Colin MacLean

19th July 2013 at 01:00
The legendary journalist and founding editor of The Times Educational Supplement Scotland has died at the age of 88

Colin MacLean, the founding editor of The Times Educational Supplement Scotland, has died at the age of 88. He proved to be an inspired choice to launch this new publication in 1965 as part of what was then Times Newspapers, having had wide journalistic experience. His career to that point culminated in his final London posting as an editor of the letters page on The Times, working under legendary editor Sir William Haley.

In the official The History of The Times, Colin's appointment to the Edinburgh-based job was recorded thus: "A graduate of Aberdeen University, he showed a combination of prudence, geniality and scholarliness greatly to the Scottish taste." This was a perfect summation of his personal and professional talents, readily recognisable to those of us with the good fortune to have worked with him. He was a big man in every sense - physically, intellectually and morally.

As editor of TESS, he always paid his readers the compliment of never underestimating their intelligence. His leaders were distinguished essays, displaying scholarship and penetrating insights (his staff sometimes joked that they often had to read them more than once to understand the intellectual subtleties).

The early days were not easy, and not just because of the many bouts of industrial action which meant hours of hard graft each week to produce a paper that never saw the light of day. Also, the educational establishment was hostile to this upstart arrival and its nonconformist outsider editor. As Colin himself noted: "Scottish education was in the main smugly self-satisfied, inclined to boast of its history and of its lads o' pairts."

The new editor could never be accused of bowing to the prevailing winds. He campaigned vigorously on a range of issues, expressing early "abhorrence" against corporal punishment in schools and applying his ever-questioning mind to more esoteric subjects such as the banding of the O grade exam.

But his open mind ensured that it was never closed to those with whom he disagreed, and The TESS offered a platform to a variety of voices. Indeed, despite his opposition to the initial devolution plans of the 1970s, Colin was instrumental in organising the first national conference on the subject, pulling off the impressive coup of landing as main speaker the charismatic Rene Levesque, then leader of the Quebec independence movement in Canada.

Colin George MacLean was born in Glasgow in 1925, a son of the manse which was a prolonged influence on his life. He lost his father at the age of 7 and moved to the northeast of Scotland, which was another significant influence. Scholarly and bookish, he graduated with ease from Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen to the city's university, with which he was to maintain an affectionate connection.

Complete with an honours degree in English literature and language, Colin's natural destination seemed to be academia. Instead, he was hired by one of the doyens of the newspaper trade in Scotland, J M Reid, the fiercely nationalist editor of the Glasgow Bulletin, who gave him his first job in 1951 (by coincidence, one of Colin's first appointments to The TESS as his deputy editor was the redoubtable Jean Reid, daughter of J M).

In many ways, journalism was a surprise move for Colin (especially to the west of Scotland): he did not smoke, eschewed the pub culture which devoured so many promising journalists of his day and had no interest in football. His career as an outsider had begun. After nine years in Glasgow, he travelled south where he found work with The Daily Telegraph and then The Times.

So The TESS as an education journal was launched by someone with the perfect combination of a scholarly and a journalistic background. Colin was also a campaigner: in a review of the first 20 years of The TESS, he nailed his colours to the mast of "pushing open doors that need to be opened and challenging people who wish not to be challenged".

But Colin's time as editor of The TESS took him well beyond the confines of print to make a major contribution to the life of Scotland. He was on the executive of the Scottish Dyslexia Association, the adult education advisory committee of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the executive committee of the National Book League Scotland. He chaired the Royal Commonwealth Society (Scotland), was president of the Scottish Pre-School Play Association, acted as vice-chairman of the Scottish Publishers Association and was an elder in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh.

Music was a central feature of Colin's life. During his period as editor of The TESS, he found time to pen the libretto for an opera on the life of the Scottish geologist and writer Hugh Miller. It won a "fringe first" award at the 1974 Edinburgh Festival.

But the "extracurricular" role which gave Colin greatest satisfaction was his chairmanship of the feasibility committee that led to the creation of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (NYOS) in the 1970s, which he recounted in Nurturing Talent - a neat description of what he valued most. Nicola Benedetti, an early member of NYOS (and many others), might not be where she is today without Colin MacLean.

After leaving The TESS in 1977, Colin spent a brief but unhappy spell as general and educational editor of Chambers, the Edinburgh-based publishers. But he was to find his true vocation a year later with Aberdeen University Press, of which he became managing director. This reconnected him with his alma mater and with his twin loves of books and academe.

An obituary of Colin would not be complete without mention of his late wife Moira. She shared many of his musical, social and political passions. The special unit at Barlinnie Prison, temporary home to the talents of Jimmy Boyle and Hugh Collins, was one of only many causes which benefited hugely from her dedication and his backing.

Colin is survived by his three sons, Keith, David and Fraser, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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