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John Farquhar Munro

MSP

MSP

Born: August 26, 1934; Died: January 26, 2014.

JOHN Farquhar Munro, who has died aged 79, was a Highland crofter, local businessman and councillor who, only a few months before he became a pensioner in 1999, was elected as one of the first members of the new Scottish parliament.

He was the oldest MSP in Holyrood House by the time he stood down in 2011 after 12 years in the job, described by his peers as a Champion of the Highlands.

He was a committed Liberal Democrat, very much a Highlander, and a Gaelic speaker who fought for his fellow crofters, for land reform and for the survival and furtherance of his mother tongue.

As one of the few Gaelic speakers in Holyrood, he fought, along with Michael Russell of the SNP, to have Gaelic recognised as equal to English in his constituency. Bilingual road signs were part of his legacy. He was also a maverick, who would criticise his own Lib Dem colleagues or policies if he thought they were unfit.

Having taken the Kyle of Lochalsh ferry to the Isle of Skye for most of his life, but seeing the Skye Road Bridge more or less take its place, he became a key figure in eliminating the bridge's tolls, which had threatened the entire tourism industry of the Western Isles.

The cost of the bridge crossing had become prohibitive - known as "the most expensive road in Europe" - but, ugly as many saw it, it became a fait accompli. Mr Munro was instrumental in seeing the tolls removed in 2004.

In the Highlands and Islands, and particularly in his constituency of Ross, Skye and Inverness West, many of his constituents addressed Mr Munro in writing in Gaelic as Iain Fearchar Rothach.

Not least among his achievements was the fact that, to be elected to Holyrood in 1999, he had to beat another (distantly-related) Munro called Donnie Munro, singer with the band Runrig, best known for their rendition of Loch Lomond. Although John F, as he became known, won the seat, both he and the singer Donnie are credited with a resurgence in the Gaelic language, not only in Scotland but among the Scots' diaspora and even among young would-be linguists from Johannesburg to Japan. In 1999, Mr Munro was seen as the dynamo behind the election of Charles Kennedy as Lib Dem party leader.

In line with his Scotland-before-politics philosophy, Mr Munro, after he had retired from Holyrood in 2011, broke ranks with the LibDems and backed the SNP's Alex Salmond for a second term as First Minister.

"I have known Alex Salmond for several years and have come to ­appreciate his political acumen, his debating skills and his devotion to Scotland. (He) is the only one who can lead us through the next session of parliament ensuring a more prosperous and sustainable future for Scotland."

John Farquhar Munro was born in Glen Shiel, Lochalsh, not far from the Kyle of Lochalsh, the gateway to the Hebrides he loved. He was brought up very much aware of the bloody 1719 Battle of Glenshiel in which his forefathers fought.

It was the British army versus a coalition of Jacobites and Spaniards but it saw Scot fight Scot, with the Munros on one side and others like Rob Roy McGregor on the other. It was a history lesson but one which John F Munro never forgot.

He became a merchant seaman, reportedly after stowing away on board the Queen Mary.

Back home, in the family tradition, he became a crofter and eventually a small businessman who employed up to 50 people, which was vital to the local economy.

He was also a devout Christian, an elder in his local church, and, like his forefathers, a keen and skilful hunter, marksman and fisherman. He gained a reputation for treating everyone equally - his workers, tourists or English estate agents who had come north thinking that money could buy his land.

After being elected to Holyrood in 1999, he spent most weekdays in Edinburgh but could not wait to get back to the Highlands.

In his retirement, he helped run youth clubs and followed and supported his beloved shinty - he had played for Kintail and Glenshiel Shinty Club as a young man. He also engaged in one of his other passions, amateur dramatics, and generally remained a pillar of his local community and beyond.

According to Andy Myles, a friend and former LibDem colleague of Mr Munro, said: "John F was my favourite maverick in Scottish politics and we are already sadly missing his type of independence of mind - and vote - at Holyrood. There's too much 'leadership' and 'followers' these days for my liking - and too few who'll make their own mind up and to Hell with the Whip."

Current Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie added: "John F was a canny, crafty Highlander who calmly asserted his place in the political world. His roots in crofting and the West Highlands gave him the strength and depth to endure the trials of politics."

First Minister Alex Salmond said: "John Farquhar was an outstanding champion for the Highlands and leaves an impressive legacy on issues such as land reform, crofting and Gaelic.

"He was his always his own man, campaigning beyond party loyalties, which is one reason he will be remembered with respect and affection right across the political spectrum."

He is survived by his wife Celia, son Paddy and daughter Shanae.

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