Alumni Services

Neil Paterson (1915-1995)

Academy Award-winning screenplay writer, novelist and captain of Dundee United.

Neil Paterson in his study

With the Oscars season upon us, it’s a fitting time to remember one of Edinburgh’s Academy Award-winning alumni, Neil Paterson, who won Best Adapted Screenplay in 1959, but whose personal career highlight was leading the football team he loved.


Born in Greenock on New Year’s Eve, 1915, and raised in Banff, Neil attended the University with the intention of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a solicitor. But after joining Edinburgh University AFC he quickly realised that his passion lay with football, and after graduation a brief but successful career in the game ensued.

Playing for Buckie Thistle in the Highland League and for Scottish League teams Leith Athletic and Dundee United, his achievements included becoming captain of the latter in the 1936–37 season (the first amateur to captain a professional club) and scoring nine goals in 26 league appearances for them, including a hat-trick.

By his own choice, a professional career didn’t materialise, however, and Neil left the game to become a sports journalist, landing a position with DC Thomson.

Second World War

Like many young men at the time, his life was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Newly married to Rose, the couple's honeymoon period was brief when Neil joined the Navy, serving as a lieutenant on HMS Vanessa, a ship that suffered a direct bomb hit in the North Sea in 1941.

Box office success

But after the war, he returned to writing, initially as a freelancer and then as a novelist. His first novel, 'The China Run' – which described the adventures of Christian West, the captain of a tea-clipper – was named Book of the Year by W Somerset Maugham in the New York Times, while he adapted his own short story, 'Scotch Settlement', into a screenplay entitled 'The Kidnappers'. The film went on to be a box office success in 1953 and won honorary Oscars for its two child stars.


Movie success meant interest from Hollywood and Neil was asked to adapt John Braine's novel 'Room at the Top' into a screenplay. The subsequent 1959 film, starring Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey, was critically acclaimed and another box office smash, and an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay followed. Neil won, beating competition from 'Some Like it Hot' and ''Ben Hur', the latter having won its other 11 categories.

After the win, Neil became a much sought-after writer in Hollywood, but never moved from Scotland, preferring to split his time between the family home in Crieff and Los Angeles.

The arts

In his later years, Neil moved into the promotion and governance of the arts in the UK. He was a governor of the National Film School, on the board of Films of Scotland and a governor and founder member of the British Film Institute. He was also an executive for Grampian Television and a governor for the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Neil Paterson died in Crieff in 1995, and his Oscar statue is kept proudly by his family.