Brian Osborne: Librarian and author

The Arts
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

brian_d.osborneA VERY talented Helensburgh man with a great interest in the past began his working life as a librarian and ended up an author and made a major contribution to local history and research.

Brian D.Osborne, who grew up in the the family home in West Princes Street and regularly returned from his Kirkintilloch home, often to give talks, died suddenly on May 30 2008 while on holiday in Uzbekistan.

Born in Glasgow in 1941 he had a brief career in bookselling, then worked in public libraries, then retired early to concentrate on his writing career.

He was best known locally for his splendid 1995 book ‘The Ingenious Mr Bell’ about Helensburgh’s first Provost and the pioneer of steam ship navigation, who lived from 1767 to 1830.

Like most local schoolboys Brian was conscious of Bell from an early age in his childhood in the burgh, because of the various relics and memorials.

He felt that although Bell was responsible in large measure for the Clyde becoming one of the shipbuilding centres of the world and was the man who opened up the Highlands and Islands to steam navigation, his achievements had largely been ignored.

He observed: “The fact that the first person to make a practical success of the endeavour in Britain was the enthusiastic, restless and unmethodical Henry Bell does seem at times to offend . . .”

Brian wrote the book to put that right, and insisted: “As an entrepreneur and doer, Bell’s experience and important contributions to technological and economic development have much relevance in modern day Britain.”

It is not a huge step from Bell’s Comet to the entrancing tales of ‘Para Handy’ and the puffer Vital Spark, written by Neil Munro — who lived for a number of years in Cromalt in East Clyde Street — using the name of Hugh Foulis.

Brian was a huge fan, and up to the time of his death served as secretary of the Neil Munro Society, which he and others founded in 1996 to encourage interest in the works of Munro (1863-1930) and which now has 180 members.

It organises an annual programme of talks and other events in Munro’s home town of Inveraray and in Glasgow, and attracts leading authorities on Scottish literature and history to address its meetings.

An ever-growing membership in Britain and overseas testifies to the revival of interest in Munro and his work as a novelist, short story writer, journalist, critic and poet — and Brian made a major contribution to this revival.

He and retired Dumbarton headmaster Ronnie Armstrong presented over 200 times a two-man show based on Munro’s ‘Para Handy’ tales and also his ‘Erchie Macpherson’ stories to local groups, mostly around the West of Scotland.

Brian’s earlier career was as a librarian, first in Dumbarton. He became District Librarian of Midlothian in 1983, and served as chief officer of libraries and museums for East Dunbartonshire from 1989-95, based in Kirkintilloch.

“I enjoyed reading a lot when I was young,” he said. “I left school and worked in a bookshop and then got a job working in a library — and I worked in libraries for 33 years. When I qualified, I was working in a library in Dumbarton and I wrote a couple of articles on history which appeared in a local paper.

“I had a degree in history through the Open University and my boss suggested I write an article on Henry Bell for the anniversary of his death. Once I started looking into his life, the article turned into a book.”

One book then turned into many, starting with his book about the Para Handy series, written in partnership with Ronnie Armstrong. They wrote 14 books and anthologies together, and he co-wrote nine books with others, on a variety of historical subjects and people.

At the time of his death he was working on a book about the Home Guard in Scotland, collecting stories, documents and photographs. 'The People's Army: Home Guard in Scotland 1940-1944', is now available online and in bookshops.

In his final book, based on contemporary archive materials and personal accounts, he examines the human story of the Home Guard in Scotland and the impact that this remarkable organisation had on society and on those that became involved with it.

The Home Guard, and its forerunner the Local Defence Volunteers, was genuinely a 'people's army' with its own ethos, character and political influence.

His father, Malcolm Osborne, 94, who has lived in the town for decades, said: "I'm a very proud father. This book will be interesting to the generation which grew up never knowing anything about the war.

"I read every chapter after Brian had written it. I enjoyed it because I had spent six years in the army during the war.”

Brian was honorary secretary of the Society of Authors in Scotland from 2002 to 2007 and was on the board of Publishing Scotland.

Society chairman Nicola Morgan paid this tribute: “Brian was known as a voice of strong common sense and integrity, as well as for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of publishing in Scotland and beyond.

“But he was also known by those who worked with him as a warm and witty man, whose presence at any meeting always improved it immeasurably. We will miss his wise advice and his sense of humour in equal measure.”

He also wrote regularly for magazines in Britain and the United States, and collaborated on writing two plays. From time to time he wrote a ‘blog’ on the internet.

President of the Scottish Library Association in 1992, he was a member of the Scottish Book Marketing Group, and a member of the Grants to Publishers Panel and of the Literature Committee of the Scottish Arts Council.

An elder at St Columba’s Parish Church in Kirkintilloch, he was also a keen photographer and took part in the Geograph British Isles project which aims to collect geographically representative photographs and information for every square kilometre of Great Britain and Ireland. He contributed 62 pictures of locations throughout central Scotland

Brian was indulging in his love of travelling with a group in Uzbekistan when he died.

His father, who has never been able to see his son's grave, said: "A post mortem was carried out and it was discovered he suffered from a heart attack. Because of the intense 130 degree heat, his body was buried out there."

  • An article by Brian about Henry Bell can be found in the People section of this website and was published with his full permission.