Tribute: Albert Morris, Scotsman columnist and Edinburgh institution

Legendary Scotsman columnist Albert Morris has died at the age of 91
Legendary Scotsman columnist Albert Morris has died at the age of 91
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Albert Morris, newspaper columnist. Born: 6 January, 1927 in Inveresk, East Lothian. Died: 7 August, 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 91

The diminutive peregrinating Edinburgh gentleman in the raincoat and tweed bunnet may not have looked like an institution, but within the pages of The Scotsman he undoubtedly was, for almost four decades.

Meeting the formidable challenge of producing a column five days a week for many years before it eventually went weekly, Albert Morris produced meticulous, witty, idiosyncratic yet bewilderingly erudite prose, which frequently expressed droll exasperation at mankind’s foibles – including his own.

He was an encyclopaedically-informed writer (and self-confessed hypochondriac) whose columns might veer from quoting the Roman statesman Cato the Elder to concocting a bizarre James Bond spoof; from extolling the manly virtues of the golden age of polar exploration to confessing to once owning a wig (he normally boasted possibly the most famous comb-over in Scottish journalism), which tended to blow off on North Bridge “like a cork from a champagne bottle”, to “chase traffic, snap at ankles or spread itself heraldically against lampposts”.

In an introduction to the first (1985) of two volumes of his collected Morris Files, he explained that his ideas came from “newspapers, magazines and other journals, from personal experiences and from standing, brooding on life, at my favourite bus stop in dear, grey-rain-and-windgrieved, catarrhal Edinburgh”.

Bert, as he was known to his colleagues, who died on Tuesday night after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, was born in Inveresk outside Musselburgh, the son of Joseph Morris, a cabinet-maker, and his wife Katherine. Growing up in Edinburgh, he attended Sciennes Primary and Boroughmuir High schools, leaving at 14 to study shorthand and typing at Skerry’s College, working in the courts for a year.

His mother, with some percipience, arranged an interview for him with the Dispatch, predecessor of the Edinburgh News, for a job as copy and phone room boy. In Scotland’s Paper, the history of The Scotsman he wrote for the paper’s 175th anniversary in 1992, he recalled arriving at 20 North Bridge “to place my services at the disposal of Scottish journalism”.

He described the Dispatch newsroom as it was then – “an area of noise, bustle and urgency, shouting sub-editors, phones ringing, clattering typewriters from which stories were whipped, often paragraph by paragraph, for sub-editing.

“Afterwards we descended like Dante into the printing area which hinted at the heat of the Inferno, with noisy Linotype composing machines and the smell of oil fumes and printing ink.”

There he met a department head who, when told that the 17-year-old was joining the editorial staff, “replied with ready wit, ‘Heaven help them.’”

He was with the Dispatch for ten years before joining The Scotsman “only one floor above, but a world away in atmosphere and style”.

His first official visit to The Scotsman, though, was as the bearer of an inter-departmental message: “I cautiously opened the door to the sub-editors’ room, an enclave shrouded in tobacco smoke. Suddenly I heard a loud call and a clear call that could not be denied, ‘Either come in or stay out, ye’re causing a draught.’”

“These were The Scotsman’s first words to me and came from a news editor with an eye like a gun barrel jutting from a hedge. I withdrew temporarily, then came in and stayed for 38 years.”

Despite his entry into journalism, he once revealed in a column that at one point he considered entering teaching: “In my visionary gleam, the school, an ancient, ivy covered enclave of enlightenment, would resemble those in boys’ magazines from the 1920s to the 1950s, its pupils the human equivalents of the best of breed winners at Crufts, its teachers either barking mad, as discipline-insisting as Prussian Guard NCOs or, like myself, quiet, purposeful and academically impeccable.”

It was not to be, however: “The lure of journalistic lucre was too strong.”

His journalistic career was put on hold for three years as he fulfilled his National Service, being discharged in July 1948 in the rank of sergeant. He would later write in glowing terms about his time in the forces – in what was then British Somaliland and later Mauritius.

Not the tallest of men, he once described his gait as a “long, loping stride suggestive of Groucho Marx stalking a waitress … Know then that it was created in the bushlands of British Somaliland, a parched and quarrelsome corner of north-east Africa full of volatile, vehement tribes and crazy, recalcitrant camels.”

Back at North Bridge, his newsroom duties having earned him the reputation of having “a light touch”, in 1970 the then editor of The Scotsman, Alastair Dunnett, announced: “Albert, I’m offering you a column with thirty bob (£1.50) a week expenses and all the tripe you can write.”

“Alistair indicated he wanted my then five-days-a-week column to be grave but gay (in the old sense), pungent but subtle, learned but light rather like a cross between the styles of the French essayist Montaigne and the music-hall comedian, Max Miller.”

And so the column, its inspiration bolstered by the (strictly mythical) Miss Angela Primstone, chatelaine of the columnar wine cupboard, went from strength to strength. When one reader suggested that he should be horsewhipped, he felt his column had come of age.

Magnus Linklater, editor of The Scotsman when Bert officially retired in 1992 (although he would continue to write weekly columns for the paper until 2005) describes him as “An institution. He himself was a small but sparkling character and very witty. He was the complete Edinburgh man.”

Another former colleague recalls him as “one of the great guys of Scottish journalism. He was always sharp-witted and immensely cheery, and he had a lovely mellow, self-deprecating style of humour which you don’t often get these days.”

Another remembers “friendliness, wit and kindness” as well as the much valued guidebook Bert wrote for his beloved Pentland Hills, while another recalls reading the Albert Morris column as a paper boy: “It was a huge honour to become a colleague later. Albert Morris represented the very best of The Scotsman.”

In 1977 Bert was visiting the National Trust for Scotland’s Georgian House in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square when he started chatting to a guide. She told him there would be concert there that weekend and asked if he’d like to come.

As well as columnar information, he’d gained a wife: he and Theresa were married in 1979, the year of the ill-starred “No” vote in the Scottish Devolution Referendum. Theresa recalls that wags commented that “Scotland said no but Albert got a yes”.

“We had so much in common,” adds Theresa. We loved the Lake District and spent many a long holiday there, mainly walking – we always took our cat, who became a Lake District cat.”

She was well aware that being married to an inveterate columnist meant that her life with Bert simply provided further raw material for his writing, particularly on their travels together: “The incidents we were involved in only gave him new columns. He used to say that a wife was someone to get you out of trouble that you wouldn’t have been in if you weren’t married.”

Jewish by descent, agnostic by inclination and married to a Roman Catholic, Bert latterly tapped into his ancestral roots by requesting that a Rabbi officiate at his funeral.

One of Scottish journalism’s originals, he loved what he did and only gave it up when his eyesight deteriorated so much that he couldn’t read properly.

In his final column for The Scotsman in April 2005, he thanked editors, sub-editors and office librarians for their help over many years, and readers for their support, and declared: “I have tidied this space for the next occupant and wish – whoever it is – good luck. I have removed some spent transitive verbs, loose litotes and heaps of bitter-sweet oxymoron. I’ll just switch off the light. That’s it. Farewell.”

No-one, however, could quite replace the idiosyncratic commentator under that flat cap.