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Magnus Magnusson

12th October 1929 - 7th January 2007

Appreciation by
Peter Addyman

Magnus Magnusson, Honorary KCB, Knight Commander of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon, broadcaster, writer and populariser of archaeology, died on 7th January 2007. Known to millions in Britain as, for 25 years, the impassive but friendly inquisitor of the BBC's immensely popular intellectual quiz show Mastermind, Magnusson became the voice of television archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s inculcating an interest in the subject upon a complete generation.

Magnusson was born in Iceland in 1929 but while still a baby moved with his family to Edinburgh where his father became Iceland's Consul-General in Scotland. Educated at Edinburgh Academy but also imbued with Icelandic culture by his family he read English at Jesus College, Oxford followed by two years of postgraduate research into Norse literature. In 1953 he abandoned an academic career for journalism, becoming Assistant Editor first of the Scottish Daily Express - where he married the features editor, his life-long partner Mamie Baird - and then of The Scotsman. By 1966 he had become presenter for BBC 2's television programme Chronicle which for fourteen years helped to feed the public appetite for television archaeology satisfied in a previous decade by Animal Vegetable and Mineral and in a later one by Time Team. Classic programmes such as the 1968 BBC project to re-excavate the 1849 tunnel to the centre of Silbury Hill resulted. With a public profile immensely heightened from 1972 by the Mastermind quiz Magnusson was able to launch several archaeology-based series, including BC, The Archaeology of the Bible Lands and The Vikings which, largely due to his personal insights and immensely knowledgeable and persuasive presentation, commanded large audiences and gained world-wide viewing.

At the same time Magnusson built up a reputation as a translator from the Icelandic and as an author. The 1960s saw him cooperating with Hermann Palsson to translate Njal's Saga, The Vinland Sagas, King Harald's Saga and Laxdaela Saga, and he also translated several of the novels of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Halldor Laxness. His two volumes, The Icelandic Sagas, appeared in 1999 and 2002. The books exploited the popularity of his television programmes, tackling subjects such as Viking expansion westwards, Norse mythology, Lindisfarne, the history of Iceland and more substantially, in a 700 page tome, the history of Scotland.

His high public profile found him much in demand for public office and for support of projects and causes of all kinds. Successively Rector of Edinburgh University and Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University, he became Chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland (later Scottish Natural Heritage) and the Scottish Churches Architectural Heritage Trust. His life-long interest in the natural world brought him the Presidency of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Those who served under his chairmanships recall his deep understanding of the subjects concerned, by no means dependent on third party briefs, his complete commitment, and his patience and conciliation skills.

A more direct involvement in archaeology came with his Chairmanship of the stewards of the York Archaeological Trust, whom he led on a major fund raising campaign, involving several trips to the United States, Iceland and other Scandinavian countries to finance the Coppergate excavations in the heart of Viking York. A Magnusson report on the project in his Tonight television programme caught the attention of the entrepreneur Ian Skipper whose subsequent involvement led to the building of the immensely successful Jorvik Viking Centre. There for 20 years the gentle Scottish tones of Magnusson's commentary, instantly recognisable to the millions of visitors, made him the voice of Viking York. Nothing gave him greater pleasure in the course of this project than the fund raising dinner given for it at the New York Waldorf Astoria by Vigdis Finnbogadottir, 'his' President (for he always remained a proud and loyal Icelander) and her subsequent visit to the completed Centre.

Always a tireless worker for the causes which interested him Magnusson became something of an honorary ambassador for Iceland and all things Icelandic, for Scotland and its historic and natural environment, and for the archaeology, history and literature of the Viking age with which, with his adventurous spirit, ability as a story teller and deep and extensive knowledge of the North European world, he clearly identified.