Alastair Borthwick

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Alastair Charles Borthwick OBE (17 February 1913 – 25 September 2003) was a Scottish author and broadcaster whose books recorded the popularisation of climbing as a working class sport in Scotland, and the Second World War from the perspective of an infantryman.

Early life

Alastair Charles Borthwick was born on 17 February 1913 at 38 Calderwood Road, Rutherglen, Lanarkshire, the son of Alexander Charles Borthwick, electrical engineer, and his wife, Jessie Scotland, née Bayne.

He was brought up in Troon, Ayrshire, and moved to Glasgow at the age of 11, where he was privately-educated at Glasgow High School and was a member of the school's Officer Training Corps.

He left school at the age of sixteen to become a copytaker on the Evening Times. Soon afterwards, and still a teenager, he moved up to the Glasgow Weekly Herald, where he worked from 1928 to 1936. The Herald was a much smaller newspaper and, as part of a meagre staff of five, he wrote or edited the women's, children's and film pages as well as letters to the editor, answers to readers' queries (often also devising the queries themselves) and his share of front-page leads, as well as compiling the crossword.[1]

It was through writing for the Herald's "Open Air" page that he discovered the pleasures of rock climbing, an activity which had traditionally been the preserve of the well-off, but was becoming increasingly popular with young, working-class Glaswegians. He recounted his experiences for the page and many appeared in his first book, Always a Little Further, which was published in 1939. The book documented this social change, which Ken Wilson described as "...as if a group of East Enders had suddenly decided to take up grouse-shooting or polo," with accounts of encounters with tramps, tinkers and hawkers, and of hitching to Ben Nevis in a lorry full of dead sheep, all described in Borthwick's humorous style. It became a classic and has never been out of print since its publication.

BBC

While interviewing at the BBC in 1934 Borthwick had casually mentioned to the producer James Fergusson that he had been climbing at the weekend. Intrigued, Fergusson commissioned a 15-minute radio talk on the subject and Borthwick revealed an innate talent for broadcasting. "I saw him in the studio treating the microphone like an old friend, chatting away, waving his arms about, and I knew this was how it was done," said Fergusson admiringly.

Borthwick was modest about his ability to sound friendly and relaxed in an era characterised by starchy formality. "It just seemed the natural way to speak," he said. "I couldn't understand why everybody didn't do it." It was the start of a long association with radio and television; his first broadcast was in 1934 and his last was in 1995.[2]

Borthwick had aspired to Fleet Street and moved to London in 1935 to join the Daily Mirror. It was, however, a short and unhappy episode in his career and he was sacked after just a year. It would prove a blessing, encouraging him to return to radio broadcasting.

Fergusson was lured by Borthwick to make what may have been the first live climbing broadcast, from Agag's Groove in Glen Coe. Further commissions followed, especially on topics associated with the outdoors, and Scotland in particular.[3]

Other interesting jobs came Borthwick's way, such as running the Press Club for the 1938 Empire Exhibition (during which he was required to perform a radio commentary from the top of the Exhibition Tower during a rainstorm while wearing a top hat and morning coat).

War service

During the Second World War Borthwick served with a variety of British Army units in North Africa, Sicily and Western Europe. Initially he served as a private in the Highland Light Infantry, but due to his OTC experience was to have been commissioned as a second lieutenant on 2 September 1939. However, for some reason this commission was cancelled and in the end he was not commissioned until 3 November 1941, by which time he was a lance-corporal.

He worked mainly as a Battalion Intelligence Officer and reached the rank of captain. He transferred to the Reconnaissance Corps on 14 January 1941, having by then being promoted to war substantive lieutenant.[6] He transferred to the 5th Seaforth Highlanders on 13 October 1944. His most significant feat came in the Netherlands towards the end of the War, when he led a battalion of 600 men behind enemy lines in the dark, relying on his sense of direction as the maps were inaccurate. The Germans woke up the next morning to find the British dug in behind them.

Second book

After the War, Borthwick wrote his second book, Sans Peur (republished as Battalion in 1994), which was a history of his regiment during the second half of the war. Unlike many regimental histories written by committees or retired generals, it was written from the perspective of a junior officer who fought on the front line, and was highly acclaimed. It was republished as Battalion in 1994.

TV and radio career

For seven years after the war Borthwick combined smallholding on Jura with broadcasting. On air he was as prolific as he was catholic in subject matter. He presented such long-running radio series as Scottish Survey, an assessment of post-war Scotland that ran for three years, and Matter of Opinion.

In 1947, Borthwick was one of the original members of the BBC Scottish Advisory Council.

He was appointed an OBE in the 1952 New Year Honours for his part in organizing an engineering exhibition as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

In 1952 the family moved to Islay, and finally came ashore in South Ayrshire in 1960, where he and his wife lived for the rest of their lives.

Borthwick wrote a weekly column for some years in the News Chronicle.

When television came, Borthwick's broadcasting career appeared to have stalled. "I was a script man in an age of live TV," he explained. But with the invention of the autocue, and the increasing necessity to script complicated documentary features, Borthwick found himself in demand once more.

Grampian Television employed his services from the 1960s, and he scripted and presented some 150 half-hour programmes on an amazingly eclectic range of subjects, from Bonnie Prince Charlie to Lola Montez and Senator Joe McCarthy. His favourite was a 13-part series, Scottish Soldier, which told the story of the Scottish infantry regiments from the point of view of the infantryman himself.

Death

In retirement Borthwick and his wife lived on a hill farm near Barr, Ayrshire, before moving to a nursing home, Spiers Care Home, Beith. Suffering from cancer of the prostate and oesophagus, he died there of bronchopneumonia on 25 September 2003. His funeral was held at Beith crematorium. He was survived by his son, Patrick, his wife, Ann, having died earlier in the year.

References

  1. 'Alastair Borthwick', Guardian, 9 October 2003.
  2. 'Obituary: Alastair Borthwick', The Independent, 6 October 2003, 18.
  3. Chris Hall, 'Borthwick, Alastair Charles (1913–2003)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, January 2007.