Scotsman Obituaries: Douglas Hill, former company secretary of Scotsman Publications and revered Herioter

James Douglas Moffat Hill. Born: 9 June 1936 in Gosforth, near Newcastle. Died: 9 March 2023 in Edinburgh, aged 87
Douglas Hill, Company Secretary of Scotsman Publications in his office in January 1979Douglas Hill, Company Secretary of Scotsman Publications in his office in January 1979
Douglas Hill, Company Secretary of Scotsman Publications in his office in January 1979

For 30 years Douglas Hill was at the centre of the financial planning and operation of the old Scotsman Publications’ newspaper group of The Scotsman, Evening Despatch, then Edinburgh Evening News and latterly Scotland on Sunday. During his long, distinguished service as chief accountant and company secretary these papers enjoyed some of the most successful, stable times in their history.

Throughout Hill’s career he wielded an unerring sense of what was right or wrong for The Scotsman Publications’ culture and kept directors, editors, managers and, indeed, all staff, on the straight and narrow. In the volatile daily newspaper world he was understood to be the man of honesty, loyalty, ability and calm, the man who cared, the man of principle and dedication.

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But he enjoyed a hinterland in his life as important to him as his role in The Scotsman’s old and iconic North Bridge office – the game of rugby football and, in particular, the blue-and-white-striped shirts of Edinburgh’s George Heriots School. A former player for the school, he spent 25 years as treasurer of Heriots Rugby Football Club and served as a governor of George Heriot’s School for a further 21 years.

Born in Gosforth, near Newcastle, in 1936, the family then moved to Chingford in London. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Hill was evacuated along with his younger brother Blair to their maternal grandparents’ farm near Killearn in Stirlingshire. This gave him an everlasting interest in farming and the countryside. When his father, a marine engineer, moved to Loanhead, Midlothian, the family were at last reunited, and it was at Loanhead where Hill started school before entry to Heriots.

He began his accountancy training with Geoghegans Chartered Accountants in Edinburgh and it was while in their employ that Hill was seconded to The Scotsman office on North Bridge to assist the then Mr Roy Thomson, later Lord Thomson of Fleet, with the company’s income tax.

It was an interesting step for the young Hill because the staid and sedate Scotsman Publications of the 1950s, a hallowed Scottish institution at the heart of the capital, had just been bought by the formidable Canadian tycoon (“Call me Roy”) Thomson, who relentlessly used his Scotsman toehold to pursue other British newspaper titles. But first he launched Scottish Television, “his licence to print money” as he put it. It was quickly followed by the acquisition of the Kemsley group, bringing The Times and Sunday Times under the Thomson banner.

It was into this rumbustious scene that Hill pushed the revolving door of 20 North Bridge to formally join the company in 1962 as assistant accountant, then chief accountant, and finally company secretary was added to his title. Later he was also appointed a pensioner director and trustee of the Thomson Regional Newspapers Pension Trust Ltd. Even after retirement the pension board insisted he stayed on to access his knowledge and sound advice. His initials of JDMH had become synonymous with vision, professionalism and integrity.

As part of The Scotsman Publications’ management team, Hill was at the financial heart of all the major events now part of the company’s history during his long and dedicated governance: the merging of the Evening Dispatch and the Edinburgh Evening News in 1963, the launch of Scotland on Sunday, the launch of the Evening News’s Festival Cavalcade and the fundraising Charity Walk, the production revolution of “hot metal” into the new newspaper technologies, with the computerisation and digitalisation in their wake. Hill didn’t merely stand back and manipulate the financial strings in these matters, he rolled up his sleeves and became deeply involved. He played a key part in mitigating problems to make these the best years.

Hill had his own adventures inside the office. Once he seemed to have mysteriously vanished into thin air. As a last resort in the increasingly worrying search, the company’s big walk-in safe was checked – and there was Hill, hale and hearty still, before the oxygen ran out. Someone had inadvertently slammed the door shut.

And once during a North Bridge gas scare the office was evacuated. Meantime the management team were lunching in the boardroom at the end of one of The Scotsman’s labyrinthian corridors, oblivious of the drama outside. It was Hill who was first accosted by a gasmask-clad fireman who was almost as shocked as he was at finding anyone still in the building.

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Douglas Hill’s George Heriot’s career was no less noteworthy. Apart from his appointment as a school governor in 1996, he sat on the committee for investment, buildings, sporting clubs and the annual fund as well as being convenor of the finance committee. He worked with the treasurer on school finances and the Trust, including budgeting, fee setting and long-range planning. His professionalism in preparing accounts for audit became legendary. At Heriot’s the accounts were so meticulously prepared that they became a light-hearted challenge between Hill and the auditor to find an error. The auditor never did.

His own years at Heriot’s with his brother gave him a love of his old school that became a devotion. He was a personal friend of many of the top rugby names from Kenny Scotland, Andy Irvine to the Watsonian Hastings brothers, and had an astonishing statistical knowledge of players’ careers. Such was his dedication that having served his old school in so many directions, well into his eighties he could still be seen on duty at the gate or in his yellow jacket acting as a steward.

As one Scotsman Publications managing director said: “Every company should have a Douglas Hill, but there is only one of him in the world. And we have him, thank goodness.”

The archetypal family man, he is survived by his wife Lillian, daughter Alison, grandson Rhuairi and brother Blair.


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