Long-serving reporter with The Herald
Born: August 21, 1935;
Died: October 1, 2018
GEORGE Macdonald, who has died aged 83, was an archetypal, old school gentleman of the press and a veteran reporter with The Herald: honourable, meticulous and dapper, with a dry wit and impeccable shorthand.
Often to be found, in the aftermath of a major story, at the centre of a knot of less speedy scribes, he was unfailingly generous in sharing his immaculate verbatim notes, saving the skin of fellow hacks who would otherwise have struggled to come up with the goods.
And as a senior staff man on the then Glasgow Herald, he also became something of an inadvertent mentor to several generations of young journalists who, exposed to his experience and expertise, acquired a little of his skill and integrity by osmosis.
His stock in trade was gathering and reporting the facts without opining. He worked through some of the best years in newspapers in Scotland, at a time when the Granite City was home to branch offices of half a dozen national newspapers and when spin did not enter his lexicon.
Yet surprisingly for a man with a family heritage in newsprint – his father and uncle were both journalists, his sister Bet a news telephonist and newsdesk secretary – he had originally embarked on a career in medicine, a field he had not chosen and to which, it was fairly quickly apparent, he did not have any affinity.
Born in Aberdeen to Agnes and George Macdonald he also had exposure to the legacy of one of Scotland’s most famous literary figures – James Leslie Mitchell, better known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, author of A Scots Quair.
Like George Macdonald senior (Old Mac), Mitchell was a journalist in Aberdeen and the pair worked alongside each other on competing papers – Macdonald snr on the Free Press and Mitchell on the Daily Journal. Mitchell also lodged with Old Mac’s mother in a room in her flat in St Mary’s Place, just off Crown Street in the city centre, where he produced some of his early manuscripts. The two reporters remained close friends for many years and young George would later inherit his father’s signed copies of Grassic Gibbon’s works which he provided on long-term loan to the Grassic Gibbon Centre in Arbuthnott near Laurencekirk.
It was Old Mac who had apparently wanted his son to study medicine and, after being educated at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon’s College, Macdonald dutifully went off to Aberdeen University. He did not get further than the first year before deciding it was not for him.
He then spent a short period teaching primary pupils in the Buchan area before being called up for national service where he was a communications equipment technician in the RAF. A man with a keen mathematical mind, he enjoyed the work, particularly when posted to Germany where he was responsible for maintaining communications equipment for a chain of transmission stations straddling the country.
Declining an invitation to apply for an RAF commission, he was determined to return home and try his hand as a journalist. His father had been at the Glasgow Herald in Aberdeen for many years and his uncle Norman was the sports editor at Aberdeen’s Press and Journal. Macdonald, sports mad since boyhood, wanted to focus on sport but took a job as a trainee general news reporter on an Ayrshire paper. By 1960 he had progressed to daily papers and was working at Aberdeen Journals where reporting staff spent alternate weeks working for the Press and Journal and its sister paper the Evening Express. He was part of the team that covered the city’s typhoid outbreak in 1964.
Macdonald, who never married, moved to the Glasgow Herald in 1966, succeeding his father as the senior Aberdeen reporter. The following year the north-east was riveted by one of Scotland’s most scandalous murders, the shooting of wealthy farmer Max Garvie. His wife Sheila and her lover Brian Tevendale were convicted of the killing in 1968 – after salacious details emerged of sex, drugs, a nudist colony and swingers’ parties at a property dubbed “Kinky Cottage”, rumoured to be near Alford.
Macdonald’s perfect Pitmans shorthand came into play during the trial, which was reported virtually verbatim, as did his analytical mind. He and a fellow journalist spent hours painstakingly trawling through valuation and voters’ rolls until finally, in conjunction with discussions with local shopkeepers, they identified the location of the cottage. When they arrived, photographer in tow, the door was unlocked and pornographic publications remained strewn around. Their hard slog had paid off. It was typical of his method of working, quietly and diligently.
Over almost 30 years at The Herald he worked on countless major stories including mountain rescues, maritime tragedies and the collapse of Aberdeen University’s zoology building. Such events inevitably attracted huge media interest and with so many national newspapers chasing the same story there was constant banter and competition among the press pack. He and a colleague, armed with a sunken boat’s crew list, would often work either side of a street to contact bereaved families. But on many occasions, rather than have a horde of journalists knocking on the door in succession, there was a gentleman’s agreement that one would do the job and pool the information with the others to avoid undue distress to the bereaved.
Following the discovery of North Sea oil Macdonald found himself covering Scotland’s emerging energy industry and became the paper’s North Sea correspondent, establishing a credibility among the CEOS of international corporations who were often happy to speak to him directly. He also covered the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, which claimed the lives of 167 North Sea workers, and the subsequent Cullen Inquiry.
Although news intervened and he never became a dedicated sports reporter, he covered various sporting events throughout his career and remained an avid sports fan. He was a member of Aberdeen’s Seafield Bowling Club, had played at Deeside Golf since he was a junior member and, the day before he died, was ecstatic to see Europe’s Ryder Cup victory.
Predeceased by his sister Bet, he is survived by his elder sister Elsa.