Scottish radio’s voice of sport, with his roots in Skye

Alastair Alexander – PHOTO: ALEXANDER FAMILY


To anyone growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the accolade ‘Voice of Football’ was attached to one or two key individuals in an age still largely dominated by the wireless.

Alastair Alexander of BBC Scotland was one of the names and iconic voices which dominated the Scottish airwaves for a significant generation. What is not as well-known about Alastair though, is that he had strong family connections with Skye, which he never forgot.

Alastair MacPherson Alexander, to give him his full name, was born on 15th November 1937, in Parklea, Port Glasgow. He died on Sunday 7th March, aged 83.

Alastair was intensely proud of his home area of the Port and wider Inverclyde but was also acutely aware of his roots in Skye. He is one of a long list of people in that area who could trace his lineage to the island and the remarkable tale of serendipity and genealogy which eventually saw him commentate on Skye Camanachd’s greatest day in 1990 bears further examination.

Alastair’s maternal grandmother Jessie MacPherson was born in Skye in 1877. His mother, Marion Smith, was born in Skye and lived at Tarskavaig in Sleat where her father was a shepherd. Following a well-trodden path, they moved to Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire for work.

And it was farming and work on the land which brought Alastair’s parents together. Walter Alexander’s family had Bogston Farm in Greenock and eventually Marion and Walter met and married. Walter was to live with sight and hearing loss and they were, understandably, huge influences –clearly demonstrated in Alastair’s subsequent voluntary work with the Rex Blind Parties, while he developed a remarkable affection for shinty through his connection with Skye.

Incidentally, Marion’s father moved to Renton, won the football pools, bought the show house in Dumbuck Crescent, Dumbarton and called it Tarskavaig. It was there that Alastair’s grandmother Jessie died in 1945 when he was seven years old. Her sister Annie MacPherson (1866-1954), whom Alastair Alexander visited in Skye, was known locally as ‘Annag Alasdair’ denoting her father’s identity, and was single all her life. She lived at No.16 Tarskavaig, and is well remembered by people in the area today.

Alastair met his family circumstances head on with a resilience and fortitude, marking him out as a thoroughly decent human individual, as well as a consummate professional in more than one area of life.

He went to the Glasgow School of Art to train as an architect and pursued a career in the building industry, while maintaining his other interests – moving seamlessly in all his different spheres of activity.

Forty years of Alastair’s life were spent commentating on more than 1,000 football matches and describing bowls, hockey at the Kelvin Hall, and athletics for BBC Scotland, as well as the shinty. He first started commentating for people with vision loss at Love Street, Paisley in 1959.

Six years later he asked the BBC for an audition and was on television the following week.

It was a great privilege to share commentary duties with the great man in my own early days as a commentator, beginning in 1984 in Oban on a blisteringly hot day. I learned a great deal from him over the next few years and he was fantastic to work with.

Calum Murchison Cup Final : DMK

Technology, or more accurately a digger, failed us together one famous day in 1992 when Fort William scored a goal in less than ten seconds and went on to win the Camanachd Cup 1-0. Few in Fort William were aware of the outcome until much later in the day —there were no mobile phones — as a digger had uprooted the cable which connected Old Anniesland to the BBC studios at Queen Margaret Drive. Alastair and I blethered away for the whole match not knowing that only a few minutes had been broadcast and Tiger Tim had filled the rest of the afternoon with records.

One of Alastair’s cousins, Ann McCarron, recalled: “My brother and Alastair spent a lot of their youth together on the Skye holidays and at Gran and Grandpa Smith’s in Dumbuck Crescent. Apparently my brother Alistair had a Subbuteo football game and when they played he [Alastair] used to do the commentating, so he must have had the commentating in his blood!”

Such was the family’s affection for Skye that Ann’s brother Alistair’s ashes were scattered on Skye following his death a few years ago.

Tributes have been fulsome and sincere. The plaudits and anecdotes could fill Hampden. Alastair was a “gentleman and a true professional” according to Ken MacQuarrie who made the formal presentation to him on behalf of the BBC in 2005.

It was singularly appropriate that he commentated on Skye’s greatest triumph in 1990. In that famous final Alastair described Skye’s Calum Murchison on the radio as “leaping around like a salmon”. That of course meant an awful lot more to anyone knowing the shape and size of Calum and also his family’s (alleged) relationship with the local salmon fishing river in Bernisdale.

Alastair never forgot that day or the fact that he was accompanied by a fellow Skyeman John Willie Campbell.
Alastair was a great man and is a huge loss to our collective knowledge of our history, sport and broadcasting. Meticulous in his presentation and fastidious when it came to detail, he was a total professional. The BBC bid him farewell with the traditional microphone presentation in October 2005 when he retired.

We shall not see his like again and we know that Alastair will of course be most sorely missed by his daughters Shirley, Susan and Joyce, her husband Mark, granddaughter Alex and grandson Callum.

HDM, with thanks to the Alexander family, Norman Macdonald (Portree), Flora Maclean, 13 Tarskavaig, and particularly the usual great genealogical research by Richard Stoddart, Brora.