Jack Webster looks up two authors who spent

seven years compiling a national encyclopedia.

THE task of bringing the full story of Scotland, her history and

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traditions, facts and figures, and famous sons and daughters, under one

encyclopaedic cover is one which seems to have scared off the nations's

writers down the years.

Such a mine of information can, of course, become a minefield of

inaccuracy if the job is not tackled with diligence.

Mr John Keay and and his wife, Julia, may not have escaped the

gremlins entirely but they have at least tackled the monumental task

with a good sense and thoroughness which has taken up the past seven


Mountains of paper and print-outs have burgeoned at their shooting

lodge near Dalmally in Argyll as they amassed between 4000 and 5000

items, spreading over a thousand printed pages and reaching a grand

total of a million words.

The result, published this month, takes you topographically all the

way from Muckle Flugga to the Mull of Galloway, from Walter Scott to

Jock Stein, and through such a range of categories that you marvel, once

again, at how much this small nation has given to the advance of


Celebrities have had to wait until they are dead and suitably assessed

at a distance before finding an honoured place. So the modern scene is

portrayed through subjects, by which you will pick up that George Mackay

Brown is a living poet and Alex Ferguson a football manager.

At a launching party in Edinburgh, the Keays met some of their 120

contributors for the first time. Allowing for the help of experts in

their various fields, however, the authors still managed to write 60% of

the massive tome themselves.

So how did they come to a task of this magnitude?

Mr Keay, 53, the son of a sea captain from Fife, went to Oxford before

settling to freelance writing in London. There he met Julia who, by

chance, was another Fifer whose parents had moved south.

Mr Keay was writing a book about India and the couple were married in

the Himalayas before returning to this country and deciding they wanted

to escape the rush of the city.

They found their haven of peace in the Argyllshire hills and have been

raising their four children, engaging in some farming and forestry, and

pursuing various writing projects ever since.

''I had written a book on cattle-droving, which needed historical

research,'' said Mr Keay,''and together Julia and I had done a series

for Radio Scotland. I think on the strength of that -- and the fact that

we were two writers in the one establishment -- we were asked if we were

interested in writing an encyclopaedia of Scotland.

''The idea came from a London publishing editor,'' said Mrs Keay,

''and we decided to have a go. The original idea was to deal with the

topography of Scotland but we developed it beyond that.''

They settled to their task in 1987 but, half way through, the

publisher ran into difficulties and the contract was taken over by

HarperCollins in 1991.

The budget had to allow for the large number of contributors required

to complete a task of this size.

''We made lists of subject areas, like industry, sport, agriculture,

and so on,'' said Mrs Keay, ''and came up with 20 main categories.

Within those lists, we made other lists and gradually expanded the


''We know a lot of people in the academic world and were able to find

out who were the experts in various subjects. The National Library in

Edinburgh was very helpful in pointing us towards people who were


Mrs Keay spent 18 months of solid reading, taking cues from other

publications, and noting names, battles, events, and personalities. For

her, it has been seven years of total commitment.

Speculative writing projects of this nature are precarious earners so

Mr Keay had to squeeze in other books to keep the wolf from the door. He

wrote a history of the East India Company and was editor and main

contributor to the Royal Geographical Society's History of World


But always it was back to Scotland's encyclopaedia until the

seven-year undertaking was completed. ''We wouldn't have missed it for

worlds,'' he said. ''It was great fun.''

Inevitably, readers spring to the passages which interest them most

and are quick to point out the flaws. Following that precise route, I

was not long in finding a couple of mistakes about the Queen Mary and

Alistair MacLean, subjects on which I have written books and about which

readers have sought to challenge my own accuracy.

While Jock Stein stands supreme in the history of Scottish football,

one might also have looked for other footballing legends, like Matt

Busby and Bill Shankly.

But it is all part of the risk you take. The Keays can be well

satisfied with their efforts. Members of the family joined them in

Edinburgh this week for the launching.

Anna, 20, came up from Oxford, where she is studying at her father's

old college. Alex, 21, is fish-farming in Argyll, Nell, 17, is studying

at Langside College, Glasgow, and Sam, 15, is still at school.

At least Scotland now has an encyclopaedia of its own, a base upon

which the Keays and others can build in the future. For the moment, the

couple can retreat to their idyllic setting in Argyll and take a more

appreciative look at the scenery.

*Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, by John and Julia Keay, published

by HarperCollins at #30 until December and #40 thereafter.