The first thing you notice as a newcomer to Brodick, the main village on the Isle of Arran, is the palm trees. While the black clouds mass over Goat Fell each day like plumes of

volcanic ash, in the streets below, you can be sure the palm fronds nod serenely on the Gulf Stream. It is, as travel brochures have it, a place of many contrasts, and as such just the place for Scotland's latest first minister to call home.

Visiting the island where Jack McConnell was raised, I am to discover how difficult it is to define just who the man really is. As a politician, McConnell is, of course, searingly ambitious. No one gets to lead the country by a fluke. But behind the flash suits and the guilty grin, what else makes up the new first minister? My

first clue comes when I meet Jake Kerr, one of the pier hands who guides the thrice-daily

ferry into Brodick. He went through Arran High School with McConnell, and believes he

knows some of what lies behind the first

minister's public face. The first ingredient to the politician's achievement, he says, is a genuinely charmed life.

''The thing I remember most,'' says Kerr,

gazing at his overalls, ''is the fact the bugger didn't have to try. Everything seemed to come so naturally. It didn't matter what exam it was, he just messed about the day before and passed with flying colours. We messed about the day before and failed miserably. That was Jack.''

Three miles south, in the little village of Lamlash, the obligatory palm tree stands outside the modest family home of McConnell's parents, Willie and Elizabeth. On the day details of their son's affair seven years ago are splashed across the front pages of the nation's newspapers, the couple are welcoming and polite. As Willie shows me into the living room, his wife swiftly tucks a copy of the Daily Record inside The Herald, and raises her face to smile. The 65-year-old is the spitting image of her son. She is chirpy and pleasant, but intensely wary of what she says. She and Willie have witnessed the role the press can have in the rise and fall of their son. They, like him, believe he was born to lead, whatever the last few days have thrown at him.

''We used to joke he would be prime minister one day,'' says Elizabeth, scanning the photographs of the populous McConnell clan which line her living room walls. Yet more photographs have been balanced on every piece of available furniture. ''He is a very caring person, and very family minded. I don't think originally he would have thought about being in politics, but when he tried it, he found out he had a talent for it.''

She goes on to tell of how she and Willie were mobbed in the local shop after news broke of their son's affair with Maureen Smith, a former Labour Party press officer. They were greeted not with jeers, but with requests for invites to Jack's swearing in ceremony as first minister. The reaction was testimony to his popularity on the island which helped transform him from a confident, happy child to a sometimes unnervingly confident man, always seeming to be in control of his life, constantly spinning different incarnations of Jack McConnell. At least until the open secret of Scottish journalism made its way into the headlines.

As McConnell tries to resume a grip over a career which for a few days appeared in danger of going into freefall, it is easy to dissect his life into a series of eager-to-please personas. His famous grin recently saw him tagged in the press as Guilty Jack, but throughout his life there have been many other incarnations. As a teenager, it was Nationalist Jack, who went to university and changed into fiery Socialist Jack, who then acquired an election machine and became a slick President Jack, head of the student body. After graduation, Jack the Teacher begat Councillor Jack, and then General Secretary Jack who shapeshifted into Jack the Fixer. Now, as the memory of Jack the Lad recedes behind Jack the Penitent, at 41, McConnell is finally assuming the role he has been working towards for a generation - Jack the first minister. But while his life is easily sliced into neat roles, it is harder

to discern what lies behind them.

Born in Irvine on 6 June, 1960, Jack Wilson McConnell spent his infancy in West Kilbride in Ayrshire, at the superbly named Biglies Farm. That impish smile was a gift from Elizabeth's side, and it sat perfectly alongside the ''McConnell confidence'' inherited from his father. After two years living with Elizabeth's in-laws, the Jack family (hence McConnell's first name), the McConnells took a short flit over the Firth of Clyde to Arran, where Willie worked as a tenant sheep farmer. The family's home was Glenscorrodale, a 2,000-acre estate with 650 ewes on the green and russet uplands in the south of the island.

At first it was a lonely place, without mains electricity or television reception. In the winter, the high, scrappy Ross Road often drifted over with snow, and there were only two other houses nearby, several miles down the valley to Sliddery. But at least Glenscorrodale had charm. From the south, it looked like a child's painting of a farm, a broad door in the middle of its whitewashed stone walls, and two windows on each storey. Outside was a flat tussocky field where Willie trained his sheep dogs and a burn gushed noisily along the edge of the garden.

Jack and his new brother Iain were joined in quick succession by Anne and Callum. Willie and Elizabeth took a small but ultimately momentous decision to supplement their scant income. High in the middle of nowhere, they opened a tea room. It thrived, and twice earned a mention in the Egon Ronay guide. Besides the awesome reputation of Elizabeth's baking, the tea room had another attraction. While his brothers worked with the sheep, Jack, never an animal lover, stayed indoors and worked on his people skills. From seven to 17, he served and charmed the customers, even winning a handsome tip from arch Tory Teddy Taylor.

McConnell's parents describe the confident adolescent who honed his communication skills among the scones and teapots. ''He has never been shy,'' says Elizabeth. ''He had no fear of walking through the door,'' adds Willie, who inhabits a pit-like armchair beside an electric fire. Dressed in brightly-coloured trainers, sweatpants and a well-worn jumper, he is the typical west coast father, by turns droll and inscrutable. ''Jack enjoyed meeting people,'' he continues. ''He enjoyed talking to them, and they would relax with him.''

By the age of 14, McConnell had worked up the funds and the bottle to take his first holiday anywhere other than Ayrshire and boarded a plane to Paris alone to stay with a friend's

family (he has been an avid Francophile since). The move was typical of the lad who was quickly gaining in self-belief. ''He has always been self-reliant since he left home,'' says Elizabeth now, describing her son's abundant resourcefulness - a quality she knows is crucial if he is to get through his personal and political traumas as he succeeds Henry McLeish.

At school, McConnell was bright, lively and able. Joyce Scott, who taught him at Arran Primary, remembers ''a good all-round pupil'', but not an outstanding one. David Oakes, his headmaster at Arran High School, was, however, impressed by McConnell's surfeit of ready opinions. ''The best way not to make a mistake is to say nothing, but Jack was not the sort to say nothing. He had an eagerness to be involved and up front.''

The same fluent charm served McConnell well at Stirling University in the late 1970s and early 1980s. McConnell went to study accountancy to please his father - Willie always had an astute business sense, and became a successful hotelier after giving up Glenscorrodale in 1981. But McConnell gave up accountancy after a year and switched to his favourite subject, maths, eager to fulfil his ambition to become a teacher. He also grew up politically.

Though his family was apolitical, McConnell's latent nationalism had prompted him to join the SNP at school. A member of the party for 18 months, he left it at university after seeing every debate framed in terms of Scotland and England, rather than haves and have-nots. In 1980, he joined Labour and got a taste for the hustings when he beat eight other candidates to become student association president. One fellow student was Tommy Sheridan, now leader of the Scottish Socialist Party.

''My first impression was of a guy who was already steeped in electoral politics,'' says Sheridan. ''But he never struck me as a socialist who made profound statements of a radical character. It was always as an administrator and being in the spotlight that he excelled.''

Another who knew him on campus was Bob McLean, later convener of Scottish Labour Action, the nationalist pressure group inside Labour that McConnell helped found in 1988. ''He was never a doctrinal activist,'' says McLean. ''He was more fun-loving in his student days.''

A key influence was John Reid, Northern

Ireland Secretary, who was then a mature student living on campus. During major political occasions, Reid would emerge to police party disorder, a wise Gandalf to the fractious young hobbits. McConnell saw him as ''a fantastic

orator'', but according to McLean it was not his ideology that McConnell sat and absorbed, but Reid's rhetoric, presentation and style.

After graduating in 1983, McConnell began a nine-year stint as a maths teacher at Lornshill Academy in Alloa. Working to improve the lot of children has become a running theme in his life, one which seems fuelled by some deep reservoir of anger. When I speak to him days before his enthronement as first minister, he shows an uncharacteristic flash of indignation. ''What pisses me off personally more than anything, in people in general and parents is abusing kids,'' he says. ''Any kind of neglect of kids just makes me utterly furious and angry that I can't do more about it.'' It is rare that McConnell betrays emotion in public, and it is the only time in a conversation that follows one of the toughest weeks of his political - and presumably personal - life. Even in the press conference orchestrated by McConnell to pre-empt a savaging by the tabloid press - in which he and his wife Bridget

spoke of their feelings after news of his affair with Maureen Smith broke - he managed to maintain his cool.

His own childhood, he says, was a contented one. ''I had a very, very happy childhood and I don't know many people who had bad childhoods, but for some reason I feel very strongly about it.''

McConnell entered professional politics ''by accident'' in 1984. The local Labour party needed a candidate capable of taking a marginal Tory ward on Stirling District Council. As the ward happened to include the university campus, McConnell was asked to stand. By 1990 he was council leader.

Keith Harding, his Tory opposite and now a list MSP for mid-Scotland and Fife, says McConnell was a more than competent manager, cutting straight to the heart of problems. ''But as to his ideology, it's difficult to put a finger on it. I was certainly not aware of any original thought.''

On April 6, 1990, McConnell married Bridget Mary Brown, then head of arts on Fife Council, and the mother of two young children, Mark and Hannah, by a previous marriage. He says their meeting three years before changed his life ''fundamentally'', grounding him in the day-to-day realities politicians lose sight of at their peril.

He admits to being naive about what he was taking on in a ready-made family, and at first was as cack-handed as every new father. Crossing to Brodick for their first family holiday together, McConnell wore a typically flash combination of white trainers, white jeans and white T-shirt, ignorant of the fact that ferries and children with pints of cola don't mix. He says he has been learning from the children ever since.

Within a year of the marriage McConnell formally adopted Mark and Hannah, now 18 and 22 respectively. Six months later the children - whose natural father, Richard Brown, is a former guitarist with Procul Harem - stopped calling him Jack and started saying dad. ''The kids deserved the security that would come from knowing I would always be there for them,'' McConnell says now, knowing that they must have suffered with the press revelations about his affair.

It seems that his determination to put children high on his political agenda is rooted in the same need to protect Mark and Hannah. In private friends say it is McConnell who is the quiet one, always befriending the children at get-togethers and serving the food, leaving Bridget to crack the jokes.

Talking of the difficulties of separating his family and political lives, he says: ''It's been important to keep the two worlds apart. Obviously, recent weeks have made the privacy of my family life harder, but I have been very keen to protect Mark and Hannah from that sort of publicity.'' He adds, ''I'm not sure if I'm a good father, but I'm a very proud one.''

According to Irene Plank, a neighbour in Stirling who was the McConnell's childminder for many years, the bond was very real, and fully reciprocated. ''Jack dotes on them, and they admire him,'' she says.

''People need to remember there are two sides to Jack - Jack the family man and Jack the politician are utterly different.'' McConnell's mother agrees. ''I would not approve if he was totally ruthless and he had no other side to him,'' she says, ''but his family come first.'' Elizabeth refers only briefly to McConnell's affair. ''Even though he has this thing hanging over him just now, he has very, very strong principles about right and wrong. He really does, apart from that one wee mistake. He is the same Jack he always was.''

Besides the family man, Jack was a skilled political animal, always in the right place, and always able to turn on the charm offensive. As his political star rose, his love of teaching started to wane. He became disenchanted with the lack of classroom discipline, the lack of resources, and the oversupply of bickering between rival unions.

After Neil Kinnock's second electoral thrashing in 1992, and John Smith's succession, the general secretaryship of the Scottish Labour Party fell vacant. McConnell applied and, to his surprise, he became the top party official north of the border at just 32.

His youth didn't last long. Scottish Labour's backbiters made rats in a sack look like ladies-in-waiting. It was the start of a gruesome period for McConnell, as one scandal after another, including the suicide of Paisley South MP Gordon McMaster, showed up a party crippled by infighting. During the rows, McConnell would often snatch some rest in Arran, but was rarely away from the fray for long.

''He would not have known what was involved at first,'' says his father. ''But when he did he just rolled his sleeves up and got started. That's his method - it's either that or back off. And you might as well be there when the fighting starts otherwise you are just someone else's puppet and he's not that.''

During this time, McConnell acquired his legendary reputation as a fixer. Elizabeth refutes the charge, although she accepts ''he has to be a wee bit ruthless'' from time to time.

His reforms earned McConnell a panoply of enemies, and many still bristle at the way they were sacrificed, as they see it, for the greater glory of the general secretary. ''He was always trying to prove he was a strong man,'' says one who felt the cold steel of Keir Hardie House squarely between the shoulders. ''He does not operate on the basis of any kind of principles. It has always been personal ambition.''

In 1993 McConnell invited disaster on himself by the affair with Maureen Smith, the party's Scottish press officer, just three years into his marriage. Impervious to the sideways looks from colleagues, the pair were reportedly brazen in public. After McConnell tried to abandon the relationship, it flared up again during the bitter Monklands East by-election in 1994.

After John Smith's death the same year, McConnell backed Tony Blair as party leader. In the bizarre binary world of New Labour, where every action provokes an equal but opposite reaction, this meant snubbing Gordon Brown, and the future chancellor never forgot or forgave it. By 1996 the strain was making McConnell behave unwisely. As the hyper-aggressive prosecution of the groundless ''Votes for Trips'' row in Glasgow began to blow up in Labour's face, McConnell leaked ever more prodigiously to the press, until eventually the spin got out of control.

McConnell says that since he was a teenager he has wanted to take charge of events and change things for the better. But now his control was slipping away. Doing the rounds of constituencies, he discovered how much the grass roots disliked his image of Jack the Lad, and the reputation as a fixer.

McConnell was so involved with spinning and winning the media game that he was losing track of the important issues. ''He felt that for himself and the party, he was appearing too much in the media,'' says one friend. ''He was starting to become the story.''

He also knew that if he wanted to graduate from party functionary to national politician he had to think strategically. Only then would he retain control, and avoid being, in his father's words, someone else's puppet.

The following year McConnell was tested to breaking point, but managed to score some of his finest political achievements under immense personal pressure. As the general election loomed, a poisonous whispering campaign drifted north from London, fanned by Gordon Brown's lieutenants. Jack wasn't up the job, they said. Not sufficient calibre, you know. Untrustworthy.

The incontinent press briefings stopped and by the end of the year, McConnell could look back on 1997 with pride. Party membership had almost doubled since he had taken over as party general secretary, the general election had brought Labour to power and routed every last Tory MP from Scotland and he had overseen and delivered on the Yes-Yes campaign for the Scottish Parliament. He was on the up, and he knew it.

After a bloody scrap to win the party nomination for Motherwell and Wishaw, he was elected its MSP on May 6, 1999. He was always a nationalist with a small ''n'', and the opening of the Scottish Parliament ''was a huge day for him,'' says Elizabeth. ''He was overwhelmed by it. He realised it had actually come true at last.''

Donald Dewar's decision to make him finance minister seemed far more like fiction. McConnell had hoped for education, with enterprise a possible fall-back. Finance was a broad, complicated brief, made almost impenetrable by the minutiae of local government spending, but he set to work on it as best he could, using diligence where passion failed him.

A few months later, the Lobbygate row enveloped Holyrood. McConnell was accused of doing favours for friends at the Lanarkshire PR behemoth Beattie Media - including the son of his old mentor John Reid. McConnell emerged from the subsequent parliamentary probe relatively unscathed, but the affair once again showed his hatred of not being in charge.

''You can't always predict what's coming round the corner and when it does come, you can't always stop it moving,'' he said last year. ''But what I hadn't experienced until last October, though, was a situation I had no control over.''

He was 39, and despite the affair, he was proclaiming he had never been out of control. Two years later, he has felt the fallout of assuming that he could remain in charge of everything in his life.

Friends say loss of control is McConnell's worst fear. His televised confession of adultery, with Bridget beside him, airing her own feelings on his affair, was one such moment, and he visibly loathed it. He had seen Henry McLeish flop around in front of the cameras like a snagged salmon, and he detested coming close to the same parodic state. The same desire for control means there are no volcanic tantrums when McConnell gets angry. He doesn't want to let rip. Instead he directs a brittle icy fury against the offending party.

When Donald Dewar died after barely a year in office, McConnell was as surprised as anyone to come just eight votes short of victory in the election for his successor. ''It was a very bold move standing against Henry,'' says Alan Clements, the television producer husband of Kirsty Wark, and a friend of McConnell for more than a decade. ''But in the end it proved the right strategy. He put down a marker to show he had party support, then spent the next year being ultra loyal.''

McConnell's father says there were other risks involved, too. ''The Sun has had the (Maureen Smith) story for years. If Jack had won over Henry McLeish he would have brought it out into the open. It was always going to be brought out to clear the air.''

A friend of the family says Bridget's main concern was reawakening the sleeping dragon in the Treasury. ''She worried that Gordon would let the dogs out and make life unpleasant for them both. Jack takes a political view, that you expect these things in politics and you deal with them in a managerial way. Bridget takes it much more personally.''

McConnell's reward for almost beating McLeish was that old Chinese curse - the thing he most wanted. The education portfolio was dominated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, an administrative basketcase which threatened to besmirch the entire Scottish Executive. McConnell the manager did what he does best. He rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in, and had possibly his most fulfilling year in politics. Then Henry McLeish lost control.

Despite Bridget's sensitivity to the public gaze, when it came to the crunch McConnell didn't miss a beat putting his year-old disclosure plan into action.Besides putting his own career back on track, his public admissions also broke the self-destructive cycle of allegation and muddle that had ruined McLeish and threatened to devour Holyrood.

''It was difficult for both of us,'' he says. ''It was particularly difficult for Bridget, but we are a strong enough family for that. It was better for us to do that now than let others do it to us. I wasn't trying to seize the moral high ground,'' he adds, as if somehow it was on offer to him.

Today, Glenscorrodale is a mess. The Samye Ling Buddhists who bought Holy Island off Arran have taken it over as a campsite, but it looks more like a bombsite. The storybook farmhouse has been transformed - the windows have been punched out, the kitchen floorboards pulled up and the wallpaper in the bedrooms lies in wet folds on the upturned furniture. A hard wind from the top of the valley blows straight through the house into the garden, where it has whipped a line of prayer flags into tatters.

The image of a hollow, echoing shell would, no doubt, be a tempting one for critics of Scotland's latest leader. Certainly McConnell has lost forever the security blanket that idyllic, happy household of his childhood gave him. The seemingly unshakable self-belief instilled in him at Glenscorrodale must have faltered in the last few weeks.

There might still be palm trees in Arran, but if Scotland's new first minister is looking for paradise, he has much work to do.