“Listen boys – I’ve been thinking……”
Forty four years ago this week, I returned to my birthplace to commence an English degree at Edinburgh University. I arrived with some trepidation: since the age of six, I had lived in England, and was imbued with a Lancashire accent and an ignorance of everyday Scots culture. I wasn’t sure how I would fit in.
In my first tutorial was someone who had travelled even further and had an equally unfamiliar accent in the Georgian surroundings of the university’s English department.
Angus Macleod, Editor of the Times in Scotland, who has died today, cut a distinctive figure back in 1970. With those unmistakable Stornoway tones, the heavy rimmed glasses, and the penchant for couthy remarks, followed by a throaty chuckle, he brought life to any tutorial or seminar, and by the time we were a smaller group of Honours students in third and fourth year, had become something of an unofficial social secretary.
You could be brain deep in Victorian literature, when a figure would appear from behind the book stacks and announce: “Listen, boys, I’ve been thinking….”
There would follow a detailed agenda for fun and entertainment, usually starting with the Meadow Bar and finishing with Khushi’s Indian Restaurant. The bits between started vaguely and remained so in the aftermath.
For his Birthday, just before our Finals in May 74, we got him a huge poster of himself – not such an easy task in those pre-digital days. He was peeping round a doorway saying “Cheers!” with a can of Export in his hand. It was a popular view of one side of him in those times, but as he said laughingly when he entered the Library to see it pinned up: “Aw come on, lads, there’s more to me than that!”
And most certainly there was.
Through Angus I met many Gaels at university and learned a lot about a different culture. I liked the connection between his Lewis homeplace and the life in Leitrim from where my own family had emigrated. A highlight of my graduation party was to see Angus deep in conversation with a priest friend of mine from the west of Ireland: the Lewisman using Gadhlig, the Clare man using Irish.
Some of us feel the need to proclaim our background, but Angus wore his origins lightly. He spoke of the Nicholson Institute and his teachers with a kind of muted pride, and his family was clearly dear to him – whether still on Lewis, or nearer at hand in Linlithgow, or Glasgow – or his brother Norman, who was one of our lecturers in the English department. Trips home to help gather the peats remained a feature of his autumn days for some time. For all his student lifestyle, he had a serenity about his background which was affecting and impressive; I saw it echoed in the attitude of another great Gael, who was my creative writing tutor, Sorley Maclean.
On occasion, Angus could pick a certainty which was less than convincing. Prior to our final exams he confided that he had not bothered to read “Jude the Obscure” out of Hardy’s canon as it was ‘too obvious’ a question. He had concentrated on “The Woodlanders”, a less praised work which he felt would gain him bonus points with the markers. There was an awful inevitability about the Hardy question in Paper 6: “Compare and contrast any of Hardy’s novels with “Jude the Obscure”. The Lewisman’s groans were heard all over the exam hall!
On the day our finals finished, the party lasted well into the night. It fell to me to rouse Angus from his chair and get him home to his student house. As we made our unsteady way along Jeffrey St, a member of Lothian and Borders finest took an interest. I nudged Angus into consciousness and he turned his head towards the bobby: “Feasgar math,” he managed, “and up the Gers!” It seemed to be the right combination and the policeman wished us safe home.
I think it would be fair to say that his decision to become a journalist was the making, and nearly the breaking, of him. Being bi-lingual, I thought, gave him a keen appreciation of words, and a delight in using them precisely and to best effect. In those days, the newspaper business could be hard on health and lifestyle, and serious illness changed Angus’s approach in some ways – without ever dimming his determination to be a credit to a profession in which he believed with all the fervour of our generation.
He did well with his diligence and commitment, and loved the story about two of his elderly relatives from, I think, Back, on the east coast of Lewis. He was the Scotsman’s Parliamentary correspondent in London at the time, and his brother, Norman, had become Professor at Edinburgh University. Norman was getting a hard time from the old ones – having only escaped as far as Edinburgh, while Angus had made it all the way to London.
Though he forged a reputation as a knowledgeable and formidable political commentator, he was no slouch as an investigative reporter. In the early years of his career he gained the lowdown on a story which, three decades later, has become one of the major stories of the day, but was not able to use it. In whichever sphere, he was a terrier after the facts.
Being ‘on site’, as it were, he found himself covering the Iranian Embassy siege in May 1980. It was six days of constant tension and pressure for copy, and I really believe it took a major toll on him – but, as we had come to expect, he reported in an incisive and professional manner throughout.
When I had started teaching, I had been unable to find a flat, and he had immediately offered a room in his place. Later, in 1982 when he was back in Edinburgh, and I again found myself without an address, he was the first to offer me shelter and became a valued flatmate while I sorted things out.
It was like a variation on the Odd Couple. We argued about virtually everything – football, religion, politics, music, and culture. He had introduced me to the music of Na h-Oganaich and even patiently taught me some of their songs, so I took it that he would be a big fan of Run Rig. Not a bit of it! One night we argued from 10pm to 5.30am about whether their rock inspired Gadhlig music was good for the language or not, with me hugely aware that I was arguing the toss with a Gadhlig speaker in my mutant English/Scots accent. Politics was the same – his view was solid and, though, as a journalist he analysed, reflected, and called it as he saw it, his personal views were never likely to change.
At the time he was freelance, with a beat covering local politics at St Andrew’s House. He prepared our Christmas dinner and told me to keep an eye on the cooker. “Where are you off to?” I asked, suspecting the pub. But no, he was into the office to check his contacts in case anything newsworthy might be happening – on Christmas Day! “Somebody has to do it!” he said.
It was real testament to his commitment. And the turkey was lovely too.
When he moved through to Glasgow we weren’t in touch so much, though messages passed via mutual friends.
Then the time came when I was woken by his instantly recognisable tones on “Good Morning Scotland’s” newspaper review each Saturday morning. Pithy comments on the news of the day and its coverage, followed by a creaking and endearing lead up to the final ‘funny’. It was a great way to start your weekend.
As with many student friends, social media provided a way of getting back in contact. We swapped messages and it was good to make the connection again. We kept off politics though. I am bright enough to know he would generally have wiped the floor with me – and wouldn’t have spared me on any inaccuracies, flummeries, or speculation!
As a teacher, I was often asked by pupils, and also by my son, whether they should consider a career as a journalist. It may have been tempting to follow the popular message that the fourth estate is not what it used to be and perhaps words can be better used in other settings.
Thanks to people like Kenny MacDonald, Ian Bell, Iain McWhirter, Dani Garavelli, Peter Ross and Angus Macleod, I was always confident in encouraging them to follow their dream and to keep believing that words, and journalism, can make a real difference – probably the one thing Angus and I agreed about completely!
Angus had my friendship, respect and admiration. He was a credit to all he represented – as a writer, a journalist, and a kind man of principle and wisdom. Many knew him better than I, but I still wanted to record my feelings at his passing. Scotland is worse off for his loss and his family should be aware that many folk they do not know will be sad today and sharing their grief.
As a student, Angus was given to singing – in Gadhlig and English – when the mood took him. Sometimes a dram let a wee bit emotion escape, and he would call for quiet – before giving us all the verses of “Lovely Stornoway.”
I can still recall the final line of the chorus – and I pray it’s true tonight:
“Heaven can’t be far away from lovely Stornoway.”
Feasgar math, Angus!