R Russell Smith

Born: March 28, 1935

Died: September 5, 2023.

Just over a year ago the Herald's letter editor received a contribution from perhaps his most prolific correspondent, R Russell Smith.

"Am I alone", it began, "in noting the happy congruence of today’s Herald headlines: 'Scots have been getting their oats for 5000 years' and 'How to increase our birth-rate'? Read The Herald and Go forth. Be fruitful and multiply, (Genesis 1:28)".

Witty and irreverent, it was typical of output of R. Russell Smith, who has died at the age of 88. Over the years, and frequently at the rate of several times a week, he wrote many hundreds of concise, pithy letters, mostly on his iPad, to the Herald, on topics as arrestingly diverse as midgies, puns, Lobey Dosser, Mary Poppins, the Alba party, President Obama's address to the Cop26 delegates in Glasgow, the link between anger and sport, and hearing aids.

He could often be self-deprecating. In a letter on the subject of street buskers, he admitted that he had once expressed “surprise and annoyance” when a bagpiping busker “gatecrashed the after-funeral reception of a dear friend", only to be told that "the supposed offender had been hired by her husband as a tribute to his wife who had been a devotee of the doodlesack”.

A recent letter revealed his dislike of certain four-letter words - wash, cook, iron, and dust. His final letter, written on August 24, told a wildlife joke, with one intrepid hedgehog saying to another - “Thank you madam. It’s been a business doing pleasure with you".

Such was his renown that a fellow letter-writer once asked the Herald to consider publishing a book of his letters and those of another regular correspondent, Thelma Edwards, on the grounds that they needed to be kept for posterity. Three years ago, another correspondent, observing that Dr Smith had relocated from Kilbirnie to the "retirement haven" of Largs, wrote: "Let's hope that this simply means that Russell is only geographically 'over the hill' and will continue to amuse Herald readers for many years to come".

The Herald: R Russell Smith, a prolific contributor to the Herald's letters pages over many yearsR Russell Smith, a prolific contributor to the Herald's letters pages over many years (Image: Courtesy of family of R Russell Smith)

R Russell Smith – the ‘R’ stood for Robert - was born on March 28, 1935 in Stewarton, Ayrshire, to Jack and Jessie Smith. Smith snr, a hosiery manufacturing agent, died when his only child was 20, and his wife, who was already working in an office, took over his job as agent.

After school in Stewarton, Russell attended Kilmarnock Academy before studying medicine at Glasgow University. (In a letter to the Herald in 2011 he recalled that at the academy in 1951-52 a fourth-year pupil named William McIlvanney had read out an essay in class - "it was obvious to all, as we listened spellbound, that this was a young man with an extaordinary talent. It was probably his first public reading").

After graduating in 1959 Russell worked as a junior doctor in Kilmarnock Infirmary then spent a year as a trainee GP in Paisley.

LETTERS EDITOR: Where to begin – and how to finish

As he himself wrote – in a letter to the Herald, of course - “I admit to a soft spot for Paisley, having worked there for a year in general practice after obligatory hospital posts after graduation, and my added good fortune to hitch-up with a Paisley Buddy of the female variety 60 years ago”. He met his wife-to-be, Ellen, in May 1959 while she was studying at Jordanhill teacher training college. He joined a GP practice in Kilbirnie, Ayrshire, where he became a popular and respected partner, trusted by his wide range of patients.

He was a keen sportsman, and golf was his main passion. He played at Kilbirnie Place Golf Club in Largs, and often said that he had “learned to throw a golf club for distance and accuracy”. After retiring in 1995 at the age of 60 from medical practice he also took to curling, a sport he had been introduced to by Ellen. He played with the Penguins, initially at the Magnum leisure centre in Irvine and latterly at Auchenharvie. He was also a keen walker and swimmer. He and Ellen travelled widely, to Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Away from sport his main interests include his membership of both the Garnock Valley Rotary Club and Garnock Valley Burns Club; he delivered many speeches at the latter. He was an enthusiastic pianist and organist.

In 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, Russell spoke to the Herald about his memories of the day when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface.

In an email he said: "Along with the death of King George V1 when school lessons were stopped in the afternoon for the news, Suez, Bannister’s sub-4 minute mile, and the assassination of President Kennedy, those of my generation will never forget the amazement at the technological development of the Moon landing - the pictures, commentary, and the successful return. My elder daughter just remembers being told, 'You’re going to see something amazing, the man on the Moon'."

He was photographed by the Herald with two souvenirs of that epic time – a Man on the Moon dish-towel, and a special presentation pack, Touchdown on the Moon, which included everything from Apollo 11's flight plan to press briefings, lunar excursion orders and even a 45rpm record, Man on the Moon, with the voices of the NASA announcer and the astronauts.

He remained devoted to, and took great pride in, his family – his children Alison, a retired GP, Lesley, a retired dentist, and Russell, a dentist, and his grandchildren Matthew, James, Andrew, Sally, Julia, Oliver and Jessica. He is survived by them and by his wife, Ellen. “His was a life well-lived”, says his eldest daughter, Alison. “It was a very full and happy life”.

Russell died peacefully in Ayrshire Hospice, Cumnock. He had fallen ill in December 2022, a month after he and Ellen celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary.

Drew Allan, Herald letters editor, said: “The volume of letters we have received this week in response to the news of Dr Smith’s passing speaks to the high esteem in which he was held by Herald readers.

“He was the master of the 'And finally…'-type letter, the short, witty, humorous contributions which help to leaven the mix on our pages. He had views on a wide range of topics, always expressed in an entertaining manner. He will be sorely missed.”

Lorne Jackson, who as editor of the Herald Diary also received many contributions from Russell, added: "I always eagerly looked forward to receiving a mirthful missive from him. His sense of humour was wry, warm and soaked in a peculiarly Scottish sensibility. Sometimes he would regale me with an especially surreal snippet. 

"He helped to give the Diary its idiosyncratic voice, and he helped make my job a particularly enjoyable one. He will be sorely missed by the Diary editor and the Diary readers, though we are grateful for his generosity of spirit".