DOUGLAS Henderson, was hailed yesterday by the SNP as a trail-blazer for the modern success of the party, following his death at the age of 71.

Alex Salmond MP said: "Douglas Henderson was hugely influential as a trailblazer for SNP success in the north-east of Scotland and along with Winnie Ewing and Hamish Watt created the bridgehead by winning East Aberdeenshire which led eventually to SNP domination in that part of Scotland.

"Douglas is still hugely respected in the constituency, particularly among the fishing community who loved his forthright, no-nonsense style of representation.

"It is all the sadder that he should pass away now just as he had been selected to fight an eminently winnable seat in the Scottish elections."

That seat was Falkirk East where, given that the party holds the local council, there are high hopes for an elusive parliamentary breakthrough in the Central Belt next May.

Mr Salmond added: "It was Douglas's dearest wish to serve in the Scottish Parliament and it is a great sadness that Scotland has been deprived of his abilities at this time. My condolences go to Betty and the rest of the family."

Mr Henderson joined the SNP at the age of 14 and, after becoming president of the Edinburgh Student Nationalist Club, went on to hold virtually every party office at local and national level.

He won the East Aberdeenshire seat in the spring 1974 election, held it in the second election that year but lost in 1979. He also came within 1000 votes of retaking in in 1983.

A management consultant in his career, he brought this experience to bear during his years as an MP, serving as chief whip and spokesman on employment and industry.

A battle against cancer took him out of active politics in the 1990s but he returned to the fray, standing in the 2004 European elections and in last year's General Election, in Dumfries and Galloway.

Former colleague DrWinnie Ewing said last night: "Douglas was a great friend and colleague and his passing has saddened me tremendously. He was a wonderfully witty man and it was an honour to have served alongside him.

"He was a skilful negotiator and it was that skill that secured a seat in 1975 for the SNP in the UK's delegation to the European Parliament.

"He was a passionate supporter of Scotland and as my other dear departed friend and colleague Donnie Stewart said he was one of the best politicians we had."

Mr Henderson is survived by his long-time companion Betty Davies, and four children from a previous marriage.