West Highland Free Press: Brian Wilson was the spirit of the publisher I invested in


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There is nothing trivial about the sacking of Brian Wilson as a columnist for the West Highland Free Press.

For more than anyone else he represented, as its principal founder and first editor, the soul of that unique newspaper. It had been his dream to establish a left wing local paper serving the Hebrides, and it was his determination to see it through the early years of chronic financial difficulty and conflict with the vested interests it confronted, that laid the foundations for the success it became.  

When Wilson was already was already conceiving the paper as a student on the first year—1970-71-- of the graduate journalism school in Cardiff, there were plenty of –usually short lived—radical  community newssheets  in cities around the country. But what Wilson founded with three friends from Dundee University was a newspaper which served its readers in every way—combining its formidable campaigning edge with the more normal functions of a local newspaper. 

Its spirit was embodied in the slogan which still appears on the masthead  “The land, the language and the people.” There was content in Gaelic as well English from the start. And many of its earliest fights were when it sided with crofters and the public against the landowners. But in a circulation area—one of the most beautiful in the country—which had been ill served by local journalism, Wilson saw that it needed to cover local sport—including shinty and football—as well as politics. And that it needed to be the outlet for statutory local authority advertising if the paper—and its campaigns—were to be sustainable.

Nor was it simply parochial. Indeed the column by Professor Donald McLeod, the eminent former principal of the Free Church College, which, along with his defence by Wilson, is at the centre of the present row, was in a long tradition of opinion pieces in the Free Press which looked outwards and well as inwards. 

My own involvement with the Free Press was highly peripheral. As a fellow journalism student and friend of Wilson’s I put a few hundred pounds from a legacy from a grandparent into it and so became a proud but almost entirely “sleeping” director of the paper until it was finally sold. But I know enough of its founder to know it cannot be the same if its link with him is broken.