How old newspapers brought Uncle Jack’s story to life

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He was always ‘Uncle Jack’ but the only physical memory I have of him is a small, worn, barely legible grave marker in a local cemetery. I doubt I would be able to find it now.

Jack Neil was actually my great-uncle but my mother, now in her 90s, still remembers him with great affection.

She was just a child when her uncle died. Raised by her grandparents, she remembers when the police came to the door and asked her to take her to the neighbour where her grandmother was visiting.

Jack had been rushed to hospital after a motor cycle accident. He would never regain consciousness and died a few hours later. He was 24 and not long engaged to ‘Jeanie’.

It was a traumatic experience for his young niece and, while she recalls the uncle who always had time to tease her and make her laugh, after 80 years the finer details of him had started to fade from her memory. What happened on that fateful day seemed lost, and destined to be a forgotten part of family history.

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But like so so much of all our histories, Uncle Jack’s tale was lying sleeping in the columns of the local newspapers.

You only need to look at the popularity of Facebook pages like ‘Auld Fife and its People’ and ‘Old Fife’ to see how valued the faces and places from our past are, not just for the glow of nostalgia but because they mark the path we have taken to where we are now, and possibly providing an indication of what is ahead. Appreciating what and who are around you is vital to who we are.

Communities are important, and everyone has a story to tell, whether they have travelled and conquered the world, or never ventured beyond the village boundary.

Uncle Jack didn’t merit an obituary but thanks to that local paper in May 1936, I now know the details of his last hours, and that, in itself, has sparked more memories for my mother and for all the family. It was forgotten he worked down the pit... and that he wanted out. He’d started a correspondence course and was making plans for a brighter future for himself and his bride-to-be.

The report in the paper of the day gives me an insight into that horrible accident, and the few paragraphs detailing his injuries moved my mother to tears as it brought the memories pouring back.

That was, and remains, the power of local papers.

Read this week’s article by editor Allan Crow on the opening of the Bank of Scotland branch at Mitchelston in 1992 and you will share in a period of change in our social history. But, at the time, readers were probably grumbling that there was “nothing in the Press but adverts”.

Local papers are now headline news. How we get our news and what we pay for it, if anything, has changed the industry.

And that has altered the world of advertising which, originally, came before and financed the editorial.

It is to be hoped the value of local news is recognised before it is too late. In the meantime, as a newspaper ‘dinosaur’, I’m grateful to the reporter in 1936 who has allowed my mother to say a final farewell to her favourite uncle and who introduced me to him properly.