Scotsman Obituaries: Thomas Roberts, Scotsman compositor and lifelong Hearts fan

Thomas Roberts. Born: 22 January 1937 in Edinburgh. Died: 19 December 2021, aged 84

Thomas Roberts was dedicated to producing high-quality newspapers
Thomas Roberts was dedicated to producing high-quality newspapers

Born in the shadow of Tynecastle Stadium, Tom Roberts remained a McLeod Street boy until the day he died. The middle child of five, Tom grew up with his brothers Robert and Ian – who predeceased him – and younger sisters Eleanor and Mima. His early years were shaped by war, and in later years he would describe to his astonished grandchildren how he started primary school with a Mickey Mouse gas mask strapped to his back, in case Nazi bombs should fall.

Nevertheless, Tom enjoyed his childhood, becoming an effective striker for his local team, Hopetoun Thistle, and attending the 54 division of the Boys’ Brigade, a formative experience all the brothers remembered fondly throughout their lives.

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In 1948 the family, led by parents Helen and Thomas senior, moved to a council home in Broomhouse. Tom continued to cycle across the city each day, taking up an apprenticeship as a compositor with an Edinburgh printing firm. This was interrupted by National Service, which saw Tom join the RAF as a signalman, guiding pilots as they took off and landed.

Tom’s two years in the military made a deep impression, and he often said it widened his horizons, introducing him to people from other backgrounds who encouraged him to read widely and to debate ideas and opinions.

However, there was also time for fun: one of Tom’s most frequently told tales recounted how he and his closest RAF friend, Kenny, realised towards the end of their two years in the air force that they couldn’t go home without ever having flown. Having promised a pilot a bottle of whisky if he helped, they were duly taken up in a Beverley aircraft, so that for the rest of their lives they could truthfully say they had flown in the RAF.

On his return to Edinburgh, Tom completed his apprenticeship, requiring six years of on the job training, attendance at college and thrice-weekly night school classes at Heriot-Watt. Tom worked for several printing firms in both Edinburgh and East Kilbride, at one point becoming father of the chapel – or shop steward – in his trade union, and he took the role of protecting his colleagues’ welfare very seriously.

In the late 1980s he joined The Scotsman, where he gained a reputation as a near-infallible authority on correct grammar and punctuation. A keen golfer, he also ran the Scotsman Golf Club for colleagues, organising their outings and tournament entries in between his own regular rounds at Kingsknowe Golf Club, where he was a member for more than 60 years.

The life of a compositor became tougher as the pace of technical change accelerated, and Tom had to continually adapt his skills. Redundancy at the age of 58 was a disheartening experience, but Tom was determined to keep working, initially retraining as a taxi driver before returning to night school and subsequently securing a position at George Stewart’s printing firm.

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In the late 1960s, Tom met Stella Lettice, a Dundonian journalist, while on a cruise with his older brother Ian. Another man might have been daunted by the presence of not only Stella’s mum but also her younger brother and sister on the ship, but Tom was undeterred, and the couple were married in 1972. They brought up their two children, Tom and Carolyn, in Edinburgh, and it was a great joy to Tom that they were able to send both of their children to university, a path that had been out of reach for him.

Tom and Stella spent 25 happy years together, celebrating their silver wedding anniversary with a Mediterranean cruise in 1998. Sadly, this was their last holiday, as Stella passed away at 57, in 1999. Tom showed courage and resolve in caring for Stella during her short but difficult illness, ensuring she was able to remain at home for as long as possible.

A man who enjoyed company, Tom liked nothing more than a blether and a whisky with friends. For many years he captained The Motleys, his quiz team at the Kingsnowe Roadhouse, and he regarded his leadership duties seriously, ensuring their winnings were always fairly distributed. Tom made the most of his retirement, visiting family in Canada and the USA and even taking his first trip to Australia at the age of 75.

Tom prided himself on being able to talk to anyone, and indeed, he could find common ground with almost everyone he met, but his favourite topic of conversation was always his beloved Hearts football club. For many years a season ticket holder, one of Tom’s proudest moments came in his final years, when he became a fan owner of the club. He was a regular attendee at the club’s annual Remembrance Day service at Haymarket, and he often spoke movingly of his trip to France in the 1990s to honour the famed McRae’s Battalion, for which the entire Hearts first team signed up in 1914.

Tom remained close to his siblings throughout his life, and took a particular role in supporting his brother Ian in the last years of his life. Family mattered a great deal to Tom, and he found great joy in becoming Grandad Tom to Alistair, Kirsty, Eloise, Eilidh, Cailum, Imogen and Kayleigh. He will be much missed, too, by his daughter-in-law, Kelly and son-in-law David, both of whom he was delighted to welcome into the family.

At his recent funeral, the congregation sang the Boys’ Brigade hymn that the brothers Tom, Ian and Robert knew well, posing the question, “Will your anchor hold through the storms of life, when the clouds unfold their wings of strife?” Tom knew his share of strife, but his anchor never weakened. In all of his roles – serviceman, compositor, son, brother, father, grandad, golfer, friend and lifelong Jambo – Tom strove to do right, live well, and find joy in every day. He will be sorely missed.

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