Respected journalist who worked tirelessly to put wrongs right

Born: December 21, 1945;

Died: July 15, 2019

AN old-school journalist with plenty to say, Terry Houston, who has died aged 73, ruffled a few feathers and entertained his readers over the years he served with big-circulation newspapers when exclusives kept each title one step ahead of its rival.

These were the days when a billboard in the street was an important marketing tool. News editors were smarter that the PR execs and a spin doctor was someone consulted by a bowler who needed to raise his game on the cricket field. Press releases were not simply re-hashed as news; they were picked apart and questioned.

Terry learned to latch on to the scent of a strong headline, developing the skill from a full grounding in the news gathering game.

Starting out as a cub reporter in the early ‘60s at the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald he worked his way up on the hard graft route that brought him into contact with everyone from the hard nosed ruffian to politicians and the rich and the famous, with stints at The Scottish Daily Express and The Daily Record, before being head-hunted at The Evening Times to serve under the editorship of George McKechnie.

The title at that time had four editions per day; there was no let-up. He was up with the larks at 6am and rarely left the office before turning in a full 12 hours.

Under his guidance, campaigns were fought, wrongs put right; exposés built the newspaper’s reputation, and those working at the coalface to dig out evil, injustice and corruption regularly won awards. He became the paper’s leader writer and before taking a redundancy package in the ‘80s, held the position of assistant editor.

A terrier-like grit that was counter-balanced by fairness and integrity - and backed up fully by real talent - put him in a position to earn the respect of many. He found it hard to take no for an answer and encouraged those around him to remain determined and always seek out the truth. He understood the need for a good exclusive, and reporters with the right attitude and natural ability rose to the challenge.

Earlier in his career while battling to make his mark, he once famously gained an audience with the Scottish novelist, Alastair MacLean (Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone). MacLean preferred to remain out of the limelight and many a writer before had been knocked back whenever they approached him for an interview. Terry did his homework, discovered that MacLean had a soft spot for kippers, took a box to his home in Cannes, and door-stepped his quarry. It worked and they hit it off, Houston ending up spending some quality time with the writer - both men, it transpired, had Church of Scotland ministers as fathers - and his new-found friend then flew to Glasgow, in 1978 to spend the night with the family at their home in leafy Netherlee. Son Stephen (also a journalist) recalls how, as a schoolboy, MacLean rewarded him for giving up his bed for the night by shoving a crisp £10 note into his palm at the breakfast table.

It is arguable that Terry made his biggest impact as a newspaper man while at The Evening Times. He did not shy away from controversy and occasionally courted it via a regular column where political correctness was the last thought on his mind. He and his editor knew that, as a fun-poking commentator on life, this fearless wordsmith could stimulate the occasional barney and that would generate a healthy flow of reader opinion for the letters page. A great warrior in the fight for Scotland’s independence and supporter of the SNP, when he sharpened his political pen, it could also press all the opposition buttons that were targeted too. He stimulated many a good debate.

The bonds that grew from that closeness he had with the editorial worker bees around him remained intact for years after he retired from the daily grind of newspapers. Two decades after he wrote his last column, those who had respected his lead and continued to look up to him, all kept in touch and would enjoy the odd social get-together with the man who had been such an impressive mentor.

He took the job seriously but there was the occasional comic touch, followed by loud guffaws and those who got a glimpse of his wicked sense of humour, particularly when delivered with a wink, witnessed something that warmed the heart.

One day, however, a pack of cheeky young newshounds who worked under him, poked some fun at their taskmaster by sponsoring a snake at Calderpark Zoo and having it named Terry!

When he finally vacated his seat there, he set up his own news agency, Haven Media Services, and bought the busy Barr’s Dairy shop in Netherlee, but soon began to focus more on life as an author.

Keen to have a “bread and butter” income, he created a successful "Wine and Brew" column which was syndicated across hundreds of UK titles and in the years that followed, he wrote a number of books including The Gift which he co-produced with Gordon Beattie, in 1998; the political thriller The Wounded Stone (in which, controversially The Queen was assassinated) and several others such as Great Scots in Business and Sweet Molly Maguire.

Born in Ballymena, Co Antrim on December 21, 1945, his father, Joe, was a minister and mum Roberta enjoyed her role as wife of the manse. An older brother Dale and younger brother Barry, both survive him.

The family moved to Orkney when he was young. The manse there had an extensive library and Terry spent many contented hours trawling through the contents. Their stay was to be short-lived, however, and soon they were re-settled in the heart of the North Ayrshire steelwork community, when dad became minister of Glengarnock Parish Church.

Following a secondary education in Dalry in which he played in the school rugby team, he completed national service in the Royal Navy - and was extra careful to avoid being the subject of a ‘man overboard’ scenario as he couldn’t swim.

In the second half of his life and long before devolution, he had the ear of many senior Scot Nat politicians and in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, worked tirelessly behind the scenes as a respected go-to advisor.

In the run up to the first Scottish Parliament elections, he edited a party-funded daily newspaper, produced in secret from a basement in Pollokshields. Long days and nights were spent getting the right message across to the electorate. He was in his element.

He had been married to Maureen Boyne, who also came from a newspaper family and they had three children Stephen, Michelle, a careers specialist, and Gavin, a journalist turned communications executive. The couple divorced in the late ‘80s.

Terry subsequently met and spent 20 happy years with his girlfriend Margaret, and was devastated when she died, taken by cancer.

In mid-life, he enjoyed squash and tennis and despite doing all he could to better himself, remained the kind golfer that stand-ups make jokes about.

A reader of books, thousands of them, latterly he became a ken-speckle figure in Barshaw Park, Paisley, with his four-legged friends Bonnie and Ruby, and made many new acquaintances from the dog-walking community. One of them has begun fund-raising to purchase a park bench in his memory.

In his eulogy at the funeral service in Paisley’s Woodside Crematorium, the SNP’s Mike Russell said Houston had been “a valuable, loyal and influential friend.”

He was someone “who simply had to live more intensely than most others, and who always engaged with the world with a fierce passion.”

A master of his craft, he was “a truly unique human being” who not only wanted the best for his family, but for all around him.

When my mother died (the date coincided with the Scottish Parliament election in 1999 and we had both been, with others equally committed, working two-shift days producing the daily pro-SNP Scotland’s Voice newspaper), he took the time to write me a letter of condolence.

“Grieve for her and celebrate her life – a life well-lived. When a second parent moves into the Universal Consciousness, we who are left behind feel like orphans – no matter our age,” he said.

There are many who will feel his passing has left a big void in their lives. The Universal Consciousness got the big scoop when Terry Houston passed over.

Loudon Temple