Obituary: William McIlvanney, teacher and novelist

Novelist who was the voice of the authentic Scot in smoke filled pubs. Picture: Robert Perry
Novelist who was the voice of the authentic Scot in smoke filled pubs. Picture: Robert Perry
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Born: 25 November 1936 in Kilmarnock. Died: 5 December 2015 in Glasgow. Aged 79.

William McIlvanney gained an international reputation for his gritty and incisive crime novels that captured the often seamier side of Glasgow. His stories told the real life of everyday Scotland: not for nothing was McIlvanney dubbed “the Godfather of Tartan Noir”. He wrote of a society he knew and had grown up in: his voice was that of ordinary folk and of the authentic man in smoke filled pubs. The Scotsman once wrote of McIlvanney’s novels: “On almost every page it offers matters for reflection.”

His 1975 autobiographical novel Docherty (voted one of the top ten Scottish novels of all time) and the outstanding Laidlaw trilogy brought him an international reputation. The latter, about a Glasgow-based detective, broadened his readership as did his narration of Only a Game, the ground-breaking TV series on Scottish football.

In Scotland, McIlvanney was widely admired as a journalist writing for many periodicals, including Scotland on Sunday. McIlvanney was a polymath whose interests included poetry and a keen interest in politics. He viewed the state of contemporary politics with some foreboding. “Politics in our time,” he wryly commented recently, “has become paramedic politics.”

Last year McIlvanney’s was celebrated in a television documentary, Living With Words,. The impressive cast included his brother, the sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney, David Hayman and Ian Rankin.

William McIlvanney, “Willie” to his numerous friends, was the son of a miner and attended Kilmarnock Academy where he was a star pupil. He then read English at Glasgow University, graduating with honours. From the early 1960s he taught at Irvine Royal Academy and then Greenwood Academy, Dreghorn, where he was also assistant rector.

McIlvanney was an inspirational teacher but he had a yearn to write and in 1966 he published his first novel, Remedy is None, winning the Geoffrey Faber Award: it was a hugely challenging debut novel dealing with a single mother and cancer.

McIlvanney’s desire to capture his working-class heritage remained a theme throughout his books. Even at university he was irritated that none of the literature he studied reflected the rich and colourful working-class life of his youth.

McIlvanney strove to capture those years of his Glasgow childhood with a balanced reverence. His novels and stories – fictional or crime – are generally set in Graithnock (a thinly disguised Kilmarnock) or Glasgow.

In 1975 McIlvanney left teaching to concentrate on writing. “If I am going to be a writer, I had better get on with it” he commented. That year he published Docherty and it continued his literary crusade on behalf of working-class Scots: or, as he wrote, “to give working-class life the vote in the literature of heroism”.

As the story unfolds over the 20th century McIlvanney depicts the west of Scotland with a canny and ruthless insight. The novel celebrates a close-knit mining community that proudly lives with dignity and honour. Docherty won the prestigious Whitbread Novel Award.

Laidlaw followed in 1977. Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, a loner with a total disrespect of authority and a low personal sense of justice and the boundaries of the law, moodily wanders the back streets of Glasgow in search of truth and justice. The glory of the tales is McIlvanney’s stirring prose, his charismatic ability as a wordsmith and the way he tells a story.

His 1985 novel The Big Man told of the hard life of a bare-knuckle fighter in a rundown Ayrshire town: it was tough, rough and violent and made into a film in 1990 with Liam Neeson, Billy Connolly and Hugh Grant.

McIlvanney was an original. He created a hard-nosed policeman who treated criminals and superiors with disdain, who drank but who kept in his top drawer thumbed editions of Camus and Kierkegaard. Nothing was straightforward.

A commission that McIlvanney particularly cherished was his weekly column in Scotland on Sunday. He wrote about whatever took his fancy and did so with an enthusiastic relish. He delivered his copy by fax, in biro/longhand and, usually, late. The prose, the comas and the adjectives were sacrosanct: no one dared to alter anything.

He held creative writing posts at Grenoble, Vancouver and Aberdeen universities and was Visiting Professor in the School of English Studies at Strathclyde University.

Edinburgh publishers Canongate reissued McIlvanney’s books last year. A new generation discovered the thrill of his writing. He himself said with a wry smile, “I am a born-again writer.” McIlvanney remained the embodiment of a Scottish socialist: proud of his history, origins, heritage and community, He was, it has been said, a great Scottish novelist. In fact, Willie MacIlvanney was a great novelist.

McIlvanney is survived by his partner Siobhan and a son and daughter from an earlier marriage.