William McIlvanney was born and raised in Kilmarnock. His father, William, spent some of his early adult years as a miner and the proud working-class solidarity exemplified by mining communities was a permanent beacon for him and his writer son. The younger William’s mother, Helen, in spite of having left school at the age of 12 to work in a textile mill, was impressively literate. She was a lover of poetry and had a strength of character that, her children remembered, “could defuse any trouble with quiet persistence”. William was always close to his three older siblings, Betty, Neil and Hugh, the renowned sports journalist.
Kilmarnock Academy records show that William was a “brilliant pupil” and he went on to graduate with honours in English at Glasgow University and then start a successful career as a schoolteacher. He was assistant head teacher at Greenwood Academy in Dreghorn when he took the decision to write full time. It was also in Kilmarnock that William met and married Moira Watson, with whom he had two children, Siobhán and Liam. Both have become distinguished academics and Liam is the author of highly praised crime novels.
William’s first novel, Remedy is None, was published in 1966 and his second, A Gift from Nessus, two years later. Each was greeted with critical acclaim: Remedy is None earned the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award and A Gift from Nessus a Scottish Arts Council award. There followed four more novels that could be termed mainstream fiction, two of which, Docherty and The Kiln, have been described as masterpieces. Docherty, winner of the Whitbread Prize in 1975, draws quite clearly on his family background, with locations recognisably based on Kilmarnock. But there is a more pronounced autobiographical ring to The Kiln, whose writer-protagonist, a later-generation Tom Docherty, is compelled to recall key events of his life from a bleak vantage point in the 1990s.
Convinced that serious and substantial novels could have crime and detection at the core of their themes, William produced (in 1977) Laidlaw, the first of a trilogy — the others were The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties — featuring the Glasgow Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw. The vivid realisation of the central character, a maverick policeman with the street hardness and worldly wit to operate effectively in a tough city but an inner life sufficiently complex to make Kierkegaard and Camus natural reading for him, would alone have set the book apart. That believable creation, combined with a flawless evocation of Glasgow (the place that was William’s deeply loved home during his latter decades) and a varied cast of its denizens, plus the bold unorthodoxy of how the murder story was told, took the genre to an unprecedented level in Scottish literature.
His Laidlaw books’ inspiring effect caused William to be dubbed “the godfather of tartan noir” and many of Scotland’s eminent crime writers, not least Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, have acknowledged their debt to him. The principal literary award for crime fiction in Scotland has been renamed the McIlvanney Prize.
One of William’s novels, the story of a prizefighter entitled The Big Man, became a film in 1990, with Liam Neeson and Billy Connolly in the starring roles. The last of the nine published, Weekend, appeared in 2006 and was dedicated to Siobhán McCole Lynch, his partner for the 20 years before his death. In addition to the novels, William’s publications included collections of poems, short stories and essays and he produced a considerable body of admired journalism.
The William McIlvanney campus, which includes three new schools, Kilmarnock Academy, James Hamilton Primary and Early Childhood Centre and Sgoil na Coille Nuaidhe (New Woods School), opened to pupils on Wednesday 18 April 2018. The campus is a fitting tribute to William’s significant impact on both education and literature in Scotland.