It has been the most bittersweet past week or two for me as a seasoned observer of media matters – prompted by two significant publishing events, completely unrelated yet separated by only 15 miles, and, most curiously, both set in my own patch of homeland in north-west Sutherland. The bitter part came first when, completely out of the blue, I received an epistle informing me of the immediate demise of a most idiosyncratic, informative and endearing monthly magazine – Am Bratach – printed and published continuously these past 28 years in the former schoolhouse in Strathnaver, North Sutherland. It was a body blow right in the solar plexus as I always regarded Am Bratach as immortal.
The sweet part came a few days later when I received a copy of a new and extremely appealing visual arts magazine – Art North – published in the village of Tongue in North Sutherland. The new magazine is a glossy 52-page full-colour magazine. Editor Ian McKay is overjoyed that, from an initial print run of 3,000, only 100 copies remain unsold despite a £6.50 cover price. It took me a few days to come to terms with such a sudden and dramatic turn of events, in an area where the publishing scene predominantly revolves around the Press and Journal daily newspaper and the Northern Times weekly (printed in Golspie).
Although I had departed my homeland for good, as it transpired, more than 50 years ago, firstly to study journalism in the University of Westminster in London, and then to settle in Aberdeen where I have worked as a journalist since the late 1960s, I kept an ever-watchful eye on what was happening in Sutherland, and part of my newsfeed came from Am Bratach.
Ian McKay, although born in England, can trace his family roots back to the infamous Clearances in Sutherland when his forebearers were forced to move south of the border. His partner Boo Dyer is the magazine's publishing director. Art North is printed by Out of Hand Scotland Ltd in Edinburgh – the company which handles a considerable part of the Edinburgh Festival's print requirements.
Meantime, back to Am Bratach, which was published by the North West Sutherland Council for Community Action (NWSCCA). Former editor, administrator and trustee, Donald MacLeod, explains why it had to fold:
The board of NWSCCA have reluctantly decided to close down the magazine following the May edition. This is due to the fact that our esteemed editor (Anne Macdonald, based in Skye) is leaving the post in May. Taking into account the long-term prospects of the publication, the board do not consider it feasible to provide the stand-in cover and extended support required to keep the magazine going in the short-term and to recruit another editor.
A footnote explained that the value of the remainder of subscriptions would be repaid, and read: 'As we are dependent on volunteers to do this, please be patient'. There was no cause for impatience – my cheque for £18 was in the post within days. I wonder if I should cash it, as I feel it is somewhat akin to a mild form of blood money! The demise of Am Bratach, which was essentially a cottage industry, is especially sad for Donald MacLeod and his wife Morag who have been stalwarts of the magazine's operation since it was first published in November 1991 – both combining part-time roles on Am Bratach while also earning a part-living from crofting.
One subscriber to Am Bratach was journalist Kirsty Gunn who praised the range and quality of writing in a column in the Scotsman last year. Kirsty said: 'It's a full afternoon of engaged reading and, in its way, as absorbing as the New Yorker or Scottish Review of Books or other journals I take'.
Rather a nice epitaph for a journal which has played a not insignificant part in the history of publishing in Sutherland.
Congratulations to the fledgling Herald on Sunday newspaper on winning the top award in the Newspaper of the Year (under 15,000 circulation) category in the UK Regional Press Awards – announced at a ceremony in London at which Scottish journalists also won five top awards.
The Herald on Sunday took the top award barely nine months after its launch. The judges commented: 'The winner was a paper that emerged in the summer of 2018, creating a new, fresh and modern approach that packed a punch but didn't follow the crowd. Excellent journalism with fresh and powerful designs'.
The newspaper marked its success with a two-page spread in its 19 May edition under the main heading: 'We're Newspaper of the Year... and we couldn't have done it without you'. Donald Martin, editor-in-chief of Newsquest Scotland, the publisher of the Herald on Sunday and the Herald said: 'This is a superb and fitting tribute to the outstanding journalism of all those involved. It is fantastic to have such a great product, which is already a major player in the Scottish media despite its youth'.
In its story, the Herald on Sunday said: 'As with our sister paper the Herald, we will report without bias or prejudice, but with fairness and in good faith. We will be completely apolitical, scrutinising all sides of the debate with equal rigour. And we guarantee we will try to do it with fun, and with a real passion for Scotland'.
One would have thought this 'real passion for Scotland' would have extended to mentioning four Scottish journalists who won top awards and those who were highly commended. The DC Thomson stable, which resolutely spurned the opportunity to enter its journalists for newspaper awards for many years, came in from the cold only relatively recently. This time round, DCT journalists picked up two top awards and a clutch of highly commended entries. The Herald on Sunday chose only to mention the Herald's news reporter Martin Williams, who won the Data Journalist of the Year top prize. So, for the record, here is a full list of the Scottish successes:
Specialist writer/Impact Journalist of the Year:
Winner: Marion Scott, Sunday Post
Business and Finance Journalist of the Year:
Highly commended: Graham Huband, the Courier
Columnist of the Year: Daily Paper:
Highly commended: Catriona Stewart, the Herald
Columnist of the Year: Weekly Papers:
Highly commended: Mandy Rhodes, Sunday Post
Data Journalist of the Year
Winner: Martin Williams, the Herald
Daily/Sunday Reporter of the Year:
Winner: Martyn McLaughlin, the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday
Designer of the Year: Newspaper:
Highly commended: Gus Proctor, the Courier
Designer of the Year: Magazine:
Winner: Gus Proctor, the Courier