Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is enormously proud that he still has his own teeth. He doesn't exactly tell me this but the photograph of the car crash he was in more than 20 years ago, which he has just pulled from his wallet, confirms my dental suspicions. He leans forward and shows me the mangled wreckage where he was almost crushed to death after a Royal Navy Land-Rover carrying 100lb of explosives crashed into his car on a deserted road in the Highlands. As a political testament of longevity it takes a fair bit of beating.

We laugh, almost inadvertently, at the macabre sight. He suffered extensive facial injuries and, without his seatbelt, would almost certainly have been killed. ''There are two things about it,'' he says. ''For many years I used to say it was the antidote to self-pity. Often I would be tired, or in difficult situations and when I looked at that I would think 'I'm very lucky to be alive'. It was always a reminder that every day is a bonus.

''If you use every day to make the world safer, which is what my job is, then at least you can feel good about yourself. The marks are still on my

body as well as my mind. So, when I get in the back of limousines with very important people I find myself lecturing them that they should be putting on their belts.''

It's a strange, self-styled survivor conversation, in which politicians appear to revel. Perhaps it part explains why he has been accused of being prickly and smug. A great deal of this perception has been put down to the fact that his features - a rather conspicuous chin with a serried, inch-wide grin - give him an air of aloofness. He comes across as rather priggish and snooty. Despite the barbed comments, he is lucky to have a face at all. His wallet trick, however, is an effective opening from the portfolio of this seasoned politician. He is the man with the mirror. He holds it up and let's you see what it is you want to see in him. The art of an agent of deception.

Then we are into football. What I can't fathom is what bet could convince anyone to elect a Hamilton Academicals supporter as head of Nato? Lord Robertson, secretary general of the aforementioned military huddle, and the most powerful Scotsman in the world, is a card-carrying, sabre-rattling Accies fan. The trouble is his team has recently plummeted into the purgatory of Division Three. ''It's preddy dire,'' he says, in his thick, newly-acquired, transatlantic burr. ''Terrible.''

Well, I say, you've got 19 armies at your disposal, don't you think you could do something about it? ''In seven months I haven't caused a world war,'' he laughs, ''so you never know.''

Hold on there, George, just because you've spent the past eight months pimping for the Americans . . . em, what I mean is heading up the Nato alliance, it's not quite the CV the Accies are looking for. Do you like pigeons? ''What?'' Greyhounds? ''Pardon?'' Victoria's nightclub? He gives me a bemused look.

Accident or no accident, at 54 Lord Robertson has that cheerful, sea-side postcard, bulldog-chewing-a-nettle countenance. If he sucked a lemon, no doubt

the lemon would pull a face. Today he is looking rather beaky, severe and serious, but with a sort of soldier-boy chucklehead demeanour and a ''can-you-believe-I'm-just-a-regular-Joe'' kind of attitude (no, I can't). There is, coincidentally, an undertaker's spring to his step.

He is fairly tall but looks stiff in his expensively tailored suit. His hair, which is severely parted, demands explaining. It looks like a large, dead black cat has been placed on his head. There have been snipes about his vanity and it would be safe to say he suffers from a dose of healthy ego. Arms impassively at his sides, he shuttles into a hydraulic dance routine as he strolls around his office at Nato headquarters, Brussels, which is front-loaded with photographs of Lord Robertson alongside heads of state, presidents and Prime Ministers, as if to remind himself of the importance of his position.

He remains tense, distant and only slightly forbidding. He has also taken to talking in military jargon - for example, ''inter-operability'', ''inter-institutional armistice'' and ''harmonising operational requirements''. It's both baffling and hilarious, a bit like trying to unzip fog. Although we have just met I cannot help but think Lord Robertson would much rather be spending the afternoon up to his ego in strategic studies, gyroscopes and navigations systems.

I'm not even sure this is the real George Robertson I'm speaking with (the twangy, nasal accent is something new altogether), so I try to knock his eye off the football compass and onto the nitty gritty of realpolitiks. Are American and British planes still bombing and killing civilians, including children in Iraq? ''They are not,'' fires back the war lord of Port Ellen, grotesquely morphing into a military titan. That's a denial? ''Yeah. They are bombing Saddam's air-defence targets, they are bombing Saddam's offensive missiles. They are not bombing civilians. All the time it's military targets, but the propaganda . . .'' He pauses. When asked an awkward question his features take on the contours of a disapproving teenager.

''Even in Kosovo, the lies that were told by the Serbs . . .'' He shakes his head with innocent candour. ''An organisation called Human Rights Watch, that is no friend of Nato, incidentally, did a big study with full access from the Yugoslavian authorities. They said 500 civilians died in Serbia during the air campaign, and the bulk of them in a handful of incidents, where people were being used as human shields. So there was a remarkable degree of accuracy in more than 31,000 offensive bombing raids in Kosovo.''

He becomes increasingly expansive when he starts talking about Kosovo. It's all ''the right thing to do'' and ''we never wanted to act but had to'' and ''precision bombing''. Damn, I think to myself. This is the real George Robertson. There is always something a little pompous hanging off his remarks.

He's at his best conjuring it up, a working jib to Washington's spinometer - strategy moves, counter moves and game playing. He tells me, in a paternalistic Nato kind of way, that he is concerned for the future generations of children around the world. ''It's for the kids'', didn't you know? I ask if he used to be a politician. He pulls another face. Concerned? So he should be. Anyone squirrelling away nearly #200,000 a year, tax-free, should be downright Mother Teresa concerned. Then again, I suppose it's understandable. He's hardly likely to say ''we're doing all this bombing for the multi-nationals, the arms salesmen, the tax-exiles and, of course, Serb and Iraqi undertakers'', is he? It would, however, be pleasantly refreshing if he did.

Despite lacking diplomatic polish or overt military swagger, Lord Robertson, who was appointed secretary-general in August, succeeding Javier Solana of Spain, remains the kind of politician who misses no opportunity to don a helmet and sit in a tank. In spite of his stolid, provincial brain, he is viewed as ''a safe suit''. His years of ubiquity in British politics made him exactly the type of person whom the policemen of the world need to steer them through yet another minefield of international politics. So far it has proven to be a tough assignment. He constantly has to act as a buttress between heads of state and government leaders in an age devoid of the raison d'etre for the organisation's creation, the Soviet Union.

So what's it like, this Nato business? ''It's been punishing,'' he frowns. ''I've done 35 countries since October. There've been guards of honour, meetings with presidents and Prime Ministers. All of it matters. You are not going through a formality. They are watching every move you make. A word out of place is taken as a message.

''There is a big agenda and I've got to measure it by that. The defence capability after Kosovo, the Europeans realised that the Americans had too much, the equipment, the smart electronics. Two million people in uniform and we were scrabbling around trying to get 40,000 soldiers. There's a big paper tiger out there. We have to deal with that. European troops in East Timor, Sierra Leone. The idea the Cold War is over and you don't need troops is crazy. There is a need for Europe to enhance its military capabilities.

''The pace is considerable. Everybody wants to come and see me. Because there is nobody else. I'm the head of the organisation. Gradually it's become more of a foreign ministry. I'm the Foreign ministry as well.''

For 40 years, he says, Nato was in the business of keeping the peace, a bulwark against the Soviet threat. It was successful. Everything is peace-shapen now. ''Although this organisation is designed to be for an emergency, it is set up to move quickly, but the processes of getting there is laborious. But, when it came to taking action last year in Kosovo, to save lives, it moved very speedily. Most people didn't think that would happen.''

Asked if he concedes there is an overbearing influence from America within the partnership he answers uneasily. The question has him picking at imaginary fluff on his suit trousers. He tells me building a European Defence capability is ''extremely important'' which is what the European Union Defence countries committed themselves to last December. ''It's not a question of the Americans doing too much, it's the Europeans doing too little.''

The scene of the great lord's nativity was a prison in 1946, on the whisky-producing island of Islay, although, strictly speaking, it wasn't because his mother was doing porridge for cattle-rustling, or anything like that. By prison, I mean the domestic accommodation where his parents stayed (he is a son and grandson of policemen). His respect for authority and the uniform, it seems, stems from his early island life. His brother has served in the Metropolitan Police.

His current position is a long way, however, from his youthful days as a demonstrator against the first Polaris submarine on the Clyde. What turned him on to politics was, ironically, joining a movement against the use of military force - Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (the organisation which most Labour MPs flirted with, but now deny ever having touched with a protest pole). He recalls standing, at the age of 15, on the pier at Holy Loch, a submarine base operated by the US Navy in Scotland, and shouting anti-nuclear slogans.

''Away ye go ya dirty Nato-type bastards'', I imagine, or something like that. He developed, he says, a more mature and realistic view of the world as he got older, aka, the New Labour mantra. For years he was known as a canny, thrusting and articulate, centre-right Scots trade unionist. He is now, and has been for a number of years, a confirmed multilateralist.

For all this, his Nato appointment is a dramatic turnaround. He graduated with an MA in economics from Dundee University in 1968 and joined the National Union of General and Municipal and Boilermakers as a full-time official. How did that prepare you, I wonder, for your current European tenure? The comment is met with stony resistance, before our conversation mutates into a brief discussion into the merits of radical politics. ''It's a different sense of radical,'' he laughs. ''What you do and what you say, makes a huge difference. You mustn't ever forget the fact it's related to people. In this position you are there because the governments of 19 countries put you there.''

He was elected MP for Hamilton South in 1978. He became Defence Secretary when Labour came to power in May 1997 and, after a successful period, he gained the confidence of both the military and civil servants. During the Nato air campaign over Yugoslavia he never wavered in his belief it was ''the right cause'' and this belief and high-profile stance won him admiration and respect among the rest of the alliance. Particularly from Washington. He had, in good, old-fashioned war-mongering-speak a ''good war''.

From an American point of view, he is an excellent choice to lead Nato as it copes with the aftermath of the Balkans bombing campaign and searches for its role in the post-Cold War world. He is also highly acceptable to European Nato nations who want a beefed-up Europe capable of operating independently of Washington. Why, I ask him, did the US seem happy with your appointment?

''I don't really know. I had credentials in terms of being pro-American, pro-Atlanticist in the deadly days of the Labour Party. Pro-European. I think what they saw was someone who would be strong on the Atlantic wing and be able to keep this alliance going in relation to the Russians, the enlargement process. I'm a politician. For 21 years I represented people in Hamilton. Often those experiences are the best you can have.

''I've gone through transitions with the Labour Party. I have a knowledge of conflicts, but nothing beats the qualities for getting elected, the knowledge you have to have people on your side and getting people to agree with things. I've been insisting I don't want just to attend meetings, but would prefer to meet people and go walkabout.''

Recently he visited Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet perhaps the irony was missed on Robertson, who, in his previous role as British Defence Minister, was the scourge of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during the war in Kosovo. The scale of abuses in Chechyna is enormous. Yet the issue of human rights abuses, which Robertson so clearly wishes to defend, were ignored. Robertson twists arms into political half-Nelsons, bombs the Balkans, while Putin bombs the Caucasus and both respect each other's rights to do so as long as they fit in with proposals for the security of Europe.

How, I ask him, do you reconcile Nato's stance over Kosovo with its inaction over the Russian onslaught in Chechyna? Is the Alliance made up of ultimate pragmatists, able to walk away from something that looks politically problematic? Almost monosyllabicly, he says: ''Because you can't act in one thing doesn't mean you shouldn't act in another. Chechyna was happening inside Russia and I've not heard anybody saying Nato should have taken military action against Russia. We don't agree with it. Kosovo was something that deeply affected the stability of the Nato and Western European countries and, indeed, Russia. The warnings had taken place. There was no alternative.'' He is clearly irritated by suggestions the West lacked the courage to tackle Russia over Chechyna.

For a while I watch him chew his mouth into the tape-recorder over details such as these: his rejection of accusations by Russia the international criminal tribunal was too ''politicised'' in handling war crimes committed in the ex-Yugoslavia; the embarking by Croatia on a promising path ''of enhanced co-operation with like-minded friends'', and the criticism of a small number of people who think Scotland should opt out of Nato. ''People are queueing up for membership. This is the most unique, influential partnership the world has ever seen. There wouldn't be a Scot in charge of Nato if the United Kingdom was Balkanised.''

Robertson lives in a mansion in the centre of Brussels, is ferried around in an armour-plated limousines and is constantly surrounded by a team of bodyguards. ''The novelty value wears off,'' he admits, although I don't believe him. I think he enjoys the ceremony. Indeed, when I walked into his room I've a feeling he expected me to salute. ''You are doing serious business with people. I have to persuade people into compromises, what to do about defence, how much to spend. But I still go home most weekends to Scotland.''

I joke about him being in a pub in Dunblane with a group of discreet, but rather large ''tourists'' drinking Belgian beer. They are not actually tourists. Nor Accies fans. They are, in fact, Nato bouncers, quite capable of kicking you seven ways from Sunday if you so much as ask Mr Robertson for one of his cheese'n'onion crisps. His eyebrows are suddenly unkempt. The bodyguards are something he finds difficulty adjusting to, normally preferring his security to be inconspicuous.

''I'd rather not talk about the security aspect, but if I go to Dunblane there are Belgian bodyguards with me. I just try to enjoy myself and be as relaxed and approachable as possible. For the Belgians who come with me they find this amazing. The continental approach to a Very Important Person is different to the Scottish approach. You are just who you are. I don't pretend to be any more than I am. I'm just me.''

He copes in much the same way, I imagine, that most politicians do. They guard their private lives zealously. Even the mention of the town of Dunblane, he says, is still a conversation stopper. He knew Thomas Hamilton, the man who massacred a class of Dunblane schoolkids and their teacher. He had met the killer, and Robertson's three children, Malcolm, Martin and Rachael, had attended the school.

The image of Dunblane (he stood in the doorway of the blood-soaked gym) he insists is one which haunted him throughout the Kosovo war. It was similar scenes to these which were being played out again and again in the ''Balkan killing fields''. ''I think most of the people who went through that are moving beyond it. Sometimes, abroad, when you say where you are, the response it triggers is quite amazing. Occasionally you play it down. It could stop a train of conversation immediately. It made a huge impression on me. It'll never go away.''

When I ask him what he thinks he has brought to the job, he shrugs and says he had a reputation as Defence Minister for plain speaking, straight talking and common-sense thinking. ''People get what they see, there is no smooth diplomat. They chose me in six days. Nineteen heads of Government, who usually can't agree that today is Friday, did it in that time. Essentially, that was because of Kosovo and what I did on the Strategic Defence Review. I was appointed because I was a politician. That's why they chose me. They knew I had those credentials. I've got 19 diplomats in the council in front of me every week, but I'm the secretary-general . . .'' He allows himself a smug little smile.

He doesn't really miss Scottish politics, or the Scottish press hounding him, because he's ''doing a job that is 150% commitment''. He occasionally sees the House in session, but doesn't wish he was back there. State-hopping is more his thing. ''I'm the tenth secretary-general of Nato. There have only been 10 in 51 years, so it's a huge opportunity.'' He thinks the Scottish Parliament has gone well. ''I tell people in other countries how we did it. I am hugely proud of the achievement and my involvement. But I think expectations were too high. I think the Scottish press, deeply as we love it, has a tendency to manufacture news, but time will build and people will realise we have a better quality of Government.''

And that, ultimately, is Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. Like all good, or should I say professional, politicians, real events are taken and warped to fit his vision. Vacillation, of course, is not usually considered a virtue in politics and he suffers from none of it. In responding to questions, Robertson's answer is usually out before it is asked. It goes something like this. What's your favourite colour? ''The reason we bombed . . .'' How tall are you? ''There is always justification . . .'' How many civilians were killed? ''Blue.''

What lies behind Lord Robertson's own inscrutable facade? He is assuredly able and assiduous, highly competent and intelligent. Yet the effect is staggeringly impersonal, despite wishing to appear personal. While there is some confusion over whether his school exams tally included a war of attrition O'level, there is no doubt he relishes his new tour of duty as military overlord. So here he is, General George, rallying the troops from the sunny-side of a tank turret, compelled by heroic mythology. But the most powerful Scotsman in the world? I hope not.