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Obituary: Nicola Barry - First Editor of Rostrum

Award-winning journalist and social affairs commentator Nicola Barry has been mourned as “a great loss to social work” following her death at just 66. Nicola was the first Editor of Rostrum, the newsletter then subsequent magazine started by BASW Scotland (now SASW) in 1985 and continued today as Professional Social Work Scotland.

She was also a regular contributor to Social Work Today and Professional Social Work and worked for a spell as Scottish Correspondent for Community Care in the late 1990s. But she was best known as a columnist and features writer for many leading newspapers including The Herald, Scotsman, Sunday Express, Edinburgh Evening News and Press and Journal.

One of her first major pieces - for The Observer - was about mental health hospitals in Lesbos in the 1970s. She won 27 press awards and while at the Press and Journal was named Columnist of the Year for three years running at the Scottish and UK Press Awards.

Nicola published her autobiography, Mother’s Ruin, in 2007. This told the story of how she grew up in a well-to-do area of Edinburgh in the shadow of her mother’s crippling alcoholism. Beginning with: “I was born drunk”, the book is full of harrowing incidents and touching humour. Both her doctor parents were alcoholics, a battle she herself fought but eventually came through as a survivor.

However, in an interview with her friend and then BASW Scotland Manager Ruth Stark, Nicola was hesitant about whether she would be better off if she had been taken into care.

She said: “The person I am now is someone who loves to write about people like me. Not just like me but anyone who’s vulnerable."

“I’m not a confident person but the one thing I know I’m good at is writing about vulnerable people. It’s as if I can articulate situations for people when they sometimes can’t do it for themselves. If I’d been taken into care, I wouldn’t have any of that.”

She went on: “Social work is my favourite profession. I was brought up by doctors but I’ve very little time for them. Some of them are great but social workers to me are gods in some ways. I really mean that - I’ve always admired them.”

Nicola later described how it was “one of the great privileges” of her career to be the first Editor of Rostrum.

“It was a place to express views which, at that time, were not popular; a time when social workers were thought to fly around on broomsticks in the middle of the night, swooping down on innocent families, snatching their children and placing them in the care of someone unsuitable.”

Ruth Stark, now President of IFSW, said: “Nicola was always a very responsive journalist who, whilst wanting to report accurately on events, also understood many of the complex issues facing social workers.

“I will remember her for her sense of humour, her sense of justice and her real perception of the complexity of life based on the journey she had taken, which was often distressing and difficult.

“She is a great loss to social work when we need journalists and writers who understand the complexity of our work. Mother’s Ruin should be read by every social worker.”

BASW Life Member Alan Rees, who edited Rostrum for 15 years, said: “When the BASW Scotland committee decided to launch a Scotland newsletter, it looked to Nicola for help as Editor as she was a well respected writer on social issues.

“She agreed to take it on and did so for the first few issues but quickly found that other things took precedence - which was why I had to take it on. However, she remained a strong supporter and contributed numerous pieces over the years.”

David Mitchell, another former Rostrum Editor and currently Contributing Editor for PSW Scotland, added: “No doubt shaped by her own experiences, Nicola was one of those inspiring, gut-feeling journalists the rest of us ‘hacks’ can only aspire to.

“Always warm-hearted and generous, she was a great champion of social work and of the journalistic profession.”

Nicola is survived by her husband, fellow journalist Alastair Murray and his daughters, Jane and Hazel. Her funeral will take place at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh on Tuesday January 31 at 1pm. This will be followed by a service of thanksgiving at Colinton Parish Church at 2.15pm.

“The heart is a lonely hunter”, Nicola Barry’s interview with Ruth Stark from Rostrum, October 2007

Please see Rostrum interview here.