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Mary Beith

Writer and journalist;

Born: May 22, 1938; Died: May 13, 2012.

Mary Beith, who has died aged 73 after a short fight against cancer, was one of the great characters of the modern Highlands. A writer, journalist and historian, she had immersed herself in the study of the heritage of Gaelic Scotland, becoming a recognised authority on the traditional Celtic medicines and concept of healing. As a reporter investigating animal testing she produced what became an iconic image – a row of beagles forced to chain-smoke cigarettes.

From her Sutherland home at the mouth of the Kyle of Tongue on the north coast of Scotland, she would travel far and wide to speak on the subject and associated fields.

She shared the fruits of her scholarship with community gatherings in village halls as well as academic symposiums at universities. She travelled virtually everywhere by public transport. Nobody knew postbus timetables better.

For over 20 years she had a fortnightly column in the Skye-based West Highland Free Press on the Gaelic medical tradition, which was always well received, and in 1995 published her seminal work Healing Threads, Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands, now reprinted several times.

Befitting one who believed her surname to be a variant of the Beatons, the legendary medical dynasty of Gaeldom, she was seen to bring an intellectual rigour to the study of local traditions and the oral history of her subject. She linked the material to ancient Gaelic texts as well as to modern applications.

But not all her readers knew that she had another life, that of an award-winning campaigning journalist at the sharp end of her trade. Her work for The People in Manchester was renowned, as Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London's City University, recalled: "In 1975 ... one of The People's most famous investigations – into cruelty at a vivisection laboratory – was published to widespread acclaim. Reporter Mary Beith, working undercover at the lab, smuggled in a camera to snap an iconic photograph of a row of dogs hooked up to machines that forced them to inhale supposedly "safe" non-nicotine cigarettes. The smoking beagles image is one of the most memorable ever published by a newspaper."

The title of Campaigning Journalist of the Year was hers, in national press awards in 1975, for that story. But she was prouder of her work exposing the treatment of the elderly in psychiatric hospitals. Her eldest child Alison can still remember her dressing up in a nurse's uniform, before going off to work under cover on that assignment.

She also worked in Northern Ireland and was asleep in the Europa Hotel in Belfast on one of the 33 occasions it was bombed by the Provisional IRA. Her hearing suffered as a result of the explosion.

Her father had Scottish forebears from Bathgate but was of a mining engineering family who travelled around the world. He came back to London to marry her mother, Colina, who died of cancer in 1943. After the war her father, by then a civil servant in the war office, remarried and in 1949 the family went to Jamaica for two years, but returned to London when her father contracted TB. She suffered a milder form and afterwards had very bad asthma.

When she left school she taught English briefly in Bavaria before having a summer job at a hotel in Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness where she fell in love with the Highlands.

A course in journalism at Poole in Dorset allowed her to start her career on the Bournemouth Times.

While at The People she met and married fellow journalist Roger Scott, but they later divorced. She moved to the Sunday Mail in Glasgow in the mid-1970s, living in Garelochhead.

A few years later she was seriously ill with meningitis, after which she went freelance and moved to one of the most beautiful but remotest spots in the land, at Midfield on the north Sutherland coast.

She bought a little bit of land and two portacabins which had been put together as a holiday home. From there she continued with freelance journalism, "The hack from the shack" as she used to describe herself; contributing to The Herald, The Scotsman, Northern Times, The Times and Daily Telegraph as well as the BBC.

A children's book, The Magic Apple, was also published, and she was very proud when it was translated into Gaelic, which she had studied enthusiastically. She always played a full part in the community life of the Melness/Tongue area.

She later moved to a house just up the road in the township of Talmine, where she died surrounded by her family. She is survived by her children Alison, Andrew and Fiona; and eight grandchildren.

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