As 12 of the past 23 World Snooker Championship titles have been won by Scots, you might be forgiven for believing that the age of the Caledonian Cuemaster began when the barely post-pubescent Stephen Hendry first blinked into the arc lights at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre and dealt Jimmy White, the game's perennial bridesmaid, an 18-12 thrashing in the final of the 1990 event.

Yet while some commentators have indeed suggested Hendry was the first Scotsman to get his hands on the trophy, he was actually following in the 40-year-old footsteps of Walter Donaldson, who had won the second of his two world titles when he got the better of Fred Davis in the 97-frame final that concluded the 1950 Championship in Blackpool.

History has not been kind to Donaldson, bestowing virtual anonymity upon a man whose name should be revered as one of the pioneers of snooker as a professional sport. And yet, the Coatbridge-born son of a billiard hall owner did not seem troubled by his low profile as a player, so it might actually be fitting that he had slid off the game's radar screen long before his death, at the age of 66, in 1973.

In fact, the most common anecdote associated with Donaldson concerns the fact that his interest in snooker waned to the point where, after retiring from the professional arena and taking up farming, he turned the practice room at his Buckinghamshire home into a cow shed and broke up the slate bed of his snooker table to make a crazy-paving path.

Retiring quietly to the shadows clearly suited the outlook of a man who had never had much time for the personality cults that grew up during the sport's first great boom period, an era that lasted from 1930 to 1950. The pen picture offered by authors Luke Williams and Paul Gadsby in "Snooker's World Champions, Masters of the Baize" suggested that "Donaldson was a softly spoken man with little sense of humour and a reputation for being a somewhat graceless loser".

Neither was Donaldson's style of play ever likely to attract a devoted following. As the renowned commentator and snooker writer Clive Everton noted: "His dour approach and thrust-out, determined Scottish chin symbolised his approach to the game and, indeed, to life. He was a literal kind of man and he played a literal, point-by-point-type of game, making few concessions to the public."

If that approach prefigured the kind of game that would make Hendry such a colossus of snooker so, too, did Donaldson's precocious abilities. Blessed by family circumstances – although it is said his father opposed his decision to make the sport his career – Donaldson burst on to the scene when he won the UK under-15 billiards championship in 1922.

The Manchester Guardian described him as "the small, exquisitely self-possessed Scottish boy" and predicted that he could beat just about any senior player on the billiards table. However, billiards was on the wane and snooker was becoming the primary focus of those who sought their fortunes on the baize, so Donaldson switched to the latter, although he delayed his first appearance in the world snooker championship until 1933.

It was a shattering experience, as he lost 13-1 to Joe Davis, Fred's older brother, at the semi-final stage. Donaldson withdrew from the tournament scene – his day job was managing a snooker hall in Chesterfield – until he felt able to return to competition in 1939. This time he reached the quarter-finals, going out after a 16-15 loss to Sidney Smith.

The appeal of snooker could be measured by the fact that Joe Davis, who would win a staggering 15 consecutive world titles, spent the next few years raising £125,000 (around £7 million in current terms) for the war effort. Donaldson's involvement was more of the front-line sort, seeing action in Greece and North Africa. That background counted against him when he returned to competition in 1946 having barely touched a cue in five years, as he was knocked out in the first round of the world championship.

But the underlying ability of a player who was once dubbed "The Great Imperturbable", and who was famed for his long potting, was still there. In 1947, after Joe Davis retired, the way was open for Donaldson to claim his first world title, and he duly beat Fred Davis 82-63 in an attritional final at the Leicester Square Hall in London.

However, the achievement was tainted in the eyes of many. For a start, Joe Davis, who continued to play exhibition and challenge matches, was still considered to be the best player on earth. On top of which, Donaldson's conservative style won him few admirers. The 1947 final was played over 145 frames, with Donaldson's victory based on a tactic of making modest breaks of 30 or 40, refusing to take risks, and retreating to the safety of the baulk cushion at every opportunity.

At least Fred Davis was gracious, describing Donaldson's play as "the best snooker I have ever seen".

However, the younger Davis brother would exact his revenge over subsequent years, beating Donaldson in the 1948, 1949 and 1951 finals, although the Scot did manage to turn the tables on him in 1950.

By then, though, interest in snooker was starting to drop. Behind-the-scenes power struggles between the game's rulers also meant two competing world championships took place for a few seasons. From 1958 to 1963 there was no world event at all, as snooker's image as a game for dissolute old codgers took hold and fans drifted away.

By then, though, Donaldson had long since lost interest himself, and had effectively retired to his smallholding. He passed away just at the time the great snooker revival was taking place, a new generation of followers drawn to the game by the arrival of colour television.

"On a measured analysis," wrote Williams and Gadsby, "in achievement, if not personality, Donaldson was one of the most underrated champions, as well as a giant of the pre-Crucible era."