Tribute to NUJ member Alastair Robertson 1948-2024

  • 29 Jun 2024

Tim Dawson recalls the joie de vivre and talent of his colleague on the Sunday Times in Scotland, and his role in the long and bitter Aberdeen Journals dispute .

The front door of Drumblade House swung open. Well before lunch one summer in the mid-90s, Alastair Roberston dressed in a frayed dressing gown, greeted me with open arms. In one hand sloshed a pint pot of beer. “Don’t worry, old man”, he boomed. “First of the day!”

Stepping inside his imposing, if careworn, former manse, in rural Aberdeenshire, I entered a world about which he wrote with engaging panache – but was as unfamiliar to me as a Papua New Guinean straw hut. Fishing rods and shotguns propped against the walls. Heaps of wax jackets lay beside piles of Hunter wellies. The smell of fresh soup wafted from a battered Aga. His ale celebrated discovery of some forgotten mole pelts in his freezer from which he planned to fashion a waistcoat, he explained.

We had bonded as relative outsiders among the Sunday Times’ complement of journalists in Scotland. I struggled, though, to identify what drew us together.  His invitation to ‘swing by if you are ever passing’ was a welcome break on a long drive. 

Only the appearance of a bowler-hatted valet could have made my encounter feel more like a PG Woodhouse immersive experience.

He offered coffee and I attended to the real reason for my call. The walls of his ‘cloakroom’ were lined with trophies – newspaper cuttings, postcards from his children’s boarding schools, Huntly Produce Show rosettes. The centrepiece, however, was a framed letter on the headed notepaper of the Aberdeen Journals newspaper group. Dated in 1989, it was a termination of employment notice. I realised at once that my host was one of the extraordinarily brave, determined, and talented journalists who went on strike for over a year to defend NUJ recognition at the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Our kinship came into clear focus.

The Aberdeen Journals dispute is the longest and most bitter newspaper dispute in NUJ history. At its conclusion, over 100 strikers lost their jobs. Supporting them nearly bankrupted the union. To many it marked a terrible reverse. Robertson told me that for all the personal cost, he thought that the strike had held back the wave of derecognition that swept through regional newspapers during those years. That most were reversed after the Labour government introduced a legal right to trades union recognition was partially possible because of the resistance whose emblematic centrepiece was the Aberdeen strike.

Other strike veterans subsequently told me that Robertson’s endless stock of stories, japes and songs made him a picket-line favourite. His steadfast attendance contributed much to making the ordeal bearable, they said.

Robbo and I worked together regularly for a decade during my tenure as an editor at The Sunday Times. There is no one whose calls and copy I have more looked forward to. Whether supplying hard news or lifestyle froth, his words sparkled from beginning to end, illuminating any subject. Garrulous and exuding joie de vivre, he appeared to wear responsibilities light. His output, however, was to exacting and utterly dependable professional standards. Whether it was the product of private sweat or prodigious gifts, I never learned.

Robertson was educated at Eton College – something his accent telegraphed over several hundred metres. He started work at the Aberdeen Evening Express in his twenties as a somewhat improbable stop gap. Quickly, however, he found his metier. He sniffed out stories effortlessly, and could strike up easy conversation with everyone from deck hands to dukes. His approach to reporting was, he said: “to come up with a great story and lure the truth towards it”. But really it was an extension of how he lived, up to his elbows in people, yarns, scandal, and gossip.

Had the strike not intervened, he might have seen out his career there. Afterwards he was a busy freelance for many papers, as well a raft of publishing, communications and campaigning initiatives.

He was enriched throughout by his wife Kate, until her death eight years ago. They enjoyed what appeared to be an extraordinarily devoted, loving, mutually sustaining relationship  Two sons and a daughter survive them.

He treasured his richly deserved NUJ life membership.

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