Alastair Borthwick, Chronicler of Britain’s 20th Century

Alastair Borthwick was a substantial if somewhat underrated literary talent, whose achievements in various media gave human face to the tribulations of mid-20th century Great Britain. Born in Lanarkshire, Borthwick was raised in Troon, Ayrshire. He became a copy taker for the Evening Times at the age of 16 and quickly took over a wide range of editorial responsibilities. 

He first came to public attention in the 1930s for his open-air articles on rock climbing. Borthwick’s vivid account of this bracing sport helped weary urbanites escape the doldrums of daily life. As the author put it, “One cannot sweat and worry simultaneously.” By the mid-1930s, he had successfully transitioned into radio, delighting audiences with crisp, bracing accounts of outdoorsmanship. 

When WWII broke out, Borthwick eagerly enlisted and was enlisted with the 51st Highland Division’s 5th Seaforth Highlanders in Africa and Europe. He rose eventually to the rank of captain and served mainly as battalion intelligence officer. His writing career was not wholly neglected during this time, however. Two of his classics, Always A Little Further and Sans Peur, were written close to the war years. Both were later republished; Sans Peur is considered a classic of military history.

After the war, Borthwick moved into a small cottage in the country with his wife, Anne, and fathered a son, Patrick. The BBC awarded Borthwick a contract for a series on Scotland, Scottish Survey, which ran for three years. Borthwick won an OBE for his presentation on the festival of heavy engineering in Glasgow, which coincided with the 1951 Festival of Britain. 

By the 1960s, Borthwick contributed a weekly column to the News Chronicle, but had largely transitioned into television. His show on Grampian TV featured reports on notables from Bonnie Prince Charlie to Senator Joe McCarthy. Borthwick was especially fond of 13-part series, Scottish Soldier, which narrated the personal experiences of Scottish infantry regiments. 

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