s Allan Massie, who nominated it as one of his books of the year.
In 2000, Roy won the Oliver Brown Award given annually in recognition of outstanding service to Scottish culture. His native Falkirk made him the town’s person of the year in 1978 and hosted a civic dinner in his honour. But perhaps the honour he valued most was the invitation from the family of Jimmy Reid to conduct the humanist service for the Clydeside legend at his funeral in Glasgow in 2010.
Kenneth’s funeral service will be private. A memorial service will be held early next year.
THE SCOTTISH REVIEW