Responding to a Freedom of Information request a month after the EU Referendum, the Foreign Office released its guidance to retiring ambassadors preparing to send their valedictory despatch to London. Noting that 'too many DipTels [Diplomatic Telegrams] are too long', the guidance – which runs to one sentence longer than a side of A4 – notes that 'brevity is key'. As an avid reader of the Scottish Review
, I can give even the most rambling government minister, wound up and shoved into the Today
programme studio at 8am, a run for their money in unpruned verbiage.
For this valedictory column, I thought I would return to the first issue of the Scottish Review
which (then a printed quarterly journal) landed on the doormats of its nearly 100 founding subscribers in January 1995. In his inaugural Night & Day
editorial, Kenneth Roy wrote that the 85 donors (dubbed 'Capital Letters') who contributed £150 each to bring the magazine into existence and receive it for as long as it or they should live were 'living proof of a philanthropic nature', but conceded that the production process had been so arduous that 'I have had very little time to read the contents'. Based on some of the pieces I have turned in during the three years that I have been a regular columnist, I hope that Islay has continued Kenneth's editorial practice!
As the broadcaster Ian Mackenzie, who contributed an essay to the first edition, said at the launch of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland – the magazine's publisher which is being wound up – this review of 'all things Scottish' (as Roy called it) was intended to be 'intellectually free and to encompass and share any aspect of life in our land, past, present and future'. Following MsPrint
(1978), Radical Scotland
(1982), and Edinburgh Review
(1984), the Scottish Review
was the latest in a series of small magazines which, as Mackenzie said in October 2000, sought to 'break free from narrow systems of thinking'. As the academic Scott Hames wrote in 2021, independent magazines, publishing cultural, literary and political commentary, were 'the laboratory in which the new
Scotland of devolution was experimentally debated and formed'.
Early issues were divided into four sections: the first a comment section, followed by three longform essays on the theme of the quarter, a 'Life and Letters' section, and three pieces on the arts and sports. The theme of the first issue was Homecoming
with pieces from Ian Jack – who Roy noted 'writes brilliantly but for the moment chooses to edit a newspaper' – about his parents' love for the Fife of their teenage years, the poet Donny O'Rourke (who was then a BBC producer) on living in Glasgow, and Professor Donald Macleod on 'all the ghosts' of his birthplace, Lewis. Other pieces included a despatch from Neil McFadyean on his experience of teaching in Beijing, an autobiographical essay by Ena Lamont Stewart, and Kenneth Roy's observations on his time as the Daily Record's
greyhound racing correspondent.
In addition to these more literary pieces, the first issue featured a frank – at times, surprisingly abrupt – interview with the new editor of The Scotsman
, Andrew Jaspan, who gave Scottish broadsheets 'no more than a year' to get their acts together but moved to head up The Observer
just six months later. Reading Roy's write-up nearly 30 years after it was published shows that his and Jaspan's conversation contained a number of pre-echoes of the debate in recent years about whether the steady decline of both local and national print newspapers could have been arrested.
For Jaspan, the way to change the opinion of 'managements in Scotland' that 'Scottish papers aren't good enough' was to establish a 'worthwhile journalistic nexus' north of the border to make the best journalists feel that they 'do not need to take that road to London', respect the 'historic and cultural traditions' of the Scottish press, and 'invest more money in better journalism and more pages' to give readers a better service all round.
My favourite piece from the first edition was the write-up of a 'symposium' to determine the 'greatest' Scottish politician of the 20th century. In all, the 34 politicians (including two former Secretaries of State for Scotland) that Roy asked identified 17 candidates. Three former Prime Ministers, Andrew Bonar Law (who spent just over a decade as the MP for Glasgow Blackfriars and later Glasgow Central), Winston Churchill, and Henry Campbell-Banner received a single vote each, as did the former Secretaries of State, James Stuart (1951-57) and Willie Ross (1964-70 and 1974-76). With the 60th anniversary of his resignation as Prime Minister approaching, Ramsay MacDonald received two votes.
As well as George Foulkes, MacDonald's claim was supported by Robert Kernohan (the longtime editor of the Church of Scotland's Life and Work
magazine). He argued that, as a former director-general of the Scottish Conservative Central Office, he would 'much prefer to nominate Alec Douglas-Home or even Campbell-Bannerman'. MacDonald had overseen 'the evolution of Labour to office – the most significant British political event of the century'. Alec Home, John Wheatley and the 'Red Clydesiders', Jimmy Maxton and Tom Johnston, came joint second receiving three votes each, but the title was shared by the recently deceased John Smith and his predecessor-but-13 as Leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie.
My thoughts would normally turn to my next piece for a fortnight's time on who the 'greatest' Scottish politician of the 21st century could be, but I think I should use my final paragraph for the Scottish Review
to thank Islay McLeod, who has sustained the magazine through the five years since Kenneth Roy handed over the reins and was, as he wrote in his final editorial, the ideal choice to 'keep the miracle alive'. As I discovered, Islay is not only 'indefatigable' and a gifted editor, as Roy told us, but immensely generous – willing to give unpublished writers, critics and historians the space to write – and infinitely understanding when I haven't written as diligently as I should have done. All these qualities mean that the Scottish Review
has not, as its founder feared, been 'like small animals' and had a 'short and hazardous life'. For that, the magazine's contributors and readers alike should offer what Kenneth Roy called 'an omnibus vote of thanks'. Farewell and mind how you go.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh