Eric B. Mackay

The Scotsman enjoyed a series of golden ages in the 19th century, but arguably the most significant in the 20th century was between 1968, when Eric Mackay's predecessor Alastair Dunnett committed the newspaper to a federalist policy on home rule for Scotland, and 1980, a year after Scotland's failure to establish a Scottish Assembly.

In a sense, Mackay, who has died aged 83 of lung cancer, edited The Scotsman for a considerable period when Dunnett was still in formal charge.

Mackay began in newspapers at the Aberdeen Bon-Accord and then the Elgin Courant, arriving at The Scotman in 1950, and, after an unhappy year in London on The Daily Telegraph, being appointed London editor of The Scotsman, a traditional stepping-stone to the editorship, in 1957.

Soon after Mackay's return to Edinburgh in 1961 as deputy editor, Dunnett added the managing directorship of Scotsman Publications to his own editorial duties, and this left Mackay doing most of the editor's work.

It was a good combination — the bubbly, gregarious Glasgow Highlander as editor and public relations genius, and the dourer, deeper, laconic Aberdonian as his publicly unknown deputy.

Mackay's editorship got off to a most unfortunate start; indeed, it would not have started at all if Dunnett had had his way when he embarked on a new career running Roy Thomson's pioneering North Sea oil business. Dunnett, who devoted himself so assiduously to public relations, preferred as his successor someone more eloquent and flamboyant than Mackay, who was led to believe that he had been passed over to make way for Alastair Stuart, then London editor. But David K Snedden, who had succeeded Dunnett as managing director, insisted that Mackay should get the job.

When Dunnett became editor in 1956, three years after the paper had been purchased at a bargain price by Roy Thomson, its circulation was around 55,000 (70 years earlier it had been 60,000), When Mackay took charge in 1972, it was 75,000. By 1980 he go it up to a record-breaking 97,500 — tantalising close to the magic figure of 100,000 which would have worked wonders for display advertising revenue.

It was most unfortunate that an easily avoidable industrial dispute the following year caused a sharp fall to 92,000.

Having ordered that the journalists' pay claim be resisted, David Snedden went on holiday. In his absence, Mackay helped to engineer a settlement. He was very much a journalist's journalist.

He looked after his journalists collectively and individually, whether their problems arose from work or their personal lives. The key to his success was his appointment of journalists who were more fluent than he was, and who were encouraged to get on with what they were good at.

During Mackay's editorship, which lasted until 1985, readers benefited from the talents of, among many others, Arnold Kemp as deputy editor, who enjoyed writing as much as Mackay shied away from it; Harry Reid, education correspondent and then features editor; his wife Julie Davidson as a features writer; Alf Young, covering Scottish business; Conrad Wilson as music critic; James Naughtie at Westminster; and Neal Ascherson roving over a Scottish political scene that the collective energy of Mackay's writing staff had helped to make infinitely more interesting than it had been before the paper's home-rule campaign began in earnest in 1968.

What Mackay had, in common with Dunnett and Kemp, was a sense of fair play towards all factions in a politically divided Scotland, and this was one of the key elements in The Scotsman's steady rise in circulation for a 25-year period out of the doldrums left by the pre-Thomson proprietorship.

Mackay's farewell portrait by Alberto Morrocco shows him browsing through a day's intake of lively letters to the editor. Just like the Dunnett-Mackay combination of contrasting characters, the Mackay-Kemp pairing worked well.

But the golden age began to wind down in 1979. Instead of moving on to a new era with an assembly or parliament to be reported and commented on, the paper was full of recrimination and hostile comment about the new prime minister, Margaret Thacher.

The outcome of the 1979 referendum on devolution was a terrible blow to Mackay and Kemp. So Mackay's final six years as editor — he retired in 1985 — were rather an anti-climax. But his paper still maintained an editorial and commercial success which was to elude most of his nine successors. Kemp left for The Herald in 1981.

Mackay's wife Moya, died in 1981.

He is survived by two of his three sons and a daughter.

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