Obituary: Bill Jamieson, Scotsman journalist of rare intelligence and wit

William Bryce Jamieson, journalist. Born: June 9 1945 in Newmilns, Ayrshire. Died: November 14 2020 in Truro, Cornwall, aged 75

Bill Jamieson by Edinburgh's Panmure House, once home to Adam Smith, in 2011
Bill Jamieson by Edinburgh's Panmure House, once home to Adam Smith, in 2011

Bill Jamieson used to say that the great benefit of being Executive Editor of The Scotsman was that no-one ever defined exactly what responsibilities came with that title – and he was happy to keep it that way. It was a typical piece of self-deprecation. The truth was that Bill Jamieson was at the very heart of The Scotsman for 12 years as the author of a string of exclusive stories, columnist, leader writer, confidant and wise counsel to successive editors, friend and inspiration to his colleagues.

Bill was a giant of our trade. His columns were widely read by those in positions of power in the business community and Scottish and UK politics. The great and the good of Scotland often did not agree with Bill’s opinions, but he won their respect nonetheless. He was intellectually rigorous in making a case but never less than courteous. That was the mark of the man.

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William Bryce Jamieson was the son of a lawyer, John, his mother Anne (nee Leckie), passed away when he was young. His brother Iain became a Scottish Office lawyer, responsible for the famous words in the Scotland Act, “There shall be a Scottish parliament”. It was in Ayrshire that Bill first got his taste for journalism, watching his local paper being produced. That thrill never left him. Even after decades in the trade he would almost explode with enthusiasm if he turned up an exclusive. He was the very opposite of the world-weary hack.

Bill went from Ayrshire to Sedbergh school and then on to Manchester University, where he read economics and was a radical youth, attending CND rallies, among other things. It was at Manchester he met librarian Elaine Muller, and they married in 1971.

Bill has been described as an “old school” journalist and there was something in that, though he latterly embraced the bold new world of online publication with his ScotBuzz website. He started his professional career on the Merthyr Express in Wales as a sub-editor, taking a similar role at the Western Mail in Cardiff. Former colleagues fondly remember his sub’s mindset, an obsession with spelling, grammar, getting facts right, a sharp eye for a headline and a warning to never, ever start an introductory sentence with the word “The”.

Bill moved to London to report business for Thomson Regional Newspapers, then to the Express, Eddie Shah’s print union-defying first all-colour paper Today, and on to The Sunday Telegraph. A libertarian more than a capital “C” conservative, he was an early exponent of the UK leaving the European Union – writing a book on the subject. In 1997 Bill put his beliefs into practice and stood for parliament in Putney, south London, for Ukip, securing just 233 votes, but having a small hand in displacing the sitting Tory MP David Mellor.

However, party politics was not to his liking, it was journalism that was his true love. When he joined The Scotsman in 2000 his opinions raised more than an eyebrow or two but his professionalism, manners, wry sense of humour and calming influence amid many an editorial storm won him friends and admiration.

Bill just loved his job, toiling at the coalface of journalism. His hard work paid dividends. He broke the story of the Lloyds-HBoS merger and won Business Journalist of the Year and Journalist of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards. At the time of the great financial crash his was a voice of expertise, explaining the massive complexities of the crisis in a way readers could understand, but without patronising them. He was a frequent, eloquent guest on TV and radio. An article he wrote explaining how the “masters of the universe” had got us into this crisis went global. Bill had captured the mood of anger at the devastating hubris of the bankers.

The man who hired him, Andrew Neil, then editor-in-chief at The Scotsman, has summed up Bill’s talent. He said: “Bill wrote like a dream – clear, concise explanations of sometimes complicated economic developments. I asked him to join me at The Scotsman to improve our business and economics coverage. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. His knowledge was profound, his insight and judgement always reliable. Office politics bored him, so did journalistic prima donnas. Like the best journalists, he didn’t take himself too seriously. Most of all he was simply the most lovely person to work with. He leavened everything he did with a wonderful sense of humour and an infectious laugh.”

Bill could write about anything – the roses he grew in his garden, or cats, or his love of red socks, or opera. The writing was always simple, in the best sense, never over-elaborate.

He and Elaine were also the most generous of hosts at the house in Lochearnhead which they built where there had once been an old cottage. Parties at Bill’s when the Highland games were on in the field at the back of the house were full of laughter, good food and drink, and quite a bit of gossip.

Even after leaving The Scotsman Bill continued to write columns for the paper until very recently. As his son Alastair, who also became a journalist, explained in an article for yesterday’s Scotsman, Bill developed cancer that led to the removal of a kidney and was in recovery, but during a recent spell at Elaine’s family home in Cornwall he became too unwell to return to Scotland. Delays related to coronavirus saw his cancer return, aggressively, and he died in the Royal Cornwall Hospital at Treliske, Truro in the early hours of Saturday.

Bill Jamieson’s passing leaves a gaping hole at a time when, more than ever, we need intelligent, thoughtful, fearless journalists who have a deep knowledge of their subject and are prepared to speak truth to power.

He leaves Elaine, Alastair, his sister, Susan, and brother, Iain.

PETER MACMAHON