Carl reading from his short story collection, Someone Always Robs the Poor

Carl MacDougall: My employer and friend

Scottish PEN’s Project Manager, Lisa Stewart, has written a tribute to former President and Trustee, Carl MacDougall.

April 11, 2023

Scottish PEN’s Project Manager, Lisa Stewart, has written a tribute to former President and Trustee, Carl MacDougall.

Carl MacDougall is best known as a writer of prize-winning novels, short story collections and works of non-fiction. He’s also well known as a television presenter and the editor of popular anthologies. He was an active member of Scottish PEN for many years, and acted on the charity’s Board of Trustees, most recently as President.

There is so much to say about Carl’s interests, his writing, his contribution to Scottish literary culture. But first and foremost, I knew him as an employer. While this role formed a small part of Carl’s expansive life, it’s a very particular kind of relationship to inhabit, where power dynamics and the intricacies of being responsible for someone’s livelihood can bring out the best or worst of someone’s personality.

It is no exaggeration to say that meeting Carl MacDougall changed my life for the better. I first met him when I interviewed for the post of Project Manager with Scottish PEN in March 2020. He was immediately kind and jovial, asking me considered follow-up questions that put me at ease and let me know he was truly interested in hearing what I had to say. I had recently quit another job after just six months, due to a stressful and toxic working environment, and knew that this blot on my employment history might be held against me. I also had no idea when I left the job that a few weeks later the world would be plunged into the chaos of a global pandemic.

I was offered my post at Scottish PEN by Carl on the cusp of the first lockdown in Scotland. I would be working from home, without an opportunity to meet the Board or work alongside my predecessor to settle in. It was daunting, as I really wanted to let Carl and the rest of the Board feel confident that they’d made the right choice in hiring me. Through those early weeks, Carl called me every day that I was working, and while he was happy to answer questions about Scottish PEN’s work, he was equally happy to talk about almost everything else. From good books and interesting news stories to funny anecdotes about his daily life, his warmth and humour assured me that I was working with someone who had a positive and open approach to life and relationships.

The next time I met Carl was in peak lockdown, at Shawlands Cross, where we stood a distance apart and he threw me a copy of my employment contract, which I had to sign and return. It seems funny now to reflect on how it felt like such a clandestine operation, using our daily allotment of walking time to complete the handover of important documents.

He also gave me a copy of his most recent book, Someone Always Robs the Poor and I loved it. His talent for capturing complex insights into the lives of people in Glasgow, in all their beauty and small tragedies, was very moving and I felt lucky to be in the position to get to know him.

I spoke to Carl in those lockdown months more than most members of my own family, and his energy for our work kept me motivated and focused at a time when it would have been easy to become despondent.

Being the President of an organisation with defence of free expression at its heart can be a tricky position to hold. The President must at once support open dialogue, welcome different perspectives, and embody the weighty ideals of PEN’s Charter, while also taking decisions in favour of a particular route of action, taking the flak from those who disagree, or feel we should be focusing our limited resources on something else. While our many long conversations about various issues affecting Scottish PEN showed me that this responsibility did weigh heavily on Carl, he never let that deter his efforts.

Carl truly believed in the values of Scottish PEN, and often cited the importance of putting principles before personalities. The role of President is undertaken on a voluntary basis, but Carl dedicated many hours of his time every week to responding to emails, taking phone calls and staying abreast of our many activities, from our longstanding campaign to reform defamation law in Scotland, to member engagement and advocating for writers at risk of imprisonment. As one of only two part-time members of staff, having his advice and support made my job so much easier.

Carl’s care and support also came to me at a particularly important period in my personal life. After a year of working with Scottish PEN, I took some time off to get married and was supported with gifts and good wishes as I took time to celebrate. Just a few months after my wedding, I told Carl that I was expecting a baby. He responded in his typical way, not as an employer having to weigh up the financial and administrative complications of supporting a period of maternity leave, but as someone who was happy for me. He shared stories about the early years of his own children, who by now I felt I knew well through the various stories he had told me about their lives. He checked in on how I was feeling as my pregnancy progressed and assured me that the Board would do what they could to support me.

I am extremely grateful to Carl and the rest of the Board for providing me with a very generous maternity package that meant I was able to comfortably enjoy a full year with my baby boy. Scottish PEN is a very small charity and securing funding for our work is a constant issue, so I recognise that dedicating this budget to an absent staff member had an impact on operations during an important time.

It truly saddens me that this year of maternity leave lined up with the final year of Carl’s life. I only had the opportunity to see him again once, via a brief Zoom call with several other Board members. I noticed that he was in a different room than on previous calls and thought to myself that I’d need to catch up with him to hear how his house move went, and to find out where he was living now. I didn’t get that chance and feel regretful of that fact.

Of course, Carl’s legacy and impact on the world extends far beyond the details of my own life, and I look forward to reading those tributes. However, it does strike me that it says something particularly special about Carl that, amid a busy life of competing priorities and creative projects, he found time to meet a stranger, support them, and allow them to build the life they’d always wanted. It’s hard to imagine how differently the past few years — the best of my life, despite the pandemic — would have gone without Carl and Scottish PEN. He nourished my life almost without trying, because he was a kind man who wanted to do it. He was my employer, but I also hope he would consider me a friend. I am forever grateful that I knew him. I am sure I’m just one of a great many people who can say the same thing.

Lisa Stewart