Reg McKay, who has died of cancer at the age of 56, used his career experiences as a social worker in the most-deprived areas of Glasgow to become one of Scotland’s most prolific and best-selling crime writers.
He was 45 when he turned to writing but made up for lost time by producing 16 popular novels over 10 years, several along with former Glasgow gangster and gun-runner Paul Ferris.
Some in the literary establishment looked down at McKay and he never received any literary awards but, with his typical humour, he said his proudest moment was when a manager at Borders book shop in Buchanan Street told him his books were “the most-nicked” from their shelves.
This year, McKay became best-known to many Scots for a column in the Daily Record – Cancer Diaries – chronicling his day-to-day life after he was diagnosed with the disease in January. Latterly too weak to write, he dictated the column to his Glaswegian wife, Gerry. They married in 1990 and Gerry herself has overcome breast cancer.
He faced the disease with defiance and continued to live life on his own terms – with his Armani suits, good white wine and cigarettes. “Cancer doesn’t kill you. It’s giving up that’s deadly,” he said. In his last column he wrote: “One day, death will choose me. That day, there will be no fear.” That day was Monday.
Reginald David McKay was born to a farming family in Keith, at the time in Banffshire but now part of Moray, and attended Keith Grammar School until, aged only 13, he decided school was not for him. “I got into burglary, fights, drugs, sex, rock’n’roll, you name it, by 13,” he said years later. “By 16, I was on a waiting list for institutional care, probably borstal.”
His saving grace was when his father got a job in Glasgow, they moved to Govan and he went to Govan High School, where he was mocked for his north-eastern accent and slashed twice. Watching two schoolboys “hacking each other with meat cleavers”
was an epiphany and he determined to study. He gained enough Highers to win a place at Glasgow University, got an MA in psychology and sociology and moved to Edinburgh with a view to becoming a journalist.
Instead, with his natural affinity with the underdog, he found himself involved in an Edinburgh squat, where he decided helping the homeless directly would be more productive than just writing about them. It was the start of a more than 20-year career in social work which would bring him back to Glasgow, working largely in Blackhill until he was appointed director of social services by Argyll and Bute Council, based in Lochgilphead.
It was while in Blackhill that he found himself writing the court report of an 18-year-old called Paul Ferris, who was serving time in Longriggend Young Offenders’ Institute and had stabbed a fellow inmate, a gang leader. “He was never charged, but the news got out and the word on the street was that he was a dead man,” McKay told the Sunday Herald. “There was something special about Paul Ferris, something different. This was a young kid in the worst possible prison in Europe. Scottish jails were worse than Turkish prisons at the time.”
It was 16 years later, in 1998, when Ferris was in jail in Durham for selling of Uzi submachineguns and McKay had finally decided to have a go at writing that the latter wrote to the former and suggested telling his story in a book. The result was The Ferris Conspiracy, published in 2001, which became a Scottish best-seller after being serialised.
The two later collaborated on the novels Deadly Divisions, Villains and Vendetta. McKay also went on to write The Last Godfather, Murder Capital – Life and Death on the Streets of Glasgow and, along with Glenn Lucas, Murdered or Missing? The Arlene Fraser Case.
On March 14 this year he described to his readers how he had gone to the Royal Alexandria Hospital in Paisley in January after his right arm went limp – only to be told he had a tumour in his lung, another in his brain and had “six months to live, if that”.
“Dead man walking? Me?” he wrote. “Maybe, but as long as I’m walking, I’m living. And kicking. Watch this space.”
After hearing of McKay’s death, one of his best friends, former BBC crime reporter Bob Wylie, recalled asking him if he could help him buy a gun to show how easy it was to get weapons in Glasgow.
“When do you want it? By lunchtime or teatime?” the writer replied.
Another friend, crime writer Harry “The Polis” Morris recalled lunching with McKay at Rogano in Exchange Place. “I told him, ‘I picked up your latest book the other day – couldn’t put it down.’ Before I could add the punchline, he reacted first, ‘Don’t tell me they’re still putting superglue on the book covers’!”
Reg McKay, who died at his home in Paisley, is survived by his wife, Gerry.
Born July 15, 1953;
Died October 19, 2009.
Reg will be laid to rest tomorrow and will be sadly missed by all...
Rest In Peace
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