Scotsman 200: Journalists who made their mark at The Scotsman

The newspaper has always attracted talented writers and editors, with some becoming household names finds Martyn McLaughlin

Andrew Marr, business and political reporter with The Scotsman in the 1980s.
Andrew Marr, business and political reporter with The Scotsman in the 1980s.

Over the past two centuries, The Scotsman has been home to some of the country’s most celebrated journalists, critics and writers. From fearless news reporters and shrewd political commentators to respected editors and award-winning feature writers, all have upheld the newspaper’s founding ideals of impartiality, firmness and independence. Here, in no particular order, is a selection of some of the best-known names to have graced The Scotsman’s pages.

Lesley Riddoch

When Riddoch joined the staff of The Scotsman in late 1994, she was already an established figure in Scottish media circles, thanks to her Radio Scotland programme, Speaking Out, and the feminist magazine, Harpies & Quines.

Jim Naughtie was on The Scotsmans Westminster staff in 1978 before becoming its chief political correspondent in the 1980s.
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But it was one of her earliest contributions as assistant editor that made international headlines. The result, unveiled on International Women’s Day in 1995, was The Scotswoman, a one-off edition of the paper edited in its entirety by female staff.

As she recalled: “The guys upstairs were noticing that women readers were peeling away from The Scotsman. They concluded that they needed to do something but didn’t know what it was.

“Sitting on an editorial board of 13 people, of which I was the only woman, it seemed kind of obvious to me. Eventually one day I cleared my throat and said: ‘What about this idea?’ To my astonishment, at least half the guys on the board agreed to it straight off.”

Jim Naughtie

Lesley Riddoch edited the groundbreaking first edition of The Scotswoman.

Over the past three decades, the BBC’s Jim Naughtie has cemented a reputation as one of the country’s leading broadcasters, but it was an early rejection in the world of television that was to prove The Scotsman’s gain.

In 1977, while working with the Press and Journal, Naughtie applied for a researcher’s job at Weekend World, the London Weekend Television series. His interviewer, John Birt, turned him down.

Undeterred, Naughtie joined The Scotsman’s Westminster staff in 1978 before becoming its chief political correspondent. Although he would go on to spend a year at the Washington Post as a Laurence Sterne fellow before joining the Guardian, Naughtie believes his early years in print journalism with The Scotsman were the making of him.

“It was a great political time of instability and drama and a pretty good time to be around,” he would later reflect. “A terrific time to be a reporter.”

Magnus Magnusson went on to find fame as the presenter of popular television show Mastermind.

Andrew Marr

Regarded as the renaissance man of British journalism, Marr is one of the most formidable and prolific political journalists this country has ever produced. Best known for his flagship BBC One Sunday morning news programme, Marr began his career at The Scotsman when, aged 20, he applied for a traineeship.

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Having stayed up all night drinking before his interview with editor Eric Mackay, any fears that he had blown a golden opportunity were allayed as Marr entered the paper’s old North Bridge offices. “I was so very much the worse for wear, I staggered up the stairs and was shown into The Scotsman newsroom and looked around and saw that everyone looked worse than I was,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘I’ve come home’.”

After starting out as a trainee business reporter in 1981, Marr became a parliamentary correspondent in 1984, and two years later was appointed political correspondent. Following a short stint at the Independent, he returned to The Scotsman as political editor in 1986.

Jim Naughtie was on The Scotsmans Westminster staff in 1978 before becoming its chief political correspondent in the 1980s.

He believes the newspaper which gave him his break has a vital role to play. “It’s incredibly important that Scotland has voices in print which represent the best of Scottish thinking and the best of the Scottish world view,” he explained. “That in my view ought to be The Scotsman.”

Magnus Magnusson

A broadcasting institution who helmed the BBC’s Mastermind quiz series for a quarter of a century, Magnusson’s warm and knowledgeable presenting style won the hearts of viewers across the country. But to his former colleagues on The Scotsman, he was also a supremely talented journalist. He joined the paper in 1961 as an assistant editor, a role which involved leader writing and a regular column. His greatest contribution, however, was setting up a Close Up team, a three-man investigative unit.

Together with David Kemp and Gus Macdonald, – now Baron Macdonald of Tradeston – the trio produced major exclusives. The unit secured a major scalp in 1966 with a series of stories detailing how one of the board members of the newly formed Highlands and Islands Development Board had a major interest in the proposed petrochemical complex at Invergordon.

Magnusson’s daughter, Sally, now a news anchor with BBC Scotland, followed in her father’s footsteps when she worked as a reporter with The Scotsman.

Neal Ascherson

Lesley Riddoch edited the groundbreaking first edition of The Scotswoman.

A veteran foreign correspondent and highly respected political commentator, Ascherson is as famous for his work documenting events in Africa and Cold War era Europe as he is for reports about the shifting political landscape in his homeland. He explored these, and other strands, of his journalistic career during two stints at The Scotsman.

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Between 1959 and 1960, he worked as the title’s Commonwealth correspondent, a not uneventful position given the decolonisation of Africa. At one point, he and the paper’s editor, Eric Mackay, found themselves summoned before the Earl of Home, then foreign secretary, for The Scotsman’s groundbreaking reports about brutalities in Nyasaland, now known as Malawi.

After joining the Observer, Ascherson would later return to The Scotsman in 1975 as Scottish political correspondent, chronicling the events which led up to the devolution referendum in 1979. In the aftermath of that result, Ascherson penned an article entitled, ‘Here’s to the next time’, which began: “This round of Scottish politics is over. There will be another.”

Hugh McIlvanney

As the only sportswriter to be named Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards, McIlvanney has enthralled and informed generations of readers. From chronicling the peak years of Muhammad Ali to covering the Scottish national football team’s inglorious World Cup forays, his writing employed both flair and a reporter’s eye for detail, a quality instilled in him during his formative years north of the border.

Before heading off to work for the Observer and latterly the Sunday Times, McIlvanney worked as a news reporter with The Scotsman, where his assignments included writing a sketch during the trial of serial killer Peter Manuel at the High Court in Glasgow.

But it was the then editor of The Scotsman, Alastair Dunnett, who noted the young McIlvanney’s untapped journalistic potential, and asked him to switch to the sport beat. McIlvanney was reluctant, but Dunnett gave him a copy of The Sweet Science, a collection of AJ Liebling’s boxing articles for the New Yorker magazine. McIlvanney’s doubts fell away. “On the one hand, Liebling’s standards were liable to frighten the life out of me,” he observed. “On the other, the book confirmed that writing about sport could be worthwhile.”

It was to prove a lifelong calling. One of McIlvanney’s most famous reports for The Scotsman came from the 1960 European Cup final at Hampden, where he watched Real Madrid destroy Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3.

Julie Davidson

At a time when Scottish journalism was dominated by male voices, Davidson showcased her talents as one of the country’s most thoughtful and perceptive writers. An award winning journalist, critic and writer, she worked for The Scotsman during the 1970s. One 1979 piece, entitled ‘Time of Political Reckoning for the Modern Ma Broon’, asked why so many women were choosing to remain silent over the question of devolution.

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The same year, Davidson was the only woman at a press conference with Margaret Thatcher, a week before her General Election victory. Recalling the event, Davidson said: “I eventually put up my hand and asked her: ‘What do you think about the current movement for women’s rights and should there be women in the House of Commons.’

“She said: ‘I hate the expression women’s lib’ – which I’d never used – and went on to denounce it because it made women who stayed at home bringing up their children feel inferior. She kind of cut me short and said: ‘Enough of that – we’ll bore the men.’”

Norman Mair

One of Scotland’s most celebrated sportswriters, Mair was a former Scotland rugby international who became the game’s most trusted voice. His work won the admiration of readers and the respect of players, largely because he was unafraid to speak his mind.

Mair was a regular must-read in the pages of The Scotsman 36 years, more than 20 of which he spent as chief rugby correspondent. Arnold Kemp, the paper’s deputy editor for much of Mair’s career, praised him as “pure box office”.

In a golden age of sports journalism, Mair’s literary flair stood out. He once described Greg Smith, the morose former Australia coach, as “a man whose presence in the company of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – pestilence, war, famine and death – would not noticeably alleviate the mood”.

Mair also wrote eloquently about golf, but rugby was always his first love. It was a sign of his standing in the sport that in 2013, the year before his death at the age of 86, he was inducted into the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame.

Sir Alastair Dunnett

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The longest serving editor of the post-war era, Dunnett improved The Scotsman’s standing with a series of innovative design changes and inspired appointments. Appointed in 1956, three years after the title was acquired by Canadian newspaper proprietor, Roy Thomson, the former editor of the Daily Record was quick to modernise.

It was Dunnett who was responsible for putting news stories on the front page, as well as launching a women’s page, a dedicated home news service, and one of the first Saturday magazine supplements in the British press, covering literature and the arts.

But he also had a keen eye for talent, hiring the likes of Arnold Kemp, Neal Ascherson, and John Rafferty, figures who would go on to make their own mark at The Scotsman.

All told, it made for a successful editorship. By the time Dunnett left The Scotsman in 1972, he had increased its circulation to around 75,000.

Ruth Wishart

A stalwart of Scottish journalism known for her career across the print industry and her broadcast projects, Wishart became one of the country’s most respected social commentators, working for the likes of the Sunday Mail, The Herald, and the Sunday Standard.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, she was a key member of The Scotsman’s team. In her role as assistant editor, she penned a twice-weekly column in addition to any number of acclaimed features and interviews.

Her time with the paper coincided with an acrimonious dispute with management which saw staff locked out of the paper’s headquarters. Standing outside on the picket line, she recalled a friendly visit from staff on a rival title.

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“Up the streets came a number of people who worked for the Herald who lived in Edinburgh and were coming home off the train,” she recalled. “As they passed they pressed bottles of drink into our hands as a nice gesture of solidarity.”

Magnus Magnusson went on to find fame as the presenter of popular television show Mastermind.