Sally Magnusson is the eldest daughter of the Icelandic journalist and broadcaster Magnus Magnusson and the Scottish newspaper journalist Mamie Baird. She grew up in and around Glasgow in houses that were always filled with stories: the journalistic variety in which both parents were continually engaged; those hilariously told by her mother about her early life in working class Rutherglen; and those told by Magnus straight from the medieval Icelandic sagas which he spent much of her childhood translating from Old Norse into English.
Later she ended up as a newspaper reporter and then a broadcast journalist herself, delighting in fashioning other people’s experiences (and sometimes her own) into articles, programmes and non-fiction books.
Although brought up in Scotland, she has always felt profoundly connected to her other homeland, the small but fiercely proud northern nation of Iceland, in which her grandparents started their family before moving in 1930 to Edinburgh, where her grandfather Sigursteinn Magnusson opened an office to handle fish exports to Europe. Her first adult novel, The Sealwoman’s Gift (published 2018), is set in Iceland in the seventeenth century. In her memoir Dreaming of Iceland: The Lure of a Family Legend she traces – by way of several generations of her own family – the country’s development from an impoverished, isolated colony of Denmark to the self-assured independent nation it is now.
Her second novel, The Ninth Child (published 2020), is set in nineteenth century Scotland, weaving together folklore and Victorian social history.
Other books include The Flying Scotsman (1981), Clemo (1986), Family Life (1999), Dreaming of Iceland (2004), Glorious Things (2004), Life of Pee (2010), three books in the Horace the Haggis series for children (2012, 2013 and 2014) and Where Memories Go (2014).
She received the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Writing in 2014 and was shortlisted for the Saltire Literary Book of the Year Award for Where Memories Go, published in Iceland as Handan Minninga.
After living in the south-east of England for many years, she returned to Scotland in the mid-90s and now lives in the countryside north of Glasgow with her husband Norman and whichever of their children currently requires a roof.
After studying English Literature and Language at the University of Edinburgh, she joined The Scotsman newspaper in 1979 as a graduate trainee reporter. She then joined the Glasgow-based Sunday Standard as a news/feature writer.
A spell as a reporter on BBC Scotland’s weekly TV show Current Account was followed by an invitation to London to join the presenting team of Sixty Minutes, the new BBC1 daily news magazine that replaced Nationwide. Following the early demise of Sixty Minutes, she presented London Plus for a year and then joined the famous Breakfast Time red sofa in 1985. She anchored Breakfast for ten years in its various incarnations, hair growing ever bigger, while slipping away frequently to have babies.
In 1997 she began presenting BBC Scotland’s news programme Reporting Scotland from Glasgow, where she maintains a calm demeanour at all times.
For a long time she has travelled the country and beyond for BBC’s Songs of Praise, including presenting a controversial edition from the heart of the Calais “jungle” camp in 2016. She has presented many current affairs documentaries for the BBC over the years, one of which was a major Panorama investigation into c-difficile in hospitals. For a period she presented the Friday edition of BBC2’s Daily Politics and has anchored a range of BBC1 daytime programmes, including the hard-hitting series Britain’s Secret Shame (which was credited with raising awareness of abuse of the elderly in Britain’s care homes and won a Royal Television Society award for Best Daytime Series in 2004), along with the follow-up series Britain’s Streets, and the first two series of Missing.
As a reporter she has covered umpteen elections, the funeral of Princess Diana and the opening of the Scottish Parliament. In 1996 she won a Scottish BAFTA as part of the team covering the Dunblane tragedy and in 1998 an RTS award for an exclusive television interview with Earl Spencer, Diana: My Sister the Princess. In 2007 the Institute of Contemporary Scotland awarded her a place in the Scottish Academy of Merit for services to the media.
For many years she presented the popular genealogy programme Tracing Your Roots on Radio 4 and she continues to be one of the presenting team on Radio Scotland’s Sunday Morning With.
PLAYLIST FOR LIFE
After observing the effect of music on her mother’s dementia, she founded Playlist for Life in 2013. After chairing the charity until 2020, she became honorary president and continues to serve on the board. (www.playlistforlife.org.uk).
The charity encourages access to personally meaningful music for every person with dementia. It works with families in communities and residential homes all over the UK.
She is an honorary graduate of Edinburgh University, Glasgow Caledonian University, Stirling University and the Open University, and is an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS). She was voted the Evening Times Scotswoman of the Year 2018.