DONALD STEWART was the first Scottish National Party MP to win his

seat at a General Election, the first leader of its parliamentary group,

and its first (if only) Privy Councillor. He was latterly president of

the party and its pre-eminent elder statesman.

Yet, at his greatest political hour, he made the disastrous decision

to bring down a sitting government and so precipitated an election that

annihilated his colleagues and cast the SNP into the political

wilderness for nine years.

Born in Stornoway, Lewis, on October, 17, 1920, Donald Stewart was

educated at the town's Nicolson Institute before serving at sea

throughout the Second World War. When peace came he began to work with a

local tweed firm. He married Miss Christina MacAulay, a quiet and

gracious woman who proved a loyal support throughout his political


In fact the greater part of Stewart's political life was spent in the

Western Isles and not at Westminster. He was elected to Stornoway Town

Council in 1951, and retained his ward until he left for London: he also

sat on Ross and Cromarty County Council in Dingwall. He was twice

provost of Stornoway: from 1958 to 1964, and 1968 to 1970.

His work suited his political advancement very well. A senior position

in a Harris Tweed mill brings one into close contact with many Hebridean

voters, for under the strict terms of the trademark the Stornoway mills

may only supply the yarn and finish the product. The tweed must be

hand-woven in crofters' homes throughout the island community.

These were the boom years of Harris Tweed, when islanders could not

even meet demand. So many came to meet Donald Stewart, and he went to

many a place, and -- as islanders say -- he was soon ''everyone's


Stewart had been a member of the Scottish National Party for some

years, well before its by-election breakthroughs of the 1960s. Indeed

there was a longstanding Nationalist tradition in the isles.

In 1935 an early SNP candidate had split the National Government vote

and so sent the fiery undergraduate Malcolm MacMillan to London as the

Western Isles' first Labour MP.

But by the late 1960s the young idealist had become a tubby absentee,

skulking between London and Uddingston and seldom venturing over the

Minch: behaviour that might be more readily understood if the seat had a

cast-iron majority, which it did not.

In 1959 a ''Liberal Unionist'' candidate, the young Donnie B. Macleod,

had come within several hundred votes of ousting him.

Though the SNP tide ebbed a little in the last year or so before the

1970 election -- a patch of poor polls -- it was Stewart's best chance

to snatch the seat, he thought, and stood.

On the evening after the General Election, a despondent Billy Wolfe --

SNP national chairman -- was with the defeated Winnie Ewing, dolefully

awaiting the last late results of the election.

''Donald Stewart phoned early in the evening to say that he thought he

'would maybe tip him over' -- him being the portly figure of Malcolm

MacMillan . . . I answered the telephone when it rang later in the

evening. It was Donald. 'I'm in,' he said, shattering instantly the

subdued atmosphere in the room, transforming it into bright hope and

noisy jubilation.''

And so Donald Stewart became the party's solo MP at Westminster, and

de facto group leader, and remained a lonely voice for Nationalism until

the arrival of the brash Margo MacDonald after the Govan by-election in

November 1973.

In the February 1974 election the SNP won 22% of the vote: it lost

Govan, but took six new seats. In the Western Isles the Labour Party had

obligingly disintegrated: an embittered MacMillan's 'Independent Labour'

candidacy came nowhere, and Stewart himself won a remarkable 67% of the

poll -- still a record SNP performance.

In October of that momentous year the party went on to win 30%,

winning 11 seats and emerging as the second force in Scottish politics.

Suddenly independence seemed a real possibility: and Donald Stewart was

leader of ''Scotland's First Eleven,'' with an Assembly, or another

General Election -- for Labour had a paper-thin majority of only four

seats -- surely not long delayed.

That was the SNP calculation. Yet the Labour Party in Scotland the

1970s hated the ''Scots Narks'' with a deep passion, and few of its

leading lights had any enthusiasm for home rule or devolution.

With the SNP poised to savage its Scottish flank, Assembly schemes had

to be forced on reluctant Scots MPs by a worried government, harried

further by the secession of Jim Sillars and his Scottish Labour Party in

1976. Sweeping SNP gains in the 1977 district elections turned the screw

even further.

But the party was to pay dearly for its complacency. The

near-certainty of a 1977 General Election -- as the SNP soared in the

polls -- was dashed by the Callaghan-Steel Lib-Lab pact, after the

Liberals had voted down a guillotine on the Scotland and Wales Bill in

an act of monstrous cynicism. The SNP waited too long for a by-election

that never happened.

Its marked decline in the 1978 regional elections gave new heart to

Labour, and also to the renascent Scots Tories -- who promptly forswore

their recent conversion to devolution. Then came three by-elections --

Garscadden, Hamilton, Berwick and East Lothian -- each worse for the

Nationalists than the last.

And they could not stop George Cunningham's ''40% rule'' -- that 40%

of the Scots electorate had to vote yes in the Scotland Act Referendum

-- from passing a Scotland-weary House of Commons.

Meanwhile, the SNP's vague leadership structure was creating dangerous

divisions between the parliamentary group and the party's national

executive committee, the SNP's proper head.

By the spring of 1979 the SNP MPs were operating virtually

independently to the leadership at home. But the Scottish leadership was

more attuned to the reality of the situation.

In March 1979 Scotland voted yes by the merest squeak. But the magic

40% figure was not reached in a single region. The SNP national

executive committee pleaded for caution. But an infuriated parliamentary

group -- already falling apart at the seams -- had sent Stewart to give

James Callaghan an ultimatum. If the Government did not immediately

force the Scotland Act through on a three-line whip, the SNP would bring

it down.

Stewart was tired, angry, and under pressure from colleagues. He felt

betrayed by the Government, and was shaken by the feeble referendum vote

for Scottish self-government. But a wiser man would have allowed the

Government to hang itself with its own noose: to wreck the Scotland Act

on its own back benches.

Instead the SNP obligingly dug its own political grave. Callaghan

refused to accede to its demands. The SNP, and Thatcher, immediately

table no-confidence motions. The Government duly fell by one vote. But

the SNP could now be painted at the polls as a wild grouping that had

brought down a government of the Left and destroyed the Scottish

Assembly with it.

''Turkeys voting for an early Christmas,'' cracked Callaghan, and on

May 3, 1979 the ''First Eleven'' fell like the clans at Culloden. Only

Donald Stewart and Gordon Wilson survived into the age of Thatcher.

Gordon Wilson became national chairman and took control of the

shattered SNP, as Stewart faded into the twilight. His Private Member's

Bill for the promotion of Gaelic, at one point tipped to reach the

Statute Book, was eventually unpleasantly throttled by a Bill Walker


In 1982 he became party president, after Billy Wolfe's intemperate

comments on the Papal visit forced his resignation.

Stewart held the Western Isles rather easily in 1983 against the

flammable Brian Wilson. But in March 1985, having had his fill of

politics and anxious to spend more time with his fragile wife, Stewart

announced his forthcoming retirement from the House of Commons.

Despite his manful efforts the SNP -- admittedly fielding an appalling

candidate -- lost the Western Isles to Labour in 1987. Stewart quit as

president of the SNP in September.

He was not a fluent speaker on platform or television, and cut at

times rather a ponderous political figure. Yet his large Highland frame

concealed a shrewd if slow brain, and the transparent decency of his

character won him widespread respect that transcended his abilities.

Leadership was a grateful party's reward for keeping it in Parliament in


He was the archetypal common man. He could have retired with a peerage

for the asking, if he had not thought the notion so absurd, and he was

firmly committed to the radical economic and agrarian policies of the

SNP, despite his own intense social conservation.

''We are a radical party with a revolutionary aim,'' he declared at

one party conference: and never did radicalism seem so reassuring, nor

revolution so unthreatening, as it did on the lips of this rugged son of

the windswept Western Isles.