My Big Break: Douglas Skelton, editor, Cumnock Chronicle

DOUGLAS Skelton is standing down as editor of Ayrshire weekly, the Cumnock Chronicle, on Hogmanay

He has been with the paper for 17 years and is one of the title’s longest-standing editors since it began in 1901.

He has, in his words, been “kicking around the industry” for around 35 years, starting off by selling advertising space for the old West End News in Glasgow. He has also been, at various times, a bank clerk, civil servant, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for three hours), shelf stacker and precognition agent.

However, he will be leaving the paper to follow none of these noble pursuits. Rather, he will be concentrating on writing. The author of 11 books on true crime and criminal history and now two thrillers – the latest, ‘Crow Bait’, has recently been published by Luath Press – he says he feels the time is right to take chance.

When did working in the media become an ambition?

I’m not sure it ever was. I’ve been scribbling since I was a boy and helped form a magazine at secondary school – Claremont High in East Kilbride. I knocked around various jobs, being unhappy and/or useless in them all, until I wandered into the West End News.

What was your first ‘media job’?

Selling advertising for the West End News and West End Times, as it became. After that, it transformed into the Glasgow Guardian, a free newspaper. I was never very good at the selling, although that didn’t prevent me from becoming ad manager!

To this day I don’t know how that happened. Still, it introduced me to the wacky world of local newspapers.

The News and Times were very much hand-to-mouth operations. If we had a shoestring, it was broken and tied together. But, looking back, it was fun. I wasn’t paid very much and occasionally there were periods of Hitchcock-like suspense over whether we’d actually be paid that week. But we always were.

I remember at one point I was earning £45 per week. We used to tell a friend, who was impressed by money, that I made ‘Four-five’, suggesting £4,500 per annum which was a tidy sum back then.

Describe briefly how your career has unfolded between your first media job and where you are now.

It was while working under the West End Times masthead that I made the switch from selling to writing. The editor, Danny Brown, accepted me being foisted on him with good grace. I’m sure he’d’ve much preferred someone who had been trained in the delicate art of journalism.

That said, I seemed to have a predilection for two things – movies and crime. I became the film reviewer and the crime reporter. The former involved attending as many Press screenings as I could at the old Odeon, ABC and Grosvenor cinemas – it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. The latter saw me trailing round Cranstonhill, Partick and Maryhill police stations, looking for stories.

In tandem with this, I began to sell some freelance features to the Evening Times for their Big Read on a Saturday. The first one was a retrospective in Bible John, who had been largely forgotten about ’til then. There were others on past Glasgow crimes.

I never had any ambition to become a ‘real’ reporter with the nationals. I’ve not got a hard-enough ‘nose’ for that – as a disastrous two days at The Scottish Sun proved.

I continued doing pieces for the Evening Times when I turned freelance. Danny Brown had moved onto the sports desk at the Daily Record and the new editor and I just did not get on. I was working on a series of talk shows with the late John Smith for STV, so thought I’d take a chance. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to any further TV work but I did write my first book, ‘Blood on the Thistle’.

More books followed, more freelance work. I also began to do some investigation work for a couple of Glasgow solicitors. I did this for a number of years – made a decent living, too – before I was drawn back into the industry, full-time, with the job in Cumnock. The rationale was that it would free up my time for writing – the investigation stuff was very time intensive. It didn’t work out that way because the paper grew.

Any particular big breaks along the way?

Obviously, making the move from selling to writing. Without that, I wouldn’t have become crime reporter and that would not have led to the Evening Times features and on to writing the books; so I would never have become involved in, for instance, the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars case, which became my second book, co-written with Lisa Brownlie (now Lisa Morton).

That case stayed with me for ten years, until Thomas Campbell and Joseph Steele were freed on appeal.

It also got me noticed by other media outlets for press and TV work. More recently, getting the publishing deal with Luath Press for the four Davie McCall thrillers is a real break as I’ve always wanted to write fiction.

Who would you like to thank more than most?

Naturally, family and friends. Danny Brown, who was my first editor and a mate. I really regret losing touch with him and not seeing him before he died. I also owe a great deal to Russell Kyle, who was features editor at the Evening Times when I was churning out the crime material.

Bill Campbell of Mainstream Publishing, who gave me my first book deal. He was a tremendous guiding force and I owe him a lot.

Glasgow solicitor, John Carroll, is also due huge thanks, for his insights into crime and the law have influenced my writing ever since.

Also journalist, Stephen Wilkie, for always keeping me right – what he doesn’t know about crime isn’t worth knowing.

Elizabeth McLaughlin, now senior lecturer at University of West of Scotland, drew me down to Ayrshire and convinced me I could actually do the job. Or at least, make it look as if I could.

Louise Hutcheson and Laura Jones – when they worked at Luath Press – for spotting the potential of ‘Blood City’  and Gavin MacDougall for greenlighting the series.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?

I wish I’d had the opportunity when starting out to get some formal training. A firm understanding of Scots law, media law, local government and, vitally, shorthand, would have made my journey much easier. But when I started with the Glasgow West End titles there just wasn’t the money or the staff to allow me to go off for block release.

I’d never have passed exams, right enough, as I’m useless in an exam situation.