Donald J. Stewart (1920-1992) of Stornoway : local and national politician, Member of Parliament and Privy Counsellor

Donald Stewart was a Stornoway Town Councillor and Provost; he was elected to Westminster as its sole Scottish National Party Member of Parliament in 1970, and was awarded the Freedom of the Western Isles.

Attribution: Wikipedia and The Independent

During 2023, to mark the 150th anniversary of The Nicolson Institute, and to accompany the forthcoming book ‘The Nicolson Institute 1873-2023 : a 150 year celebration’ by Iain Smith, the Heritage Service blog will be publishing a series of vignettes: brief biographies of former pupils of the school who have achieved remarkably in their chosen fields. These have been written by a number of guest authors and provide a wide-ranging illustration of the achievements of some past students. The full list is available here. This month, we have selected those who made their mark in the field of politics.

Donald James Stewart in the regalia of Provost of Stornoway, September 1961

Donald James Stewart, politician, born Stornoway 17 October 1920; Provost of Stornoway 1959-65, 1968-70; Hon Sheriff 1960; MP (SNP) Western Isles 1970-87, leader Parliamentary SNP 1974-87, PC 1977, President SNP 1982-87; married 1955 Christina Macaulay; died Stornoway 23 August 1992.

Early life

Stewart was born in Stornoway, Western Isles. He was educated at The Nicolson Institute. Stewart left school at 16 to work as a junior clerk in a local solicitor’s office, before going on to work in the office of Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd, a Stornoway Harris Tweed firm. He saw active service during the Second World War with the Royal Navy on North Atlantic convoy duty, serving on HMS Celandine for the duration of the war. Following the war, he returned to Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd, eventually becoming a director. He remained with the firm until his election to Parliament in 1970.

Political career

A lifelong socialist, Stewart became convinced of the case for Scottish independence at the 1935 United Kingdom general election, and joined the Scottish National Party the following year. He also joined the Labour Party in 1937, but became disillusioned with the party because of its stance on Scottish independence and left it in 1939. He was first elected to Stornoway Town Council in 1951 and remained a councillor until his election to Parliament in 1970. He stood unsuccessfully in the 1952 Dundee East by-election. Stewart was the provost of Stornoway from 1959 to 1965, and again from 1968 to 1970. At the 1970 general election he was the SNP’s first ever MP returned at a general election, at the last declared result in the entire UK, two factors which led to great attention in the media.

Stewart was the SNP’s sole Westminster representative from 1970 until he was joined by Margo MacDonald who won Glasgow Govan in a by-election of 1973. At the February 1974 general election he was joined by six other SNP MPs, and at the October general election of that year this number increased to eleven. Stewart became the SNP parliamentary group leader, with William Wolfe as the SNP leader overall. In 1977, Donald Stewart was appointed as a Privy Counsellor.

When Robin Cook MP moved an amendment to legalise homosexual acts to the Bill which became the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, he stated “The clause bears the names of hon. Members from all three major parties. I regret that the only party represented among Scottish Members of Parliament from which there has been no support for the clause is the Scottish National Party. I am pleased to see both representatives of that party in their place, and I hope to convert them in the remainder of my remarks.” When the amendment came to a vote, Stewart and the SNP’s other MP Gordon Wilson both voted against the decriminalisation of homosexual acts.

In 1981 Stewart attempted to introduce some provisions for Gaelic through a private members’ bill, but it was met with hostility from the Conservatives and was talked out by Bill Walker. It was only with the introduction of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 by the devolved Scottish Parliament, that the language was afforded some official recognition.

In March 1985 Stewart announced he would retire from front-line politics at the next election, although he continued to represent the Western Isles until 1987. At the General Election of that year his seat was gained by the Labour Party from the SNP and was consequently held until the 2005 general election when it was regained by the SNP’s Angus Brendan MacNeil.

Upon his retirement from Parliament, Stewart was offered a life peerage, but refused it. Stewart was working on an autobiography when he died in 1992. It was edited and completed by his sister and published in 1994 as A Scot in Westminster.

It was Stewart who famously described the SNP as a “radical party, with a revolutionary aim”.

Personal life

Stewart married Christina MacAulay.

In August 1992 he suffered a heart attack. He died a week later, aged 71, at Lewis hospital, Stornoway.

In his obituary, his ex-colleague Andrew Welsh wrote:

Donald Stewart was one of the great men of modern Scottish politics.

In his public life he evinced modesty, honesty and trustworthiness – qualities almost unique in a modern politician. He was a shrewd man, of integrity and common sense, a quiet, durable individual endowed with an unshakeable belief in Scotland’s future as an independent nation, and a great ambassador for the Western Isles and Scotland.

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