James Bell Salmond was born on the 8th December 1891 in Arbroath, son of James Boath Salmond, editor of The Arbroath Herald, and his wife Agnes Bell. JB, as he was known, became Dux of English at Arbroath High School, and went on to St Andrews University, there editing College Echoes, as well as boxing and playing rugby for the university, serving on the student council and as president of the Athletic Union. He graduated in 1912, and headed to London for a job in Fleet Street. He enlisted in the Inns of Court Regiment on the outbreak of the First World War, and was soon commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant into the 7th Black Watch. His battalion saw service on the Western Front in the French sector, and also took part in the attack on Beaumont Hamel during the Battle of the Somme. In June 1917 Salmond was admitted to Craiglockhart War Hospital, and was treated for neurasthenia there until November. During that time he edited the hospital magazine, The Hydra, with Wilfred Owen as his sub-editor.
After the war Salmond returned to Scotland and joined the staff of the Dundee Advertiser, and later, in 1927, became editor of The Scots Magazine, a role he performed for over twenty years. He was a good judge of ability, and many new authors appeared in the magazine’s pages during his time at the helm: Joe Corrie, Eric Linklater, Neil Gunn, Jessie Kesson and George Bruce amongst them.
In 1923 he married Peggy Chalmers, and set up home in Newport-on-Tay. She shared JB’s love of Scotland and the open air. He was active in the Scottish Youth Hostels Association, the Grampian Club, the Scottish Country Dance Society, and the Abertay Historical Society. With such diverse interests it is no wonder he was also in demand as an after-dinner speaker – a born raconteur.
During the Second World War Salmond was a major in the Home Guard. In 1944 he was awarded an LL.D from St Andrews University after serving on the University Court; in 1948 he put down his editor’s pen at The Scots Magazine and took up the posts of Keeper of Muniments and warden of St Salvator’s Hall at St Andrews.
Salmond had published an examination of Wade’s roads in Scotland in 1934, and in the 1940s and 50s several more works of non-fiction followed: a book about Andrew Lang, a history of the 51st (Highland) Division, and a history of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Two novels had also appeared in the 1940s.
Salmond’s poetry was collected in The Old Stalker and Other Verses, published by the Moray Press in 1936. In an introductory verse the author pre-empts the critics: it is only ‘A journalist reporting / A thing or two in rhyme.’ The things reported are Scotland’s hills, rivers and roads, Scotland’s foresters and poachers, and, in the last few poems, Scotland’s war. In Scots and in English, the poems look back on the First World War with pity, and with a fiercely critical stance against the hypocritical treatment of soldiers both during and after the war. ‘Twenty Years Ago’ takes the view of ‘The boy that went a-soldiering’, looking back from August 1934:
With poisoned gas they choke him,
With shell and shock and flame
The beauty of his body
They mangle and they maim.
And when it was all over,
They worship for an hour,
And build him a memorial,
And bring to him a flower.
And as the years piled higher,
They dipped a bloody pen
Into a well of filthiness
And killed the boy again. …
But perhaps the two simple verses of ‘Poppies’ will stand as Salmond’s commemoration of his comrades, the ordinary soldiers who in their ‘working raiment brown’ gave their best for their country.