Obituary: Mary Beith; journalist and author

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Born: 22 May, 1938, in London. Died: 13 May, 2012, in Sutherland, aged 73.

She survived bereavement, bombing, TB and a near-death experience of meningitis. There was little life could throw at her that defeated Mary Beith.

And that streak of indefatigability was doubtless one of the strengths that singled her out as a reporter with the mettle for campaigning and investigative journalism, a sphere in which she excelled.

Among the outrages she exposed were the abuse of the elderly in psychiatric institutions and the sickening treatment of animals. Thanks to her the world saw an iconic image graphically illustrating the horrors of animal testing – a row of beagles forced to chain-smoke cigarettes.

And though she moved away from the nerve-jangling atmosphere of undercover work, she continued to employ her talents as a writer to great effect: as a freelance journalist and columnist; expert in Gaelic medicine and children’s author.

Latterly her life was focused on a tiny community on the Sutherland coast, almost 700 miles north of her birthplace in London and far removed from the audacity of 1970s newsrooms.

Her father Freddie was born in South America and had been a journalist there before the Second World War, which is most likely what fired her enthusiasm for the trade. Her mother Colina suffered from stomach cancer and died in 1943 when her daughter was only four or five.

After being raised for a while by her grandmother, the little girl went to live with her father and stepmother Paddy. By this time her father was a civil servant and they moved to the Caribbean when his work took them to Jamaica, where she was schooled from 1949 to 1951.

While they were there her father contracted tuberculosis. Mary caught a milder dose but developed severe asthma which, like everything else, she battled bravely, never allowing it to impinge on what she wanted to do. Back in the UK, she went to St Joseph’s boarding school, Dorking, before the family eventually moved to south-west London. After leaving school she spent a short time teaching in Neu-Ulm Bavaria but returned to do a journalism course in Poole, Dorset. One of her first jobs was as a reporter on the Bournemouth Times where she met her husband, Roger Scott, who worked for the Bournemouth Echo.

They moved to Manchester where she worked for the Sunday newspaper The People, where her she really got her teeth into investigative journalism. In 1975, under the editorship of Geoff Pinnington, she was involved in conducting one of the paper’s most celebrated investigations: working undercover as a laboratory assistant at an industrial giant’s Dog Toxicity Unit. There, 48 beagles smoked various tobaccos, along with a cellulose-based “new smoking material”, to test a new “safe” cigarette. One batch of dogs, forced to smoke for two years, was expected to puff their way through 30 cigarettes a day.

She reported: “Part of my job was to get the dogs trussed in fabric slings like straitjackets.

“Their heads were restrained by locking boards in place like medieval stocks. The dogs were then lifted on to trolleys to the smoking platforms and the masks, valves and tubes were fixed to their faces.”

She described having to re-fit masks when dogs struggled free and hurry along those who lagged behind with their daily ration, adjusting the valves to force them to inhale more smoke: “Nothing we saw was more pitiful than the chain-smoking dogs.”

Beith was named Campaigning Journalist of the Year in 1975 for the investigation and, although she pulled off other exposés, this was the one that eclipsed the rest – a fact that always irked her. An old-school news reporter, as well as a mother of three, she covered numerous other stories and was sent on several assignments to Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Belfast’s Europa Hotel was a favourite journalists’ haunt as well as an IRA target and became known as Europe’s most bombed hotel, after suffering 33 hits during the unrest. Beith was soundly asleep there during one bomb blast and was one of the last people to be rescued. Her hearing was the only thing that suffered permanent damage, resulting in her becoming very deaf.

However, she ended up on an IRA hit list after interviewing the mother of a young boy who wanted to leave the organisation. He was killed by the IRA and she was next on the list.

It was around this period that her marriage foundered and after divorcing she remained in Manchester on The People before moving to the Sunday Mail in Glasgow. Not that long afterwards she fell seriously ill with meningitis, suffered a near-death experience and was not expected to survive.

Once again she fought back but the illness had drained her and effectively ended her full-time journalistic career.

She was living in Garelochhead but, having developed a fondness for the Highlands during a brief summer job at Loch Ness as a teenager, she decided to move north in the early 1980s. All she could afford initially was a caravan on a scrap of land but it was on a stunningly beautiful spot, by a sandy beach at Midfield near Tongue.

From there she began freelancing for The Scotsman and other titles, much of her work concentrating on archaeology, botany and the use of plants in traditional Highland medicine.

She later moved to the neighbouring, slightly larger, community of Melness and continued to write and research. In 1989 she began a fortnightly column for the West Highland Free Press, mainly on the history of Gaelic medicine, and in 1995 her book Healing Threads, Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands, was published. Her expertise led to her becoming a guest lecturer, giving talks around the Highlands and attending various conferences.

She was also involved in the local community, particularly in Gaelic education, wrote a couple of children’s books and was delighted when one, The Magic Apple Tree, was published in Gaelic.

A habitual smoker, she ultimately succumbed to an aggressive form of lung cancer but, typically, put it to one side, outliving her prognosis and continuing to pursue the things that interested her, latterly relishing the Leveson Inquiry and the mirror it holds up to her trade.

She is survived by her children Alison, Andrew and Fiona, eight grandchildren and her brothers Owen and Christopher.

ALISON SHAW