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Hughie – you’re immortal!

January 25, 2019


In  the summer of 2015 I was waiting outside the Assembly Rooms on Edinburgh’s George St to attend “Graham Spiers ….in conversation with Hugh McIlvanney.” It was an unmissable event really – one of our best current sports journalists interviewing a man invariably described as ‘the finest ever sports writer’.

I leaned against one of the pillars of the entrance portico, surveying the endlessly fascinating parade of Fringe goers, and realised that McIlvanney himself was also waiting, standing a few feet away, in conversation with a couple  of friends. The small boy inside me marvelled that such a great figure could be treading the same pavements as the rest of us.

While I was thinking these thoughts I spotted another well kent face approaching the group. Unheralded and largely unnoticed, Hughie’s brother, Willie, came up and tapped him on the shoulder.

The two brothers embraced, and it felt like a kind of privilege to see that family moment. As someone whose life, professionally and personally, owes a huge debt to words and writing and literature, to see two of Scotland’s greatest ever wordsmiths in that quiet and  emotional greeting was a little overwhelming.

Willie, dapper as ever, looked to be failing. He died later that year, and this was the last time I  saw either of the brothers. I am so glad that I witnessed them together in that way, because, as Hughie would elaborate in the conversation to follow, family and upbringing was the bedrock of their writing.

Both brothers were doubly blessed in that their superb craft with the written word was matched by their skill as raconteurs, in that marvellously idiosyncratic Ayrshire accent. So it was no surprise that this event was spell binding, Spiers managing the difficult task of reigning in his obvious admiration of his guest to an extent where an eager audience found themselves comfortably at home, witnessing what purported to be a chat between two sports hacks.

It was, of course, much more than that. Graham is more than a run of the mill journo, but Hughie, it could be said, pioneered a level of sports journalism which otherwise may not have survived as it has,  into an era of sound bites, click bait, and PR releases.

My generation were lucky, in that with a smaller and narrower experience of media, there was space to tell the story accurately and with some style, even an aspiration to literary standards. In the spoken word, for us, the voices of David Coleman, Kenneth Wolstenholme, Harry Carpenter or John Arlott are almost indistinguishable from the sporting moments they described to us.

Hughie, too, was memorable in his interviews and pieces on radio, but he had that additional gift of writing sublimely, capturing the moment and the emotion in ways that were grand but seldom overblown, that paid due deference to the importance of a sporting moment in the lives of millions, without ever losing the perspective that it was, after all, sport.

Perhaps that was one of his greatest skills – and there were many. He understood the importance of sport “in the moment”, and, better than anyone else, he could capture that moment, its resonance and, most of all, its impact on the spectators and participants. While never diminishing the sportsperson’s power,  skill, or glory, he could also place that moment in context.

So, when we think about Ali, Best, Busby, or poor Johnny Owen, we tend to think of McIlvanney as well. He never tried to share their glory, rather he burnished it and humanised it with his wordcraft. As many have written today, he was so accomplished, so engaging, so rivetingly good, that you found yourself reading his pieces about sports in which you had absolutely no interest. It was all in the flow of his words and his erudition.

Some would say that the pure and instant emotion which comes with sporting victory – a goal scored, a wicket taken, a penalty saved or a record broken – is too explosive to be captured by the written word. McIlvanney proved otherwise. His words somehow enabled the moment to live on, fixed in our memory, clarified by his prose.

I’ve heard both Willie and Hughie talk about their home life as children, their mother’s love of books, their father’s principles, their own years sharing the same bed and  their fantastical hopes, dreams, and stories – the breeding ground for the magic they would both later cast on generations of readers. That hug I witnessed in George St had deep foundations.

We can only  wonder at the impact of  of Hughie’s loss on his extended family and feel for them all, including nephew, Liam, who continues the family’s mission with words: giving a voice to the unheard, a detailed picture of landscapes often overlooked. How fitting  to be writing about this son of Ayrshire on January 25th.

Willie once said: “Writing is a way of sharing our humanity”. It was never truer than in the work he produced, and, in the same way, Hughie’s writing  placed humanity at the heart of sport – a position  in which it can be  increasingly difficult  to detect these days.

Whenever I think of another magnificent Scottish writer, Ian Bell,  I find it impossible to believe he is no longer with us. His words are still  so redolent, his insights so telling, his passion so clearly transmitted.

And so it is with Hughie McIlvanney. As long as we are fascinated by sport, by its performers and by those who write about it, his words will ensure he lives on.

I’m tempted to reference two of his great contemporaries from a similar background, and about whom he wrote so well: Jock Stein and Bill Shankly.

To paraphrase the words of Shanks to Stein in the Lisbon dressing room after Celtic’s European Cup win, reported by Hughie at the time:


“Hughie – you’re immortal.”


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