Writer and former vice-president of the SNP

Born: November 7, 1920;

Died: March 15, 2019

PAUL Henderson Scott, who has died aged 98, was one of the most vital cultural figures in the Scotland of his era.

Born in the Morningside district of Edinburgh in 1920, as a young child his family moved to Portobello where his father managed a garage. Scott later wrote: " had a very untroubled and uneventful childhood, surrounded by supportive and approving adults. I was free to follow my own inclinations, but whenever I needed their help they gave it to me without hesitation."

Scott’s childhood reading, including Scott, Galt, Stevenson and the Border Ballads, laid the foundation for his lifelong commitment to Scottish literature. In the library of the Royal High School, Edinburgh, he came across Hugh MacDiarmid’s At the Sign of the Thistle (1934), a collection of essays which contributed to his evolving ideas about Scottish history and identity.

Scott later noted: ‘The Scotland which I grew up in was in many ways more Scottish in reality than the Scotland of today, although we are now more aware of it. In the 1920s and 30s not only a pronounced Scottish accent, but a large measure of Scots vocabulary, were commonplace, even in Edinburgh."

Joint dux in English at the Royal High, Scott recollected that, unlike most schools in Scotland at that time, it had provided him with an excellent introduction to Scottish literature.

Enrolling in Edinburgh University in October 1939, Scott joined Edinburgh University Officer Training Corps, taking time off from his English studies in April 1940 to canvass for the Scottish National Party in Argyll, where the journalist, editor and cultural critic William Power was the candidate. Joining the Royal Artillery in July 1941, he trained to drive heavy gun tractors then transferred to the Officer Cadet Training Unit of the Artists’ Rifles at Morecambe, billeted in the chalets of Butlins holiday camp. When his boots once stuck to the ice on the floor, he levered them free with his bayonet.

Becoming an officer in a regiment of light anti-aircraft artillery equipped with Bofors guns, Scott was posted to Belgium in October 1944. After the Germans in Walcheren surrendered in early November, Scott was involved in operations to drive the enemy back from their bridgeheads to the west of the Rhine in preparation for the Allied advance.

In January 1945 he was posted to the ‘Desert Rats’, the veterans of North Africa. In early August that year, Captain Paul Scott was driven through the rubble of Berlin, a city in which he was to spend four years as a military administrator, working on the sensitive political issue of the eventual restoration of power to the Germans, following democratic elections, although, as he recalled, ‘the Soviets meant to do everything they could to exercise control’. He was in the 52nd (Lowland) and 7th Armoured Divisions, finally as a Major R.A.

In November 1949 he was transferred to Bonn, joining the office which was effectively the British Embassy to the new Federal Republic of Germany, as a member of the Quadripartite Committee (British, American, Soviet and French) concerned with the political affairs of Berlin. He then entered the senior branch of the Diplomatic Service through competitive examination and served in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in Poland, Bolivia, Cuba, Canada, Austria, and Italy.

Allocated to the South-East Asia Department, he became closely familiar with ‘a very disturbed part of the world. India, Pakistan and Burma had recently achieved independence from British rule and there were still many questions arising from the handover of power.’

He later wrote that he had become quite close to Fidel Castro, acting diplomatically between Cuba, the USA (which had no Cuban Embassy at that time) and the UK, and apparently reported at the crucial moment in the missile crisis that the Russians were turning back and the Americans could stand down, thus averting nuclear catastrophe.

In May 1953 Scott married Celia Sharpe, whom he had met in Berlin, where she was working in the Education Branch of Military Government. They had two children, Alastair and Catharine. Scott served in the Diplomatic Service of the Foreign Office in Warsaw, La Paz, Havana, Montreal, Vienna and Milan.

He started a Scottish Country Dancing class in Bolivia, and, as he candidly notes in his autobiography, found time for other recreations. "In St Moritz, where I went without Celia, I had a number of these brief holiday affairs, once with a passionate French woman and once with an air-hostess, Johanne." Inevitably, he and Celia divorced.

Having retired from the diplomatic service, Paul Scott arrived home in Edinburgh in November 1980 with Laura Fiorentini, his delightful partner and inspiration for the rest of his life. He brought back to his native country diplomatic skills and a formidable knowledge of its history and literature at a time when Scotland, as he wrote later, was in a ‘deplorable state’ with ‘blatant evidence of decline and decay’.

In 1935 Edwin Muir concluded that Scotland was a country ‘becoming lost to history’ but for Scott, the prophets of doom were too pessimistic. In the 1920s Hugh MacDiarmid was already writing his early poems in Scots and beginning his explosive campaign to revive and transform Scotland. In the long aftermath of the Second World War, Scott reconnected with that ‘sudden burst of reviving energy’ and carried it forward.

Throughout his years abroad, Scott had returned to Scotland regularly, for the Edinburgh Festival and Saltire Society fringe activities. He attended all three of the major productions of Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits (1948, 1973 and 1985) and argued that this great play should be revived at least every few years, and even more strongly, for the establishment of a National Theatre of Scotland.

He was also deeply committed to the development of a joint body to make recommendations about artistic and cultural policy that came to be The Advisory Council for the Arts in Scotland (AdCAS), involving 72 organisations including the National Galleries, Scottish Opera, the Scottish Arts Council, theatre companies and many voluntary groups.

Scott was deeply engaged in bringing about a wide range of initiatives, including affordable reprints of classic works of Scottish literature, annual book awards, the nomination of Edinburgh as the first World City of Literature, and a repudiation of the proposal by the then director of the National Galleries, Sir Timothy Clifford, that the National Portrait Gallery should be closed.

He also hoped and planned for an extensive Museum of Scottish Literature. That has not yet happened. Nor has his desire been fulfilled to redress what Sir Geoffrey Barrow called the greatest cultural disaster which Scotland suffered in the 20th century: the failure of Scotland to establish its own broadcasting service. That too remains to be achieved.

Paul Scott was tireless and fearless in his activities on many fronts: president and convener of the Saltire Society; vice-president of the SNP and its spokesman on culture and international affairs; the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, the Scottish Centre for International PEN and the Scottish Poetry Library. He was also Rector of Dundee University, 1989-91.

Somehow he also found time to write books, including Walter Scott and Scotland (1981), John Galt (1985), Scotland in Europe: Dialogue with a Sceptical Friend (1992), Defoe in Edinburgh and Other Papers (1995); he edited Andrew Fletcher’s United and Separate Parliaments (1982), Scotland: A Concise Cultural History (1993) and Spirits of the Age: Scottish Self-Portraits (2005) . His autobiography, A Twentieth Century Life (2002) is required reading for anyone at all interested in modern Scotland.

Over years, he generously hosted many convivial lunches with friends at Edinburgh’s New Club on Princes Street (where gentlemen are required to wear a tie), rubbing shoulders with the wealthy and influential Unionist top brass, conversing without fear or favour, leading the discussion by reason, optimistic curiosity and a healthy appetite for ideas and good conversation, and always asking what should be done next for the benefit of Scotland.

Harry Reid, former editor of The Herald, made the perceptive comment that Paul Scott was unusual in combining the radical and the patrician. It was always a pleasure to meet this deeply courteous intellectual who believed that every Scot should learn Gaelic. His contribution to our national life was immense. He was a fine strategist dedicated to a great vision of a nation reborn with its people in full possession of their cultural history and multifaceted identity. We honour him by recognition, but more than that, by action.