Muir Russell

Although he keeps a low profile, the Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office has long been tipped for the top

THE eyes gaze inscrutably through gold-framed specs. A Heseltinian quiff of reddish hair sweeps elegantly across the forehead. Their owner is seated prominently between the new First Minister, Donald Dewar, and the Labour business manager and chief whip, Tom McCabe, at the Bute House Cabinet table.

But this is not Dewar's chef du cabinet, John Rafferty, whose presence - before his new job had been officially confirmed - at that historic first Cabinet meeting of the first Scottish Parliament in nearly three hundred years caused such a media brouhaha.

No, this is the man who symbolises what Home Rule is supposed to be all about. This is Muir Russell, Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office since early last year, the man at the helm of the extensive administrative machine devolution is supposed to bring under more effective democratic scrutiny, accountability, and control.

And what do we know about Mr

Permanent Secretary Russell? Scan the archives and the databases and you will find a trail distinguished only by how little it tells. Muir Russell may be one of the most powerful men in Scotland, whose power a whole new 129-strong legislature is designed to temper. But his trace, in the public prints, does not begin to rival the endless columns devoted to Mr Rafferty's (erroneously) alleged role as Tony Blair's eyes and ears north of the Border.

It's about time we got to know a little more about Alastair Muir Russell.

Ask his civil service contemporaries or the politicians he has served about Russell's distinguishing qualities and everyone mentions two things. His fiercely keen intelligence. And the near certainty, from his earliest days as an administrative grade trainee in the

housing department of the Scottish Office, that Muir Russell would one day reach the very top of the mandarin tree.

Russell's second boss in the civil service was Hamish Hamill, now his subordinate as secretary in charge of home affairs. Hamill was also best man at Russell's wedding, in 1983, to another Scottish Office high-flier, Eileen Mackay. But, according to a mutual friend, even in the early days, Hamill was predicting: ''One day I'll end up working for Muir.''

Early on in his civil service career, when he was still only 26, Muir Russell was seconded to the fledgling Scottish Development Agency as its first secretary, charged, together with the newly-appointed SDA chief executive Lewis Robertson, with the task of setting up the agency's initial structures. ''He had a very quick mind. I could see even then that he ought eventually to get to the very top,'' says Sir Lewis now.

Following a well-worn path, Russell went on to serve, for a spell in the early 1980s, as principal private secretary to the then Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger. Looking back, Viscount Younger recalls several high-fliers staffing his private office. ''But Muir was a bigger man than the others,'' he recalls. ''He always had a broader vision and always looked bigger than the job he was doing at the time.''

Muir Russell fulfilled all their predictions before he was 50. He beat off an older rival, Kenneth Mackenzie, in the final straight. Much earlier the race to the top of the Scottish Office ladder had been seen as between Russell and industry under-secretary Godfrey Robson. But Russell had long since seen off Robson too. It was hinted that Russell was the more exciting, the more radical option than the occasionally bowler-hatted MacKenzie. But Muir Russell is still a consummate Scottish Office insider, a lifetime practitioner of the Scottish Office way of doing things, with all the inevitable baggage that entails.

The only recorded point in his rise to the top - via a spell as head of the Scottish Office agriculture, environment, and fisheries department - where Muir Russell courted adverse publicity was his appointment, in 1992, as a non-executive director of the bus group Stagecoach Holdings. Stagecoach was profiting mightily from deregulation and privatisation and there were mutterings about why a Scottish Office high-flier should be sitting on its board. But he was there as part of a wider civil service initiative to give promising staff hands-on experience of the world of commerce.

An only child, born in January 1949, Muir Russell had a conventional middle- class upbringing in the West of Scotland. His father was a district valuer in Dunbartonshire. His mother, aunt, and uncle ran some hairdressing salons in Glasgow. A grandmother stayed with the family as Muir was growing up.

From the High School of Glasgow, Russell went on to Glasgow University to study natural philosophy (physics). As a tangible testament to his brainpower, he emerged with a first. It was still the era of Harold Wilson's ''white hot heat of technology''. But Russell turned his back on a career in science, choosing to devote himself instead to public service. ''I've given up all hope of ever owning a Rolls-Royce,'' he joked to another civil service colleague, Peter McKinlay, now chief executive of Scottish Homes.

At the fag end of the C P Snow ''Corridors of Power'' era, when every civil servant was a mini-mandarin from an early age, a genuine public service ethos, an instinctive desire to help create a

better civic society, more clearly marked many of the entrants to the home civil service in the 1960s and early 1970s. But that ethos did not preclude powerful personal ambition.

And, according to contemporaries, Muir Russell had such ambition in spades. ''It's still about power,'' Peter McKinlay explains. ''It's about having fewer people telling you what to do and being able to shape what other people do.

''And if we're all honest with ourselves, that's what motivated us.''

What seems harder to explain is why, among this throng of bright young civil service things, Muir Russell stood out as exceptionally destined. ''Young, golden, and going somewhere from the start,'' as another former colleague puts it.

Some put it down to an exceptional capacity for sustained hard work. Others cite his affable geniality. But it is also clear that Muir Russell possesses a streak of steel. ''When Muir makes up his mind, he doesn't give a stuff what others will think. He didn't get where he is by being cautious or careful,'' says one close friend.

There were indications, in the early days of their relationship, that Donald Dewar was circling his permanent secretary with caution, if not outright suspicion. There were a few monumental bust-ups with Dewar's special advisers over what they could and couldn't do. But now the fear, even among some of the First Minister's Cabinet colleagues, is that Dewar and Russell could become too symbiotically close. ''Muir will make it his business to get on well with Dewar,'' says one close observer of the scene.

Although Russell remains, like all his Scottish Office colleagues, a member of the UK home civil service, ultimately responsible not to the Holyrood legislature, but to the top Whitehall mandarin Sir Richard Wilson, he is widely believed to be fully committed to the Home Rule project, determined to make the Scottish Parliament a genuine success.

But among the more ambitious MSPs and ministers, actively pursuing a radical Scottish policy agenda, there are doubts about whether Muir Russell, despite his sharp mind and his strategic perspective, really has the stomach for policy prescriptions dramatically different from what prevails in Whitehall.

You don't have to dig very far into the new Holyrood dynamic before you come across disparaging references to the St Giles' choir tendency within St Andrew's House.

Outside work, Russell's stated interests are music - he plays the piano and he and his wife are regulars at both Glyndebourne and Edinburgh's Festival Theatre - and good food and wine. His 50th birthday party earlier this year was held at La Potiniere, the fashionable Gullane restaurant. Sporting interests extend only as far as an occasional round of golf at Luffness.

Russell's marriage to Eileen Mackay is unusual on several counts. They married relatively late, when she was nearly 40. He wooed her when she was in

London working first at the Treasury and then in the Cabinet Office and he was spending most of his time round the corner in Dover House, as George Younger's principal PS. She is nearly six years older than he. There are no children.

Where Muir Russell cuts an elegant figure, always taking the greatest care about his appearance, in his time the archetypical eligible Scottish Office bachelor, his wife is an altogether more matronly figure. But together they make a formidable couple.

She left the Scottish Office in 1996, having reached the rank of under-secretary and the role of principal finance officer. Since then, the Dingwall-born Eileen Mackay has assembled the

classic Charles Handy portfolio career. A non-executive director of the Royal Bank, Edinburgh Investment Trust and Moray Firth Maltings, she also serves on the boards of Scottish Screen and Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise and on the court of Edinburgh University.

She has also served on the McIntosh Commission examining local government and on the financial issues sub-group of the Consultative Steering Group that drew up the detailed framework for Home Rule. There are various other appointments on committees examining everything from housing and biodiversity to trunk road assessment.

The couple retain Russell's bachelor flat in one of the finest New Town

terraces and Mackay's house near East Linton. They are both members of Edinburgh's New Club.

It may seem premature, given that he is little more than a year into his current job, to wonder what could be next for Muir Russell. But he is still only 50 and, if he helps iron out the inevitable tensions the early years of Home Rule will bring, he might harbour hopes of climbing one more rung in the home civil service ladder to succeed his present boss, Sir Richard Wilson, as Cabinet Secretary.

There are other options. He could

follow his wife's lead. Or look to

emulate a predecessor, Sir William Kerr Fraser, and become a university principal. For this extremely ambitious and highly-accomplished public servant, Holyrood may not prove to be the end of a long-predicted road.