THE First Minister led the tributes that poured in yesterday following the sudden death of the award-winning journalist Ian Bell.

A writer for The National’s sister papers The Herald and Sunday Herald, Bell took ill at his home in Coldingham, Berwickshire, and died of a suspected heart attack on Thursday evening after being taken to hospital. He was 59.

Nicola Sturgeon described him as “one of Scotland’s finest writers and a man of deep intellect and principle.”

She added “The unexpected news of Ian Bell’s death has shocked and saddened people from across Scottish political and civic life.

“I last saw him just a few weeks ago at The Herald’s Scottish Politician of the Year awards, where he was on characteristically great form. It feels unbelievable to be now reflecting on his life, cut short.

“Ian will be so sadly missed. My thoughts are with his family. We have lost one of our finest journalists.”

Former First Minister Alex Salmond said his death was “gut-wrenching” and added that voices like Bell’s “have never been more necessary” in Scotland.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: “This is immensely sad news, and my thoughts are with his family. Ian Bell was a hugely talented writer and a massively influential figure in Scottish journalism.”

BBC broadcaster Andrew Neil said: “Ian was a Scottish scribe of force and distinction. Among a generation of fine Scottish writers he was one of the finest – and his love of Scotland always shone through.

“At a time when Scotland needs all the robust and independent commentary it can muster, it is a tragedy for journalism and the country that he has been taken from us.”

BBC journalist and presenter Andrew Marr, a colleague of Bell’s in his early days at The Scotsman, told The National: “I first knew him back in the 1980s when he would look after young journalists like me – he never got out of the habit of calling me ‘young Marr’.

“He was an extraordinary figure, a kind friend and a wise mentor I never listened to enough.”

Richard Walker, consultant editor for The National and former editor of the Sunday Herald, said: “Ian Bell was one of Scotland’s greatest journalists and was among those who forged the character of the Sunday Herald in its early days and protected it in difficult times.

“His work searched for truth and did not flinch from exposing the deceit and hypocrisy he too often found instead. His voice was steadfast for decades but was more vital than ever during the referendum campaign. He will not see the independent Scotland he dreamt of but he leaves his soul ingrained in its DNA.”

Alan Taylor, a personal friend of Bell’s and editor of the Scottish Review of Books, said: “Ian has been so long part of our political and cultural landscape it’s hard to picture it without him. He was our Gore Vidal, our Orwell, with as wide a range and as elegant an expression.

“He could write about anything because he seemed to know everything. In this sound-bite, meretricious, low-flying age, his was the voice of that other Scotland, the one we hear and see less and less of, which sets the bar high and aims to clear it.”

Bill Campbell, the former co-owner of Mainstream Publishing who published all three of Bell’s books, last night solved a mystery that had puzzled his many friends for years – why did Bell never write a novel?

Campbell said: “He has written a novel, and I considered it publishable but Ian was not happy with it.

“It was called Whistling In The Dark and was an ambitious and wide-ranging story of a man who lived through all the great events of the 20th century – Ian always had that kind of big idea.

“To have been in the company of him and Willie McIlvanney, as I often was, was a privilege. He was intellectually brilliant and a warm and generous human being.”

Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), also paid tribute .

He said: “The STUC is shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Ian Bell, a true giant of Scottish journalism.

“Ian’s career spanned a time of great industrial and social change in Scotland which he charted with passion, consummate skill and a profound understanding of the impact on working people and their communities. He will be very sadly missed.”

Playwright David Greig said on Twitter: “It seems such a small consideration in the face of grief, but if ever we needed Ian Bell’s voice and writing, it is in Scotland now.”

National columnist Kevin McKenna said: “I am distraught at the passing of Ian Bell. He was quite simply the best at what the rest of us try to do ... and the most gentle and humble.”

Broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli said: “The Scottish Columnist of the Year was affectionately known as the Ian Bell Prize, he won it that often.”

Bell is survived by his wife Mandy, son Sean, brother Alan, sister Eileen and his mother and father.

Robbie Dinwoodie: Scotland has lost one of its most distinctive journalistic and literary voices in Ian Bell