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Against The Odds
By David Torrance
Birlinn LimitedCopyright © 2015 David Torrance
All rights reserved.
'A real black bitch'
Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond was born on Hogmanay, 1954, in the midst of a particularly cold and snowy winter. Forty years later, Salmond reflected on the moment through the eyes of his grandfather, Alexander (known as Sandy) Salmond. 'It was hardly the preparation for Hogmanay that Sandy had expected,' he wrote.
With pipes frozen all over town times were busy even for a semi-retired plumber and besides his new grandchild was due. Indeed overdue. And here he was on the hill trudging through the snow to a lonely farmhouse. Still the weather would mean that the wean would more than likely be born in the royal burgh, for there was no safe route to Edinburgh on a day such as this. And just think if it were a boy, a namesake, and a real Black Bitch, born within the sound of St Michael's bells.
Salmond then linked his birth with the final hours of a recluse called Bob Jamieson, whom Sandy was visiting at his farmhouse that night. A young doctor called McKay arrived just as Jamieson slipped away. 'Well, that's a blessing,' he said to Sandy. 'One going and one coming, because you'll have a grandchild before this day's over.'
This story not only drew upon Alex Salmond's obviously fond memories of his grandfather, but also suggested a heightened sense of his Linlithgow roots, and perhaps his place in the wider sweep of Scottish history. He did, after all, share a birthday with Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Scotland of 1954/55, however, was then at the height of its political Unionism, and Winston Churchill was approaching the end of his second premiership. 'My mum thought Churchill was the greatest man who ever lived,' Salmond later recalled, 'and my dad wanted to hang him because of what he did to the miners.' Doubtless Mrs Salmond contributed to the victory at the 1955 general election of the Scottish Unionist Party (as the Conservatives were then known north of the border), which won a majority of both seats and the popular vote.
The SNP, by contrast, barely registered in electoral terms. The party contested just two seats, Stirling and Falkirk Burghs and Perth and East Perthshire, only retaining its deposit in the latter. The SNP's share of the national vote was a pitiful 0.5 per cent. The glory days of a decade earlier, when Robert D. McIntyre had triumphed in Motherwell as the first Nationalist Member of Parliament, were but a distant memory. The SNP was still perceived as a romantic movement, a collection of cranks who meant well but achieved little.
It was another two years before Harold Macmillan would famously declare that 'most of our people have never had it so good', and Linlithgow, which occupied a prime location along the southern shore of an eponymous Loch in a broad agricultural valley, would not have escaped this relative prosperity. The town boasted an illustrious past, its much-favoured royal palace (the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots) ensuring the town's historical prominence. But the Linlithgow Salmond would have been familiar with in the 1950s and '60s was no longer charmingly rural, its road and rail links having transformed it into a busy residential settlement.
There was also ongoing redevelopment. Two large tracts of the northern side of the High Street – where Salmond's grandfather had been born – were demolished in the 1960s and replaced by flats and public buildings in a contemporary style. In 1964 came a controversial addition to the townscape, a modernist aluminium spire – representing Christ's crown of thorns – which was added to St Michael's.
The young Salmond obviously took a keen interest in the history of his home town and even decades later a friend conducted round Linlithgow's magnificent ruins was surprised by the eloquence and feeling of 'Alex's guided tour'. In the early 1970s he devoured Angus Macdonald's 1932 book, Linlithgow in Pictures, and used it as the basis of a knowledgably articulate letter to the local newspaper when he was just 17. It concerned a street in the town called 'Beinn-Castle Brae', of which he enclosed a print:
The 'Beinn' in Beinn-Castle comes not as 'Incomer' seemingly suggests from 'Bean', the leguminous plant but from the Scots' 'Beinn' meaning 'rich' or 'well to do'. The term probably has most truth when applied to the West Port House ... which was completed by one of the Hamiltons [in] about 1600. It possessed extensive grounds, and is, not to become too involved, the largest and oldest inhabited property in town. The three mid-17thcentury houses in the foreground were demolished by the Town Council, showing a surprising, if somewhat familiar, lack of vision, in 1930, and made way for the incongruous, though no doubt necessary, public conveniences.
The letter is signed, formally, 'Alexander Salmond'. Prominent characteristics are already present: a love of history, confidence and a straightforward – if youthfully clumsy – writing style with a humourous turn of phrase. 'Politicians gain by cultivating the local' observed Christopher Harvie, and indeed Salmond would assiduously cultivate Linlithgow, just as David Lloyd George did Criccieth, Nye Bevan Ebbw Vale and Gordon Brown Kirkcaldy. A university friend remembers Salmond making a point of going back home for a traditional ceremony known as the 'walking of the marches', 'which was very important to him. He wasn't a romantic at all but felt that where he came from was very important.'
There had been people by the name of Salmond – a 'Crusader' name of Hebrew origins – in Linlithgow since the 16th century, and members of Alex's family since at least the 18th century, before which they had been cattle dealers in Stirlingshire, one of whom, Peter, was the last Salmond to be born in an independent Scotland, in 1704. By 1841 Alex Salmond's great-great-great grandfather John, a ploughman and a labourer, had moved his family to the West Lothian village of Torphichen, while by 1871 the next generation had ended up in Linlithgow.
At around that time another Alex Salmond – the nephew of the future SNP leader's great-great-great grandfather – sailed to New York with his wife Jane, teenage son Peter, and nephew Robert, with records showing he 'was wearing his kilt when he stepped off board and onto the new land' 11 days later. His family flourished and Peter later moved to Canada where he built two houses and a farm in the new province of Saskatchewan. In her book, Alex Salmond: Cattle Dealer, Myrla Salmond (a fifth cousin of the other Alex Salmond) wrote that the 'Salmond pioneers had the courage to flout adversity'.
Back in Scotland, Alex's great-great-great grandfather, John Salmond, shows up as a ploughman in the old parish records held at the National Archives of Scotland, while the forename Alexander, or Alex, appears to have become a family favourite when John's son was christened in 1816. The Scottish Salmonds were modest citizens, mainly working as ferrymen or flour millers, while Alex's grandfather, the aforementioned Sandy, became a plumber.
Sandy's son (and the future First Minister's father), Robert Dobbie Salmond, was born on 21 August 1921 in an area of Linlithgow known as Low Port. Robert was by instinct a Labour voter, and indeed during his stint in the Royal Navy had been nicknamed 'Uncle Joe' because of his Stalinist leanings. During the Second World War Robert was an electrician on the aircraft carrier Indomitable, which was torpedoed (but not sunk) in the Mediterranean. Later he moved to the Civil Service, working as an executive officer at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance where, in 1961, a young Margaret Thatcher was appointed a junior minister.
In September 1950 Robert married Mary Stewart Milne, who also worked at the local National Insurance office as a 'clerical officer' but came from a more middle-class background. Her father, William Milne, had been a headmaster and her mother, Margaret Hamilton, a school-teacher. Robert and Mary eventually had four children, the second of which was Alex, a baby-boomer born at 4.30 p.m. on 31 December 1954 at 101 Preston Road, the Salmonds' family home.
Following a local church tradition Alex's two middle names came from the minister who christened him, G. (Gilbert) Elliot Anderson. 'I have tried to bear that name with pride,' Salmond told the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 2009, and indeed the Rev Elliot Anderson appears to have made quite an impression on the young Alex, who later gave serious thought to becoming a minister himself. As Salmond recalled in 2008, Elliot Anderson had 'a great liking for what Professor [William] Barclay used to do and looked at the exact meaning of words in Latin [and] Greek. He used to do sermons about what was meant by ... the apostles or what did it mean when Jesus said such and such to this group of folk. I used to think it was fantastic. I used to demand to listen to sermons rather than go to Sunday school. I would be sitting in rapt attention listening to the full thing. He was not a great preacher in the Barclay spellbinding nature but he was a good minister and wholly good.'
Salmond attended church almost every Sunday until he was 18, but later fell out of the habit. Like many politicians seeking to broaden their appeal, he would later talk up his Kirk background. 'I do have a strong faith and always have had,' he said in 2009. 'I have a Presbyterian nature in that I like its ideas of individual responsibility and democracy.'
Those trying to pin down the formative influences on the young Salmond need look no further than his grandfather, Sandy. 'I was ... instructed in the Scottish oral tradition,' he reflected in 2002, 'literally from my grandfather's knee, and I have little doubt that this was the strongest influence in my life in determining my attitude to nationality and identity.'
Alexander Salmond liked to impart Scottish historical tales and, as his grandson later recalled, 'the way my granddad told it gave it incredible local colour'. 'If he was telling a story about the wars of independence,' Salmond elaborated, 'he didn't tell it like a history book. For example, Bruce's men captured Linlithgow Castle. They did it by using a hay-cart and stopping the drawbridge and charging in. But what my grandfather used to say was, there were a couple of Davidsons ... an Anderson [and] the Oliphants were involved. The Oliphants were the local bakers, so at four years old I had this image of the local bakers, covered in flour, dusting themselves off and charging in. It was personal, colourful, vital. It would have won more Oscars than Braveheart.'
In retrospect, Salmond realised his grandfather had embellished these stories. 'He showed me, for example, the ground where he said Edward I had camped before the Battle of Falkirk,' he recalled, 'he showed me the window from where the Regent Moray was shot dead in the High Street.' It was because this oral history was 'unofficial, almost subversive' that made it so 'irresistible' to Salmond. He was detached enough to realise that while his grandfather 'did get the sweep of things about right', his 'Braveheart version of Scots history may have been vulnerable in the occasional point of detail'.
Nevertheless, Salmond's grandfather did at least sow the seeds of Alex's Nationalism: 'Of course, a pro-Scottish inclination goes a lot deeper than economics. Robert Burns put it best when he wrote that the story of Wallace kindled a fire in his veins "which will boil along there till the floodgates of life shut in eternal rest". Burns got his inspiration from Blind Harry's epic poem, Wallace. I got mine, literally, from my paternal grandfather's knee.'
'The fire that he lit still burns,' Salmond concluded. 'Each of us is the product of all our experiences and I do believe there is a link between these early memories and the support I developed in later years for the Scottish cause.'
This latent Nationalism was not, however, cultural. Salmond wore a kilt for the first time when he attended a family wedding at Harrogate in 1959; an experience that meant the garment was not part of his wardrobe until nearly 50 years later. It seems he found the 'shortbread tin' and 'white heather club' image of the kilt in 1950s Scotland disagreeable.
Salmond's first school was Linlithgow Primary, where he was once belted for making farmyard noises. 'I kept clucking in class, which I thought was very amusing, but my teacher thought it was less so,' Salmond recalled nearly 40 years later. A happier memory was his first foray into populist politics, standing for the SNP in mock elections. 'It was the only party left,' he explained later. 'I had a landslide victory because I advocated half-day school and the replacement of free school milk with ice cream.'
Given his allergy to almost every form of protein, however, the young Alex was not allowed to drink cow's milk, though he could take that from a goat. In fact, health problems had plagued him since birth. As a baby, he had required 'constant slathering in sulphurous jelly' due to severe eczema, and when, aged three, that abated, it was replaced by severe asthma, a condition that has affected Salmond ever since. As the journalist Alex Perry later recounted:
Mumps and measles made the asthma worse. When Salmond was chosen for an experimental asthma treatment, he had an allergic reaction to the drug, ephedrine. Mary refused to give her son any reason to think he was different. 'I'd be wheezing and she'd just fling me out to school, and over the day, the attack would wear off,' he says ... Mary also took him swimming twice a week, an exercise especially hard for her boy since his nose was always blocked. But Salmond remembers the trips to Falkirk pool as a treat: afterwards his mother would buy him fish and chips, one of the rare meals to which he was not allergic. 'She gave the appearance of total normality,' he says. 'She told me not long before she died it was the most difficult thing she had ever done.'
But despite Mary Salmond's efforts, Alex later estimated he had missed half his schooling up to the age of 12. Whenever he suffered an asthma attack he was moved from his small room at the back of the house to his parents' bedroom at the front. 'It had a fantastic view over the swing park,' he recalled. 'I used to lie there, read and ponder.' He essentially became an autodidact, teaching himself about the world from books. 'My dad bought an encyclopaedia in 1960, when I was five,' Salmond remembered. 'There were 12 volumes, and I read them from cover to cover. I knew something about everything.'
'I wouldn't wish my illnesses on anyone,' reflected Salmond following his resignation in 2014, the first time he had spoken of his ailments in such detail. 'But there is no question that kids who overcome illness or disability, it makes them much stronger.' Indeed, thereafter contemporaries would notice a sort of inner calm, a resilience and self-sufficiency about the young Alex that he retained as a politician several decades later. Rarely prone to self-reflection or worry, Salmond would always make the most of whatever situation he found himself in, however bad.
Salmond has often spoken about his paternal grandfather, Alexander Salmond, but says little about his mother's father, William Milne. This is understandable, for Milne died nearly 14 years before Alex was born, although he was also an impressive figure from whom one might have expected the future First Minister to derive some inspiration.
Milne moved to Linlithgow in 1929 to become Rector of the town's academy, the same school his grandson would later attend. He hailed from a comfortable background in Kirriemuir (his father had been an insurance agent) and moved from Webster's Seminary, where he was dux medalist in 1906, to St Andrews University – again like Salmond – from which he graduated with honours in 1910. 'This considerable "lad o'pairts",' as one newspaper described him, then worked as classics master at Bo'ness Academy for 19 years, interrupted only by a commission in the 10th Royal Scots during the First World War. Milne was drafted to France as a captain, and taken prisoner in the spring of 1918, spending the remainder of the war in a German camp.
Milne took over as Rector at Linlithgow Academy as the school became an 'omnibus' institution, or prototype comprehensive. The abolition of the primary fee-paying department provoked a storm of criticism but, as another newspaper later noted, 'Mr Milne was a man who always said that difficulties and obstacles could be overcome'. In 1935 – in addition to his duties with the local Educational Institute of Scotland, the Freemasons, local Boy Scouts and the church – Milne was elected to Linlithgow Town Council as a Unionist (or Conservative). 'One cannot live long in an old "city" like Linlithgow without falling in love with it,' he said upon his election. 'I have no experience at municipal work, but will do my best to serve the town.'
Excerpted from Salmond by David Torrance. Copyright © 2015 David Torrance. Excerpted by permission of Birlinn Limited.
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