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Hamish Watt

Farmer and former SNP MP.

Born: December 27, 1925; Died: April 12, 2014.

HAMISH Watt, who has died aged 88, was Westminster MP for Banffshire for the surging Scottish National Party during the 1970s, finally losing his seat in the 1979 general election which swept Margaret Thatcher and the Tories, his original party, to power.

In that election, he was one of nine of the SNP's MPs to lose their seats -- a low point for the party. During his term, he had served as the SNP's Chief Whip for two years.

He was also a sheep and cattle farmer, a quarryman, a columnist for the Aberdeen Press and Journal, a local councillor, an author and after-dinner speaker, and a past Rector of Aberdeen University which later awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Laws (LLD). In whatever he did, he was most often described as a one-off, straight-talking, no-nonsense individualist, a true son of and campaigner for the north-east of Scotland.

He was born in the small north-eastern town of Keith, at the time in Banffshire but now part of Moray, to William Watt and Caroline Allen. He attended Keith Grammar School before going to the University of St. Andrews. While farming just outside Keith, he first ran for Westminster in 1966 as Tory candidate for Caithness and Sutherland, finishing a poor third.

The 1960s surge in the popularity of the SNP won him over. The party had made breakthrough in by-elections in Bridgeton, Glasgow, and in West Lothian in 1961 and '62. A major breakthrough was when Winnie Ewing won Hamilton in 1967, famously saying: "Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on." The party had finally stormed and stirred the consciousness of Scots. And so it was for the SNP that Hamish Watt contested the Banffshire seat in 1970, again unsuccessfully, losing to the Conservative candidate.

Still farming, he was 48 when Prime Minister Ted Heath, largely irked by Scottish nationalism and the "It's Scotland's Oil" campaign, called a snap general election in 1974 in which the question of Scottish devolution was central. Perhaps bolstered by the stunning victory of the late Margo MacDonald in Govan the previous year, a jubilant Mr Watt was elected as an SNP member of the British parliament by 2,785 votes as the Scottish Nationalists increasingly flexed their muscles both at home and in Westminster. The ­work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, led by Jimmy Reid, did their cause no harm.

Mr Watt found himself one of seven SNP MPs in a hung parliament, a thorn in the flesh of both Labour and the Tories bemused by the question of devolution for Scotland. They were soon to become 11 SNP MPs via by-elections. Given his roots, Mr Watt was a natural to become the SNP's agriculture and fisheries minister, adding to his mandate the then plight of the motor industry in the UK as a whole, and Scotland in particular.

In the run-up to the 1979 general election, Britain's Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan warned Scottish Nationalists they were "turkeys voting for an early Christmas". In the words of the Daily Telegraph, "Watt was one of those turkeys". He lost to his Conservative opponent for Banffshire and the SNP lost nine of its 11 seats at Westminster.

Mr Watt stood again for the SNP in 1983, for the Moray seat after a boundary change, but lost out to the Tory candidate Alex Pollock. Thereafter, he became a Grampian regional councillor, where he was chairman of its education committee until 1990.

The students of Aberdeen University elected him Rector in 1985 but his blunt approach soon rubbed them up the wrong way. A year on, after he referred to women students as "fillies" and said he preferred them "unbroken," the students voted to oust him. Fighting his students - never a great idea - his "punishment" was a quid pro quo, an honorary law degree (LLD) in 1988 when he stood down.

Unhumbled by Aberdeen University students, and somewhat disillusioned by the SNP, he ran as an independent in the first elections to the new Scottish parliament at Holyrood in 1999. Faced with a new generation of Scots, and his own star having waned, he finished fifth and went back to the farm.

Commenting on Mr Watt's death, the SNP MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast, Stewart Stevenson, said: "As the parliamentary whip for the group of 11 SNP MPs elected in 1974, Hamish played a key role in keeping Scotland on the political agenda."

Banff and Buchan SNP MSP Dr Eilidh Whiteford added: "Hamish was the MP for my home town of MacDuff in the 1970s and his victory in the Banffshire constituency in 1974 was part of the big breakthrough for the SNP in the north-east of Scotland. It is thanks to the hard work done by people like Hamish that we are where we are now, only five months out from a referendum on independence."

Hamish Watt died peacefully at his home in the fishing village of Portgordon, Moray, near Buckie, where, in his retirement, he enjoyed watching the local seal population bathing on the rocks, as well as the dolphins prancing offshore.

He is survived by his second wife Sally, children Maureen, Lorna and Michael, stepchildren Dianne and Michael (Ross) and his grandchildren. Maureen is SNP MSP for Aberdeen South & North Kincardine.

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