Born: April 1, 1938;

Died: October 9, 2021.

IN May 1999 Colin Bell, the formidable broadcaster, sat down with a newspaper interviewer to promote his new book, Scotland’s Century: An Autobiography of the Nation, which had begun life as a much-praised 26-part oral history on Radio Scotland.

As it turned out, his widely-admired discussion show, Head On, had just been axed. Asked by his Scotsman interviewer whether he would now be lost to the airwaves, he snapped: “How would I know? I’ve no idea what’s going on. Though once in a while, I comfort myself with the idea that neither do those who are responsible for what’s going on! .... I think that neither I, nor my audience met the current BBC criteria for either age or IQ,” he added.

Colin Bell, who has died at the age of 83, had an agile and inquisitorial mind that marshalled an argument with remarkable speed and authority: he had the knack of exploring a subject with fearsome accuracy and developing his opinion – popular or otherwise with listeners – in a coherent and rumbustious style. He delighted in being intellectually provocative.

He was acknowledged as one of Radio Scotland’s most distinctive voices for almost two decades, and became something of a broadcasting institution in Scotland.

Writing in 1991 the Glasgow Herald’s radio critic, Joyce McMillan, observed that while Radio Scotland had some more -than-adequate presenters on its books, Bell “makes them all sound like patronising provincial dimwits, and he does it without making a single concession to London perspectives or metropolitan thinking.

“Mind you” she added, “there are times of the year when Bell’s scepticism, and his healthy dislike of sentimentality, stop him from making the obvious point”.

Throughout his career Bell maintained a high profile in Scottish politics, and was a strong believer in Scottish independence. In that Scotsman interview he declared: “I remain childishly excited by the prospect of any degree of self-government, as I remain persuaded – as I have been for a long time – that it is a slippery slope. You can’t lose your virginity a little bit”.

He had served the SNP as publicity convener, as Executive Vice-Chairman, and as European elections campaign director in 1984.

He had stood in May 1979 as the SNP candidate in Edinburgh West at the Westminster elections and, a few weeks later, contested North-East Scotland at the European Parliament elections. He finished last on both occasions, polling 3,904 in the former (losing to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and 28,886 in the latter.

By 2000, though, Bell had joined Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party. ‘’I have spent a third of a century wanting to see an independent socialist Scotland”, he remarked at the time, “and increasingly of late I thought I was less likely to see it coming from the SNP than I once had.’’

Colin Bell was born in London in 1938 into a long-standing Ross-shire family. His father, Ian, was the chief executive of Bic pens. He won a scholarship to St Paul’s School then read history at King’s College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1959 with a starred first in the history tripos. Amongst his Cambridge contemporaries were Peter Cook, Allan Massie and the playwright, Simon Gray.

He worked in Fleet Street and eventually made his way to the London office of The Scotsman. In the mid-1970s, intrigued by the growth of nationalism, he came north, working at the paper’s Edinburgh base as leader writer. A few years later he moved to the Sunday Mail to write, as he once put it, “a completely malicious and irresponsible column”.

It was during these years that Bell became actively involved in Scottish politics and independence. Although never successful at the ballot box he had an increasing influence in the SNP’s organisation and strategy. He was dismayed at the result of the 1979 devolution referendum and the 1984 Euro elections and decided to return to full-time journalism.

Ken Bruce’s departure for BBC Radio 2 in London in 1985 left a gaping hole in BBC Radio Scotland’s schedules. Taking Issue With Colin Bell (or ‘Aching Tissues’ as it was fondly called by Bell’s researchers) filled the hours and proved very popular.

Scotland’s Century, his magnificent verbal picture of Scottish life and people, comprised all aspects of 20th-century Scottish life, from the Great and the Good to the oldest resident. It was a demanding undertaking and Bell’s skills as a broadcaster and as a sympathetic listener, allied to his encyclopaedic knowledge of Scotland, ensured the programme’s huge success.

His wit and intelligence were heard to excellent effect when he partnered Joyce McMillan in Radio Four’s long-running Round Britain Quiz. The two represented Scotland for several years with much panache.

Despite his success as a radio broadcaster he never seemed at home in the television studios. He was a member of the late-night weekly TV political panel on Left, Right and Centre, with James Naughtie and Kirsty Wark, in the 1980s. He had an unhappy experience during one interview with David Steel, which Wark diplomatically covered up. Bell decided the small screen was not for him. “I light candles at night”, he once quipped, “that I should never have to go on TV again.”

He had an honorary doctorate from Aberdeen University, of which he had been rector in the early 1990s.

Bell was a vibrant character who held quaintly idiosyncratic views which he enjoyed having challenged and discussed. He is survived by his wife, Caroline Thomson (known affectionately as Rose) and their four daughters.