DOUGLAS Henderson, who died aged 71 late on Friday night, was a leading member of the group of 11 nationalist MPs who tookWestminster by storm in the 1970s. When the SNP had this significant and wellorganised presence in the Commons from 1974 to 1979, the Labour administrations of first Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan came close to panic at what they feared was the imminence of Scottish independence.

This was partly because the SNP group was surprisingly well disciplined. Surprisingly, because the nationalists had not always been known for organisation and control. The improvement was largely due to Douglas Henderson's skills as the SNP group whip. His colleague Gordon Wilson recalls: "Remarkably quickly, Douglas worked out how the Westminster establishment worked. He got on well with civil servants and some - but not all - of the senior politicians in other parties."

Whips are not usually renowned for their oratory, but it is as an inspirational public speaker that Henderson will perhaps be best remembered. When it came to speechmaking about independence, Henderson was a fundamentalist, and a fiery one at that.

His oratory was far too forceful for the politically fastidious, some of whom regarded him as no more than an excessively fierce demagogue. But that was to underestimate the subtleties in his speeches. Even his critics could not deny the sweep and passion of his oratory. The present leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, describes some of Henderson's speeches in the 1970s as messianic. Yet while he had an emotive streak and he well understood the emotive side of nationalism, he was also respected by political opponents as a canny operator.

Douglas Henderson was educated at Edinburgh's Royal High School and Edinburgh University, where he graduated MA and LLB with a special qualification in constitutional law. He was president of the University Nationalist Club.

He then worked as a management consultant, at home and abroad, but increasingly he devoted time to the SNP. He became director of training, and helped to revive the party in the 1960s. He was elected the SNP prospective candidate for East Aberdeenshire in 1972 and moved to the constituency. He found he had a natural affinity with the fishermen, the farmers and the small businessmen of the north-east. But he also worked carefully with the local trade unions. He was duly elected in 1974, and laid foundations that are still strong.

He regarded it as his duty to represent all his constituents, and this confused those who chose to categorise him as a one-dimensional nationalist. "Many folk in the north east came to love the man, " says Salmond. "Douglas well understood their self-reliance and their independence of spirit.

"He worked exceptionally hard in his constituency, and he got to know it intimately. His knowledge of the business world meant he was able to give solid, practical help to many. To this day he is spoken of with enormous respect, particularly among the fishing community."

Salmond adds: "While Douglas and I did not always agree on the future direction of the party, we got on well personally. He was a man of passion and force and he had a huge impact on the development of the SNP as a serious political party."

Henderson narrowly lost his seat in 1979, a political blow from which he never really recovered. The fact that he was deputy leader of the party, under Gordon Wilson, was scant consolation. The 1980s were a bad decade for him professionally; his business career was less successful than it had been in the 1960s. But in his personal life he found great happiness with his new partner, the fashion designer and entrepreneur Betty Davies.

In 1960 Henderson had married Maureen Ferguson in Johannesburg, and they had four children. But from the late 1970s the marriage was in trouble. Betty Davies helped Henderson through the most difficult decade of his life - the 1980s - and they became inseparable.

With his business flair and her creative gifts, they worked together to develop Scottish Fashion International, the design and management organisation which produced corporate dress for many leading businesses including the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland and the Dunfermline Building Society.

They entertained a wide variety of guests in their stylish flat high above Edinburgh's Old Town. Douglas Henderson may have been a robust and combative orator, but in conversation he was gently mischievous and thoughtful. He was widely travelled and had a vast knowledge of the world and how it worked. He and Betty hosted some wonderful parties.

To the surprise of his friends, Douglas rediscovered the Christianity of his youth and became a regular at St Giles' Cathedral, down the Royal Mile from his home. The arrival of the Scottish Parliament revived his political passion, though he considered that most MSPs were "too comfortable for the good of themselves and their country".

He fought various elections - unsuccessfully - for the SNP in the new century and had been selected as a prospective candidate for Falkirk East in next year's Scottish Parliamentary election.

In his final weeks he endured terrible pain, suffering from cancer. A moving moment came when a communion service was held by his hospital bedside, a few days before he died.

Gordon Wilson, the former leader of the SNP, remembers Douglas Henderson as "a very good colleague, always loyal and assiduous. He had an agile political brain and he had more than a touch of greatness about him".

Winnie Ewing, president of the SNP, said simply: "He was the best politician our party had. Douglas was the one our enemies really feared."

His long-term partner Betty Davies, herself an Englishwoman, summed him up: "Douglas was a patriot. He had an unbelievable passion for Scotland. He always believed that if you were not for Scotland, you were against it. And he didn't like people who were against it."

The funeral will be held in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, on Saturday, October 7.