Obituary: Sir Alastair Dunnett
Friday 04 September 1998
For several decades - until Roy Thomson's death in August 1976 - Dunnett's life was inextricably bound up with Thomson and the spectacular growth of his empire.
He wrote about him:
The fear of Roy H. Thomson - Lord Thomson of Fleet and North Bridge in the City of Edinburgh [the office of The Scotsman] - was that he would not die at work, whether in London, Toronto, or some other base. In the later years all that he ever complained about were the small defects that come with old age, and made him cut his working week. But in spite of concessions there was always his spirited presence, driving on, questioning, speculating, demanding, expecting.
Thus did Alastair Dunnett embark on an affectionate and perceptive tribute to a press baron, equalled only by Michael Foot's essay on Lord Beaverbrook, "Tribute to Beelzebub".
It was fitting that Roy Thomson's son should on the occasion of Dunnett's 85th birthday say that for the older generation of his Canadian family, Dunnett quite simply was Scotland. And Dunnett's description of Thomson would well have applied to Dunnett himself, "his spirited presence . . . driving on . . . questioning . . . speculating . . . demanding . . . expecting".
Dunnett was born in Kilmakolm, Dumfriesshire in 1908. His father was an invalid. In 1901, at an international football match between Scotland and England at Ibrox Park, Glasgow, a wooden stand had collapsed, throwing layers of men forward so that those in the lower ranks were crushed and killed. David Sinclair Dunnett, being tall, had his head and shoulders clear, but could not breathe.
His future brother-in-law, Danny Mowat, was thrown clear, and ran up and down to look for David, who shouted "Danny" with his last gasp. Mowat seized him by the collar, and dragged him out. David Dunnett, suffered from crushing of the heart valves, and took this impairment with him through a long life.
Albeit suffering frequent physical chastisement as a result of his father's ill-humour - caused by pain - Dunnett developed a powerful sympathy for invalids, and those not able to fend for themselves.
As a pillar for 40 years of the Establishment in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Dunnett's instincts, that we Scots are indeed our Brother's Keeper, were exceedingy influential in explaining why Scotland and the Scots were Mrs Thatcher's despair. Critical of the Labour Party and many of its prominent beliefs, Dunnett nonetheless helped create an ethos where prosperous Scots in their hundreds of thousands would discontinue voting Tory.
Dunnett's mother's father, Alexander MacTavish, after whom he was called, was a master mariner from Loch Fyne. For most of his life, MacTavish was captain of one of Clyde Trustees' sludge boats, carrying cargoes of effluent down the river to be dumped in the open sea. His maternal grandmother, Christine MacTavish, came from a family of fish-curers, who also ran cargo smacks plying between the parts of the West Coast and the Far Outer Isles.
Not only did Alastair Dunnett take a special interest from the editorial chair in the developing problems of the fishing industry, but as a member of the Scottish Tourist Board (1956-69), he played a part in the conscious drive to introduce young people to the delights and challenges of the rugged areas of the West Coast.
Dunnett's formal education ended at 15. His otherwise wretched schooldays at Overtown Public School - actually a slum infant school but mistaken, as Dunnett chuckled, by some Englishman later in life for private education - and Hillhead School, were redeemed by two superb teachers.
One was John Lapsley, maths teacher of motivating style, whose nephew, Graeme Lapsley, was the powerful Chief Executive of the Orkney County Council, when Dunnett went to Orkney in the early 1970s, to talk about oil, and give birth to what became the huge Flotta terminal.
The other teacher was George Menary, who opened the doors of English Literature to Dunnett. Menary - whose PhD was a treatise on Forbes of Culloden - later became a notoriously angular and difficult HM Inspector of Schools, but stirred in Dunnett a great desire to write and become a journalist.
However, family financial necessity dictated that Dunnett join the Commerical Bank of Scotland. He found life and colleagues uncongenial, but won the Institute of Bankers' Annual Essay Competition on the subject of the "Art of Investment", which brought him to the attention of his general manager, John M. Erskine, who three decades later, as Lord Erskine of Rerrick, was the last Governor of Northern Ireland.
Timing is everything in life, and when Erskine learned that Dunnett, and his friend Seamus Adam were founding a magazine for boys called The Claymore, he arranged for the bank to help them by buying advertising space. Yet Dunnett's experience in the bank was to stand him in good stead when he became a mogul of Thomson Oil.
Dunnett was the first person I remember warning me that there would be real trouble in the Six Counties. In his excellent autobiography, Among Friends (1984), Dunnett recalls how in Galway he had come across a lovely young group of people who were running a Gaelic Theatre. They had wanted to take one or two plays into the Six Counties but had been refused by the repressive regime.
He tried to warn Erskine of the seething hostility, as he thought he might be a reconciling influence. Dunnett's Scotsman was one of the very few, if not the only quality paper in Britain, before 1969, to address itself to the incipient horrors of Northern Ireland.
A quintessential Celt, Dunnett's attitude to the English is encapsulated in a passage from his autobiography:
I was there at the game against England which looked like ending in a draw until Alex Cheynes of Aberdeen playing on the wing, scored a goal, direct from a corner-kick. George Allison, then the self-important boss of Arsenal Football Club who was doing the radio commentary in his normal long-winded fashion, had announced that the game was virtually over and was talking it out when his attention was drawn to the fact that the ball was in the English net. Undismayed, this Barnum of the early large-scale football days changed key and proceeded, "While I've been speaking it appears that a goal has been scored by Scotland at the other end of the field . . ."
Editing The Claymore, later to be commemorated by Dunnett in the oil- field of that name, got him the position of printer, producer and editor of the Aberdeen edition of the Glasgow daily newspaper The Bulletin, bought by my grandmother Dame Mary Marjoribanks for the sole purpose of reading the "Adventures of (The Bear) Scottykins". It was a family newspaper, to which Dunnett introduced picture spreads that told their own story.
In 1937, Dunnett joined the Daily Record, by invitation of Clem Livingstone, as Art Editor. Dunnett recalled:
Up to that point the pictures had been mere insertions. Apart from the illustrations to news stories, the centre spread of pictures, which at that time was a feature of the "popular" type of newspaper, tended to have the deadest of fashion pictures: "Latest London fashion - a tasteful toque with semi-veil seen at milinery show in . . ." or "A merry group at last night's Draper's Ball in the Ca' d'oro . . ." or, worse still, "The wind played tricks with the bride's veil at the pretty wedding in St Mary's Church yesterday of . . ."
No theme ran through these snapshots. They served, no doubt, some purpose as a kind of national family album. I had always felt that pictures positively added to the news and indeed that the right pictures could eliminate the need for a news story. It wasn't long before I was telling my team of photographers that our job was to make the reporters obsolete. The right picture and the right caption - and I would do the writing of
the caption - should be able to do away with some of the news stories for which the photographer had accompanied a reporter, merely to illustrate what the reporter thought was a visual impression, adding some percentage to his story.
For 10 years after the Second World War Dunnett edited The Record, which he described to the Fleet Street pundits as "a working-class News Chronicle", and which he left six weeks after it had been acquired by Cecil King, whom Dunnett found a grim and menacing figure, who had driven the Daily Mirror to "tarty success" over a number of years.
Before leaving the Record in 1940, and returning as Editor in 1946, Dunnett was Chief Press Officer to Tom Johnston, Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence and then Secretary of State for Scotland. Sir Horace Hamilton, the considerable war-time Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office, who had known all the notable politicians and public men in Government in his distinguished career, told Dunnett that the only person he had ever known who could match Tom Johnston at getting to the heart of a situation was David Lloyd-George.
Johnston and his inner-team, among whom Dunnett was prominent, had a post-war vision of Scotland, which would create hydro power to feed electricity into the paraffin-lit homes of the North and the West. They dreamed up a Scottish Tourist Board, and had the brainwave of setting up the Scots Ancestry Research Council, which in practical terms would find a ranny or two for Americans, Canadians, Australians and other likely dollar-carrying visitors. Ever inventive, they got the money for the project by cajoling my constituent the late Earl of Rosebery to hand over for the public good his race winnings when his horse Blue Peter won the Derby, in 1939.
Dunnett's self-confessed failure reveals a lot about Dunnett, as do his perceptive criticisms of British institutions, such as the House of Commons:
It was a study to walk through the corridors with one's lobby correspondent
and hear him greet eminent statesmen and Prime Ministers on all sides with "How's it going, Ted?" or "Busy questions today, Harold?" and other amiable greetings. So it became clear to me that the parliamentary teams looked on themselves as a permanent element at Westminster. Prime Ministers and senior Secretaries of State came and went, but the recorders of the action were always there.
So I proposed a scheme by which top-grade reporters and first-class writers, preferably younger than the average, would go on a rota to cover these parliamentary jobs for about three years at a time, and the whole team would be switched round and not become cosily dug in. The scheme was greeted with horror naturally by the Westminster team, but also, to my great surprise, by most of the senior team in Edinburgh at our head office.
The general belief was that you needed to spend 20 years at Westminster before you began to understand what it was all about. I knew this was daft and that a good reporter could get the hang of it in six months . . . Looking back I am sorry that the move didn't come off. It would have freshened up parliamentary reporting considerably and done the House of Commons, as well as my paper, a great deal of good.
In 1956 I wrote an article following my participation in the first NUS visit to Russia, concerning my 17th-century ancestor and namesake, Sir Walter Scott's "Bluidy Muscovite". Roy Thomson saw it, found it tickled his fancy and summoned me to the presence, with a view to offering me employment. Perplexed that I was adamant about remaining at Moray House Teachers' Training College, Thomson revealed how he, Dunnett and Jim Coltart, had embarked on a great European venture, later to extend from newspaper ownership to television and oil.
Dunnett gave a start to many talented and successful young journalists, and it was he who launched his supremely talented artist-wife, Dorothy, on her authorship. The great American publisher, Lois Dwight Cole, of Dutton's, to whom Alastair introduced Dorothy, used to say in old age, "I always thought that Margaret Mitchell - author of Gone with the Wind - was my greatest friend, but Dorothy Dunnett gave me more real pleasure."
To provide material for Dorothy's books, she and Alastair would go together to Italy and France, Yugoslavia and North Africa, Orkney and Shetland for purposeful holidays to get material. The relationship is encapsulated by a woman friend of the Dunnetts, who said to them asthey were drinking at a small table together, "You two are amazing. I would never guess you are married. There you were sitting and talking and laughing as if you were strangers who wanted to get to know each other!" It was a wonderful marriage.
Alastair MacTavish Dunnett, journalist: born Kilmakolm, Dumfriesshire 26 December 1908; Chief Press Officer, Secretary of State for Scotland 1940-46; Editor, Daily Record 1946-55; Editor, The Scotsman 1956-72; Kt 1995; married 1946 Dorothy Halliday (two sons); died Edinburgh 2 September 1998.
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