SINCE his death at the weekend, the tributes paid to Norman Mair have been many, generous and mostly (and rather appropriately) pretty lengthy.

But amidst all this, perhaps the most poignant reflection was provided by a colleague's brief observation. "When I was growing up," he said, "I wanted to be Norman Mair."

A noble ambition, but one that was never likely to be fulfilled. Norman was a one-off, bringing a combination of insight, erudition, experience and literary brilliance that was utterly unique. No matter how much you immersed yourself in his luminous writing, whether on rugby, tennis or golf, you could never hope to match it.

'In the language of the sports pages, greatness is plentiful' wrote Hugh McIlvanney, one of the very few who could stand shoulder to shoulder with Norman, in response to the death of Sir Matt Busby in 1994. 'The reality of sport, like that of every other area of life, is that it is desperately rare. Greatness does not gad about, reaching for people in handfuls. It settles deliberately on a blessed few'.

It settled on Norman when he took his first steps in sportswriting more than half a century ago, and it stayed there until he put down his pen around 45 years later. Like the legendary football and boxing writer John Rafferty, with whom he formed a formidable partnership at The Scotsman, he came to journalism after spending time as a teacher and it is fair to say that something of the dominie lingered both in his bearing and his prose. Reading him was always an education.

It has been suggested that Norman's brilliance as a rugby writer rested on his background as an international player, in which guise he won four caps for Scotland in 1951. The reasoning is understandable, but it does a disservice to all the other qualities, not least a capacity for hard work, that made him the peerless chronicler he was. Many others have made the same move from pitch to press box, but none has brought such awareness and eloquence as he had.

Nor, for that matter, such humility. Pomposity is not exactly unknown in this business, but Norman wore his expertise and understanding lightly. He knew more than all the braggards combined, but he remained a student of sport for the entirety of his professional career. His famously long conversations with coaches and players - usually conducted when most of us just wanted a snappy line to finish off our reports - were borne of nothing more than a searching curiosity.

As a result, his knowledge of rugby, was encyclopaedic. He coached Oxford University at one point, and who knows what level he would have reached had he stayed in that field. As it was, amateur regulations meant he could not write and coach, but his decision to opt for the former did not stop others tapping into his reserves. Carwyn James, Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan were just a few of the coaches who were happy to turn to Norman for his opinions and advice.

A less talented writer might have been weighed down by such a burden of knowledge. But not Norman. He was a stylist of the first order, with a beautiful turn of phrase. I still cherish his description of Greg Smith, the famously morose former Australia coach, as 'a man whose presence in the company of the four horsemen of the apocalypse - pestilence, war, famine and death - would not noticeably alleviate the mood'.

I don't actually recall the context of that line, but you can be sure of its pertinence. Norman's bon mots were not used to dazzle, but to illuminate. Stephen Jones of The Sunday Times captured that balance of style and substance perfectly when he wrote: 'Norman Mair is a delight Who else could begin his preview for a Murrayfield Test with an anecdote about Tom Weiskopf, take seven paragraphs before he even mentioned rugby, give the impression that he is merely rambling amiably and readably and yet still, at the end, leave you with a probing insight?'

Often more than one, in fact. The breadth of his understanding was as impressive as its depth. Although he played at hooker, he could write with towering authority on the particular demands of every position on the pitch. Nor did he have an obvious prejudice favouring one kind of player over another. He appreciated the artisans as much as the artists.

If I remember rightly, Norman took no particularly strong position in the debate ahead of rugby abandoning its amateur restrictions almost 20 years ago. Certainly, he was not among those of his generation who harrumphed about civilisation coming to an end on the first day a player picked up a pay packet. However, as a dual international sportsman himself - he also played cricket for Scotland - he warned against the narrowing of individual focus that would inevitably be part of a professional game. "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" asked CLR James, a line Norman quoted often.

He was, admittedly, a man of more forgiving times. When asked to write a piece to a certain length, Norman would treat his word count as a suggestion rather than an instruction. You could also say that he played fast and loose with deadlines, except that fast was rarely the word. Yet what he wrote was usually worth the extra space that had to be found - and always worth the wait.

He was certainly not cut out for an era in which sportswriters have become a kind of rapid reaction force. Goodness knows what he would have made of the current obsession with Twitter and its restriction of 140 characters. If Norman used 140 words in an opening sentence it would be one of his shorter efforts.

So no, there never will be another Norman. "He was really very special: one of a kind," said Andy Irvine the other day. This business is the poorer for his loss.