For a man whose career has been spent working with words – in Russian, Spanish and Italian as well as in English – it’s no surprise that terms such as ‘deracinated’ flow freely from David Leask’s lips. A university-trained linguist who worked initially as a news translator before moving into a career at the sharp end of Scottish journalism, the 52-year-old is using the word (it means to be uprooted) to describe a childhood which saw him “brought up all over the place,” as he puts it. “I’ve moved around in my life endlessly,” he says, “to such an extent that I don’t really feel at home anywhere”.

There is a starting point, of course. There always is, and his is Kirkwall in Orkney. By his own admission, he’s a sort of Northern Isles cliché. “I don’t think there is any non-Orcadian in my blood at all. I’m an Orcadian going back hundreds of years.”

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Now freelance, Leask wrote for The Herald in two spells, most recently between 2010 and 2019. His ambit covered everything from campaigns to crime, investigations to the environment, politics and social issues. Readers will know him as a Chief Reporter whose intelligence, drive and perspicacity made him one of the leading lights in Scottish journalism. But the slight outsider element provided by that Orcadian background and the peripatetic childhood have given him an added edge, he thinks.

Hailing from nowhere in particular “makes it that much harder for people to pigeonhole you and accuse you of some sort of a bias … I often describe myself as deracinated person and that’s quite useful in journalism. If you go about meeting people in Glasgow or Edinburgh, they can’t place you by class, geographical location, religion. And that’s quite a useful thing.”

It’s particularly helpful in the West of Scotland, where sectarianism remains a present ill. Moreover “it gives you a slightly different perspective on national identity as well, which becomes far more complex if you’re from a north and island background. People from those backgrounds tend to be more comfortable with multiple layers of identity, and that’s something I’ve inherited. You don’t have to worry so much about who you are in the same way that sometimes people on the mainland do.”

His knowledge of and passion for tongues other than English offers another uncommon perspective. He studied Languages at Glasgow University – his main subject was Russian – and then worked as a translator throughout the 1990s, initially overseas. That impressive skillset and the worldview it fostered are a key driver of his interests and of his approach to his work.

“We often think of languages as things that separate people whereas in reality it’s something which unites us, especially in Europe when so many of our languages are so very similar,” he says. “In Scotland and in the UK there is a deficit of language understanding, and what that usually means is a huge deficit in cross-cultural understanding, because languages are a way of connecting to other places and other people. If you don’t have that, it’s much harder to connect and to understand.”

The point of learning a language, he thinks, is to re-wire your brain in such a way as to allow you – or force you – to see something from someone else’s point of view. He goes as far as to draw a line between what he calls “the politics of nationalist populism in the United Kingdom” and the problems associated with a society trapped in what linguists call ‘The Golden Cage’, a monoculture for monoglots. “I suspect Britain’s retreat from studying languages is one of the causes of Brexit,” he adds.

HeraldScotland: Ring of BrodgarRing of Brodgar

Contentious? Maybe. But polemic and soapbox oratory aren’t Leask’s style. In his latest incarnation as a columnist on The Herald he sees himself more as an analyst, a facilitator for the views of those he characterises as being smarter than him – people such the experts we have come to rely on so heavily in the pandemic and which have become a fixture of the daily briefings and interviews.

“We have a lot of opinion [in Scotland] and opinion is great – I’m not going to knock people who have opinions,” he says. “But what we have in Scotland that’s a huge advantage is a layer of our society which is really well informed. We have a huge university sector with huge science and technology sectors. We have a lot of expertise locked up in our public bodies, in our local and national government, in our business. People who really know what they’re about. And sometimes these people can find it quite difficult to explain what it is they do to the rest of us because it’s so complicated.” Which is where he comes in.

Over his 20 years in Scottish journalism, David Leask has worked on many big stories, but among the ones he’s proudest of and which he has enjoyed writing the most are those concerning a defiantly unsexy topic: Scottish Limited Partnerships, legal investment vehicles implicated in massive, wide-scale money-laundering and fraud. By his estimation, his stories on them run into the hundreds. But that tenacity and that ability to shine a light on a complex subject goes to the heart of what makes him tick.

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“Quite often in journalism people are rewarded for telling stories people want to hear,” he says. “Sometimes I feel that telling the stories people don’t want to hear is where you want to be – to really challenge people with things they don’t want to know about, and sometimes won’t have the time or energy to engage with, but which we still have to push forward as journalists because they’re just so important.”

There isn’t much in journalism, then, that David Leask hasn’t tried his hand at over the last two decades – with the exception of that storied staple of the newspaper world, the football match report. It’s not that he doesn’t like the game – he loves it, and this despite being an Aberdeen fan – it’s just that, well, you can’t do everything, can you?

David’s favourite …

BOOK

All The President’s Men

FILM

All The President’s Men

ALBUM

Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony

TV SHOW

Brooklyn Nine-Nine