There was widespread shock and sadness in Scotland at the revelation, in a typically graceful piece by Kenneth Roy for the Scottish Review, the online journal he founded and edited, that he had a terminal illness. His death, more shockingly, followed only a month later, but not before he had revealed, in another article for the Scottish Review, that he had started to write a book about his illness and the reflections on life and mortality that were now occupying him. Characteristically he hoped that what he was writing ‘might be helpful to others’.
Much of his later career as a journalist, editor and publisher was devoted to that same selfless objective. Beginning as a news reporter for Greenock and Glasgow papers, in the 1970s he became widely known throughout Scotland as the co-presenter, with Mary Marquis, of BBC’s Reporting Scotland. After he left the BBC he went back to newspaper journalism, with jobs at Scotland on Sunday, the Observer, the Herald and the Scotsman. In 1995 he founded the Scottish Review, ‘an independent quarterly of topical essays, biography, contemporary history and travel’. When this moved online it acquired a high reputation for its investigative journalism, probing the underbelly of Scottish public life, and for its trenchant analysis of political and cultural issues.
Somehow, in 2000, he found the time to set up the Institute for Contemporary Scotland, with the aim of providing a non-political social and cultural counterpoint to the new Scottish Parliament. Later he created the Young Scotland Programme, an annual series of courses ‘for the intellectual development of people in the early stages of their careers’. He was immensely proud of the fact that by 2018 more than 3000 young people had participated in this.
Remarkably, his distinction as an author matches his other achievements. Many staff at the publishers, Birlinn, had been admirers of Kenneth Roy’s writing over his long career, and when the opportunity came up in 2014 to publish a new edition of his magisterial The Invisible Spirit: A Life of Post-War Scotland 1945-75 (described by Ian Hamilton as ‘the most remarkable book on Scotland I have ever read’ and by Catherine Czerkawska as ‘a masterpiece’), they were delighted to take it on. Birlinn then in 2016 published the first edition of the follow-up volume, The Broken Journey: A Life of Scotland 1976-99. Both books anatomise, with penetrating insight, deep compassion and caustic wit the country that Scotland was, and in doing so cast light on the state of the nation in the present day.
The death of a man who contributed so much to Scotland’s intellectual and cultural life and who had still so much to give is a tragic loss. Kenneth Roy cared passionately about Scotland and its future, and worked tirelessly to improve the standard of public discourse and the life chances of some of its most vulnerable people. Those who were involved with him in his various enterprises are proud to have been associated with his work. The organisations he founded like the Scottish Review will live on, as will his books, to instruct and inspire present and future generations.