Jack McLean

Born: August 10, 1946;

Died: December 27, 2023

By exiting this world when he did Jack McLean gave one last rebuke to a season he had come to loath. His friend, John Henderson, former crossword compiler on The Scotsman, recalled Jack’s thoughts on Christmas. “I hate it: everywhere is shut and the whole place is full of amateur drunks, who don't know how to handle themselves, falling down and lying around under your feet.”

In the Scottish newspaper world of the 1980s and 1990s, few other journalists were as well-known and celebrated as Jack McLean. His columns in The Glasgow Herald, The Scotsman and the Times Educational Supplement seemed to re-create the genre by taking it out of its academic bulwarks, applying a kick to its well-fed fundament and introducing it to a readership who would not normally be in the habit of “taking a broadsheet”.

Jack laced his observations about the world with an acid wit often doused in the jaggy street argot of Glasgow. There you were digesting his sculpted thoughts on a new art exhibition or the politics of Scottish devolution when you’d be startled by references to languid, late-night conversations in a Glasgow howff, usually Heraghty’s on the city’s south side.

This served a dual purpose. It grounded even the loftiest and most esoteric subjects to street level and showed that these issues could be the subject of fierce and informed debate by those not normally considered capable of forming such opinions by those who operated the media.

This happened in an era fondly regarded by those who lived to tell the tales as a golden era of Scottish newspapers where circulations were high and supported expense accounts that could float frigates. Yet, a darker side could be observed in the high number of premature deaths among good journalists who’d felt compelled to live up to the trade’s hard-living, drinking culture of popular notoriety.

The Herald - An Apology

It also bred an attitude in the big titles’ male-dominated executive suites that tipped into arrogance and a sense that they could sometimes operate beyond the laws of common decency. It’s in this context that Jack McLean’s most ill-judged column, written in 1991 – about the murder of Glasgow schoolgirl, Diane Watson by a classmate – must be viewed.

He had attempted to introduce a class aspect to the murder which seemed to imply a degree of mitigation in the deed. The column caused understandable pain to the victim’s family and the newspaper’s attempts to address this were described to me years later by one senior executive as “unfeeling and wholly inadequate”.

This would return to haunt the paper two decades later during the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press. After Diane Watson’s family gave evidence, The Herald printed an apology which, in truth, should have been made 20 years earlier. It disfigured Jack McLean’s otherwise brilliant newspaper career.

Jack McLean was born to Mollie, a school secretary, and her husband, David, a janitor, and grew up in Cathcart and Townhead.

Following his education at Allan Glen’s, he worked for the old Glasgow Corporation, before heading for London. There he began producing art for the emerging advertising industry before returning north to take a degree at Edinburgh College of Art where he became national vice-president for the National Union of Students.

He then embarked on a teaching career, principally at Queen’s Park secondary where he was the teachers’ representative on Strathclyde Regional Council.

It was at this time that his writing talent came to be recognised: first in the Times Educational Supplement and then in The Scotsman whose deputy editor, Arnold Kemp, was impressed by his wit and style. When this towering figure of the Scottish newspaper industry moved west to edit The Glasgow Herald he took Jack with him and it was here that his journalism flourished, allowing him to forsake teaching.

Jack’s braggadocio occasionally bred resentment and jealousy in some who dismissed his talent as fleeting and insubstantial, but his true worth can be seen in the outpouring of affection which greeted the news of his death across social media and beyond.

The novelist Irvine Welsh wrote: “I loved his columns in The Scotsman and Herald.” The historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine said: “His wit, irreverent humour and intriguing insights always made his columns must-reads. The timbre and soul of Glasgow came through in them. He was also a master of great craic when you might meet him in his favourite taverns.”

Jack McLean delighted in the fellowship of his fellow Glaswegians. He considered none to be strangers and so when he wrote it wasn’t with the authority of governments but with that which came from the citizenry.

Understatement and reserve were alien concepts to him and this was most vividly displayed in his workaday wardrobe. This consisted of a large fedora, dark pin-striped suit, long black or light brown overcoat (depending on the season) and – as often as not – shiny white spats which he called his “refulgent white brogans”. Their only accessory was a permanently-lit cigarette.

Thus attired, he became a familiar figure on Glasgow’s south side and in those city centre haunts that gathered around The Herald’s old offices on Albion Street. It conveyed a Damon Runyon underworld of dark and edgy glamour, not all of it contrived.

This was in an age when broadsheet newspaper columnists seemed to occupy a rarefied world of grand openings and secret luncheons where they were privy to the excursions and alarums of civic elites. You would rarely encounter them in those places where they might run the risk of having to engage with real people.

It was among real people though, that Jack McLean thrived and it was their character which informed much of his work: generous and eloquent; edgy and risky.

His death, at the age of 77, followed a period of illness during which he was confined mainly to his home in Queen's Park. He is survived by his brothers Brian and Richard.