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Brilliant, curmudgeonly, and besotted with all things
Atlantic Canadian, Jim Gourlay is saying goodbye
to the magazine he founded more than two decades ago.
He may be retired, but his legacy lives on in the pages of Saltscapes

 

There is a story  that people sometimes tell to sum up James Clunie Gourlay, the founding editor of Saltscapes magazine who is retiring, after 22 years at the helm.

It is 2011, and he is in Scotland on the River Spey, casting a line and looking for a fish, when he encounters an angler from a nearby town. The two get to talking. About what, nobody who was in Gourlay’s party knows for sure. But his long-time friend and fishing companion Katharine Mott remembers how, later that day, she bumped into the local man, who told her to watch out for a gutsy, downright “stroppy” little chap from Canada haunting the riverbank. “That,” she laughs, “fits Jim to a tee.”

It does...and it doesn’t.

For one thing, there’s nothing about Gourlay that comes across as little. Although he stands about five-eight, he can seem Brobdingnagian, especially if you happen to be a pompous bureaucrat, industrial polluter, or lazy writer suddenly caught in his rhetorical crosshairs.

For another, he’s not actually from Canada. He was born and raised just outside Edinburgh—not that far, in fact, from the river where he and his countryman had words that day. The oldest of five kids from a mining engineer father and homemaker mother, Gourlay left Scotland in 1968, a few weeks before his 20th birthday, because he was disaffected with the monarchist system of government. At the time, he said, “F@#k this!”

There are other details that don’t quite fit into a nutshell.

He is one of Atlantic Canada’s best-known fly fishers—a former president of the Nova Scotia Salmon Association and the recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Salmon Conservation Award. But if you ask him what set him off in that direction, he can’t really tell you. “I had one cousin who died very young,” he says. “He was into fishing, but that’s it. My father never took me fishing. I took him fishing because he had a car. So, I don’t know where it came from. I’m totally self-taught. I have a natural talent for it.”

He is a legendary editor with a bloodhound’s nose for winded words and, conversely, invigorating prose. But if you ask him about his journalistic training, he says, “I never had any. I started writing when I was about 14 for my own amusement. Nobody else ever read my stuff. It was all sort of semi-journalistic.”


Jim and his wife, Linda are partners in business as well as life. Although Jim has hung up his editor’s hat, Linda continues to be passionately involved in Metro Guide Publishing.


And stroppy? That part about him—the boy who once literally wrote down every goal he intended to achieve in his life—is verifiably unvarnished, as is his single-minded determination to peel back the surface of things and get to the meat of what matters. And he—who once ribbed his own staffers for allowing the word “sextant” to appear in the magazine as “sexton” because, he wrote in his editor’s letter, they were “so preoccupied by the first syllable that they missed the second”—wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve always said what’s on my mind,” he says. “But I love this region.”

That, too, seems crystal clear.

From its inaugural issue in 2000, Saltscapes (which Gourlay founded with his wife Linda, only after extensive and expensive market research) strove to hold up a mirror to the people who lived and worked along the East Coast of Canada—to show them, among other things, how smart, generous and beautiful they were without pandering to their sentimentality. There were folksy pieces on food, gardening, and towns. But there were more trenchant stories, too. 

Indeed, Gourlay was “the first Canadian journalist to break the story of the devastating impact of acid rain on Atlantic salmon and fresh water generally in eastern Canada,” noted the announcement of his and Linda’s induction to the Atlantic Journalism Awards Hall of Fame in 2018. He was also “the first Canadian journalist to break the story of the equally devastating impacts of open pen salmon aquaculture on stocks of wild salmon on both coasts [and] the story of the blatant abuse of aboriginal rights whereby non-aboriginal poachers were paying Mi’kmaq lawbreakers to illegally harvest moose in Cape Breton.”

Other scribes in the region also prospered. The almost mythically fine Atlantic Insight magazine had folded in 1985. “[Eventually], Jim was really the only editor that I liked working for,” says Phillip Lee, a journalism professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, and an early Saltscapes contributor. “I appreciated the freedom that he gave me to write the way I wanted.”

In fact, while Insight (for which Gourlay once worked) and Saltscapes were, in some respects, similar—top-notch writing and photography, unabashed East Coast boosterism—Gourlay focussed his attention more closely on his readers’ sensibilities, giving them capacious editorial room in which to muse and vent about stories he’d published. Often, he gleefully joined in.

“I love your magazine and really don’t want to go down in its annals as a squirrel hater or carping about nothing, but it’s time to cut back on the squirrel articles,” a subscriber once cracked. “They’re driving me nuts.... I am an expatriate herring choker who languishes away from his home and native land.” To which Gourlay crisply replied: “Our apologies, George—being a homesick herring choker is probably enough of a handle without adding ‘nutty’ to the mix.”

Not surprisingly, industry brass and glass followed. By 2018, Saltscapes had garnered an almost embarrassing number of accolades, including 57 international, national, and regional journalism awards. Business wasn’t bad, either. That same year, the magazine topped 512,000 combined print and online readership. “In other words,” the AJA Hall of Fame notice stipulated, “a single family-operated magazine has almost exactly half the online and print readership of the nine paid-circulation newspapers in Atlantic Canada combined.”

It had also spawned the well-attended Saltscapes East Coast Expo, which annually attracted the attention (if not the actual bodies) of the magazine’s half-million readers to regional purveyors of everything from gardening supplies to “net-zero probiotic beverages.” Linda, a professional marketing executive who almost single-handedly launched the event in 2005, and still is part of the team, explains: “In a small market, [we realized] we [had] to be the soup to nuts of lifestyle. For the business to be truly successful, we needed to have a consumer show.”

When, in 2018, the Gourlays merged Saltscapes and its expo with Metro Guide Publishing—owned and operated by Advocate Printing of Pictou—they explained their move in a press release this way: “Our values have remained the same for 19 years. That won’t change … Saltscapes continues to be a journey of passion.”

In other words, there was nothing to worry about. They were simply recruiting a local ally (heaven forbid it be some outfit from, say, Toronto) to help them keep the East Coast faith. Jim was still in love with all things Atlantic Canadian—especially readers.

“You know, sometimes when you’re coming up with the idea of a magazine, you put yourself at the centre of it, and you have to say to yourself: ‘No, no, no, no, no, that’s bullshit’,” he says. “You have to say: ‘That’s not how it works. It starts with the audience. I’ll just do my damnedest to put it together for the audience’.”

It’s mid-May, and Gourlay is sitting in an Adirondack chair next to his lodge-like home overlooking the main branch of the Stewiacke River in central Nova Scotia. Farm country. But also fish country. Here, he says, on a good day, you have your pick of bass, trout, and shad. The best bite time is six in the morning but, really, any time is fine for seeing the critters on the rise. They’ll surprise you sometimes. “I can catch a 20-pound striped bass just up there,” he says, pointing to a particular bend just upstream. “You wouldn’t think so, looking at it from here.”

That’s the thing about first impressions.

I first met Gourlay in 1984 when I was a greenhorn college dropout writing light profiles of lesser-known locals for Atlantic Insight’s CityStyle section in Halifax. He’d just joined as a senior editor full of ideas: A bottomless supply of ‘What ifs’. What if we jigged the layout just so, or the photography? What if I rewrote the top of this particular 400-word trifle I’d been working on for a week? It was bad enough to be 23, entirely convinced of my own peerless competence, and have to endure an editor screwing around with my copy. It was worse to realize that, most of the time, he was right. I did not know, of course, that he was already a seasoned pro, having worked in the Chronicle-Herald’s editorial trenches in Halifax and New England for years.

“My best job there was opening up new bureaus,” he says. “I was in Boston hiring stringers. My expense account was more than my salary. That was a good gig.”

So good, in fact, that he might never have left. But Insight had offered him something far more alluring than a regular paycheck: The freedom to pursue his own vision. And, apart from productively fiddling with young staffers’ stories, this meant a brand new type of magazine, never before seen in Atlantic Canada, to call his own. “Somebody they had working for them had said there was a hole in the market for an outdoor magazine,” he explains. “So, they recruited me to develop it, put it together … figure it out from the ground up. I even came up with the name.”

Eastern Woods & Waters was almost instantly successful with readers and advertisers. And even as its mother publication folded, Gourlay and his new business partner (Insights former circulation manager, the late Neville Gilfoy) knew they were on to something. “Neville came to me and said, ‘Let’s go buy it and publish it on our own,’” Gourlay says. “So we did…. Well, actually, we stole it. We had the subscribers’ list. We had 27,000 at one point.”

The magazine would prosper for many years before fading away during the recession of 2009, and even survived the amicable dissolution of their business relationship (Gilfoy went on to create the influential Atlantic business publication Progress, among other ventures). But its greatest value may have been its affirmation of Gourlay’s conviction that Atlantic Canadians had their own stories to tell—their own narrative, different and distinct from any other region of the country—and that they wanted a periodical that reflected this.

“They had been put down for so long,” Gourlay says. “You know…. they’re all ‘have not this,’ and ‘have not that’, and
all the other bullshit that came out of Toronto. And we said, ‘no, that is bullshit.’ We’ve got this and this and this and this, and we’re better. And here’s why: It’s the people. And the people said, ‘right on’. It boiled down to one thing: passion. Their passion.”

Oddly, though, it was “Toronto” that first called for something new and fresh from him on the East Coast. Linda explains: “National advertisers had been buying into Eastern Woods & Waters, so they went to Jim and asked him if he would be interested in rebranding the publication as more like Harrowsmith … like a Harrowsmith meets Country Life meets Eastern Woods & Waters kind of thing. And you know what he said?”

She laughs loudly before finishing her thought.

“He said, ‘no’.”

According to the one person Gourlay, himself, credits most with making Saltscapes economically viable in a region where independent magazines can expect lifespans only slightly longer than atomic hydrogen, he did not think his outdoorsy readership would go for it.

“So, one night,” Linda continues, “he poured himself too much red wine, and he turned to me and said, ‘Would you ever consider leaving your successful marketing life in commercial real estate and help build a new product? I said, ‘yes’… perhaps foolishly.”

Gourlay smiles, but he doesn’t say the story is apocryphal. “Linda has a tremendous memory,” he says. “But, yes, the difference was Linda. Putting out a nice magazine is relatively easy for somebody who has the wherewithal here. Selling it is a whole different ballgame. So it was Linda who went Toronto. She’s a very smart lady.”

As Gourlay focussed on the concept, Linda built the business case. Together they spent a year—and a small fortune—doing market research. Slowly, but surely, the big picture began to emerge. And, by the end of 1999, it was encouraging.

“The study that Linda and Jim had commissioned basically fell into my lap,” recalls David Chan, who worked for Corporate Research Associates in Halifax. “The Gourlays had ideas about the topics they wanted to feature in the magazine. We took that and [surveyed] people about their current habits, what their interests were, where they were getting information. We also looked at the competition. Then we developed numbers based on all of this research.”

What he found, he says, surprised him. “The thing I remember keenly is that these were some of the best numbers I had ever seen. I also remember Jim and Linda being quite excited.” Says Linda: “Well, of course….That really set the course for us to be able to say, ‘there is a business here.’”

There were, of course, more than a few missteps along the way—and a couple of very of close calls. Was, for example, the magazine always destined to be called Saltscapes?

“‘Herringbone’ was one idea,” Linda laughs. “Then there was ‘Rum and Coke’, but that really was a joke. I liked ‘Heart’s Content’, because, you know, that’s a place in Newfoundland. Then we came around to ‘Salt’, and then, ‘Saltscapes’.

“That was Jim’s name for it, and of course, he was right… yet again.”

Gourlay might be tempted to pat himself on the back, even now, for that. But he doesn’t. People who know him well know that this is not his way. Well, at least, not generally. He—like the readers he loves and for which he built a magazine that continues to tell their stories, their way—is challenging to sum up.

“It’s hard to say exactly what it was that made us friends,” says Katharine Mott. “We fought and argued and remained friends. He’s very knowledgeable, but also very personable. He’s…well…Jim.”

The sun is beginning to set on our conversation by the river, and I’m looking for a sign that I’ve overstayed my welcome. Jim and Linda are in the midst of moving out of the house they’ve shared for years. Boxes and packing tape are strewn across the great pine deck wood. They want to be closer to their kids and grandkids who live in Halifax. They got a good offer from a fellow in Ontario.

Jim’s not worried about the magazine. He thinks it’s in good hands. Besides, he trained most of the staff, didn’t he? “It’s about the passion,” he says softly, not at all stroppily. “That’s what you’ve got to come to terms with. That’s all there is.”

I’m thinking about the last piece of mine he edited for the magazine. It was about a guy who invested in the future of Bonavista, Newfoundland, by rejuvenating its heritage buildings; by seeing not what is or was, but what was possible. He liked that story. But he wanted to make a tweak to my ending.

I’d written about the man: “Durable. Deliberate. Typical, even, for a man who—having spent his entire adult life standing on a barren, coastal plain—still manages to see the forest for the trees.”

He revised it: “Durable. Deliberate. Typical, even, for a man who—having spent his entire adult life standing on a barren, coastal plain—still manages to see the forest where there are no trees.”

Better. Much better.

Jim Gourlay, who is 74, is looking up river now. Beneath the surface, where you can’t see; that’s the place he knows, where the waters run deep.

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