DAVID ROSS looks at the unfulfilled aims of Margaret MacPherson, First

Lady of Crofting

WHENEVER John Major finally decides to call the election there will be

something missing from the Labour Party's campaign on the Isle of Skye

-- Margaret MacPherson will not be knocking on doors.

At 83 the island's best-known Labour stalwart, land campaigner, and

unilateralist, who is widely regarded in the Highlands and Islands as

the First Lady of Crofting, has decided that it's finally time to hang

up her canvassing card. Although she is thoroughly disillusioned by the

red roses of the new model People's Party her commitment to it remains


''Kinnock has been a disaster, he has taken the party so far to the

right. There is no missionary zeal any more. But what am I to do? It is

not the Labour Party in Scotland's fault that we are upholding three

Tridents. Since 1972 at every Scottish conference we have said we want

rid of nuclear weapons, American bases, etc., etc. How long is it since

1972 -- 19 years, so why should I desert that? The Labour Party in

Scotland is still everything I admire. But, oh dear, the leadership,

throwing their principles overboard!

''We had the door wide open when Gorbachev had done all the work

unilaterally and they wouldn't go through the door -- they came back and

said we must have three Tridents. And who are we defending ourselves

against? Who is the enemy? They make me mad, they do indeed! How many

schools could we build, how many hospitals?''

Unusually in Highland Labour circles, Margaret MacPherson has never

been particularly exercised by the question of devolution -- ''I really

was quite indifferent.'' But the polished moderation of today's UK

Labour Party and the prospect of another Conservative Government elected

by England with only a rump of Toryism left in Scotland has started to

change that just a little: ''It would be ridiculous, it would be stupid.

We could not go on like that. We would have to do something.'' The

something has to do with a parliament in Edinburgh, but nearly five

decades of radical socialism are not easily deflected from the

fundamentals of unilateralism and land reform which underpin her ideas

of freedom. Over these issues she still, quite literally, thumps the

table, pained and perhaps a little ashamed that in 1991 much of the

Highlands is still the human desert that has been shaped by two

centuries of landlordism.

''I travelled once with an Israeli girl and she asked me 'How can you

leave your country like this?' and she was right. Land, our land, and

what we do with it is so fundamental, but we still allow these enormous

estates which can be owned by anyone, Arabs, Dutch, and the Scottish

ones are just as bad, anglicised to the core.'' The nationality of

estate owners does not matter; it is the fact that anyone of any

nationality can own and control thousands of square miles which once

supported a people.

''We should nationalise all the estates, everything over farms of 3000

acres. It doesn't have to be an inflexible monolith. Public ownership of

land doesn't mean we can't do different things on it.'' And

compensation? ''I think the landlords have compensated themselves pretty

well by now, haven't they?'' Land is still the issue which dominates

Highland radical thought. Margaret MacPherson still hasn't forgiven the

Labour leadership over this.

''We had a Labour working party on land which was not considering

whether to take land into public ownership but how. We did a lot of work

on it but it came to nothing. Willie Ross had no intention of listening

to us. He came out against our wishes with this awful privatising of the

croft land in owner-occupancy. It really was quite disgraceful. Well, we

fought it as hard as we could at Labour conferences. I did in '68 in

Aberdeen, and Brian [Wilson] and Allan [the late Allan Campbell McLean]

did in Dunoon. Oh dear, you don't like fighting your own side.''

Others have been to blame since, not least the Crofters Commission,

which Margaret MacPherson believes should be abolished tomorrow. This

may surprise some people, since she sat on the Taylor Commission which

examined crofting in the early 1950s and recommended the establishment

of the commission.

''What we wanted was more land settlement and we saw no great

difficulty in that. The Crofters Commission should have taken that up

but it didn't. In Vaternish in Skye it was going to have amalgamations

and reorganising of the whole estate, and the commission did a lot of

work on this and got its plans approved by the Department of

Agriculture. When it went up to the Treasury they said no, they couldn't

afford it. The commission then did nothing.''

She believes that by not standing up to the Government in these early

years it became inevitable that the commission would become Government

pawns. ''I wish to this day that it wasn't there, that it was abolished.

It does nothing, it is a complete failure. Its powers could be given to

the Land Court which everybody respects and to the Department of

Agriculture and we would be better off by far.'' Despite all the

disappointments she still has hopes that a Labour Government, and in

particular her friend Brian Wilson, will make some progress: ''If Brian

can't do something for the Highlands then nobody can.''

Crofting on Skye, unilateralism, land reform -- it is all such a far

cry from the large manse and Edinburgh private school of Margaret

MacPherson's childhood. She was born in Colinton which in 1908 was a

village just outside the capital. When she was seven her father, Dr

Norman Maclean, was called to St Cuthbert's, a socially prestigious

charge just below Edinburgh Castle. He was one of the leading churchmen

of his time.

''We were comfortably off, we had three servants, and it was a rich

parish and my father put my two sisters through medicine without grants.

We were privileged people. I went to a private school and thought state

schools were just beneath contempt.''

Her father had come from the Braes area of Skye, where there was still

a family house and Dr Maclean began taking his family home there to

spend the summer and other holidays. People on Skye will still speak of

Margaret MacPherson's beauty as a young woman. Up the road there was a

family of MacPhersons who were tenants of Ollach who used to let the

girls ride their ponies.

The second son was Duncan MacPherson, who went to sea but came home in

the spring and at harvest time. There was a romance when Margaret was in

her teens. This angered her father who, although liberal as a churchman,

strenuously disapproved of his daughter taking up with somebody beneath

her station. She was banned from going to Skye that summer and had to

stay in Edinburgh to study Latin for university entrance. She then went

to school in Switzerland for nine months.

''When I came back my parents were preparing to go to Australia as my

father had to preach in Melbourne for six months. He seemed to have

forgotten the danger of Duncan and we were told to shut up the town

house and go to Skye for the summer.'' On the day she graduated she left

Edinburgh and travelled to Glasgow where she married Duncan MacPherson.

''My father cut me off and never talked to me again for marrying

beneath myself, as the phrase was. I saw him on his deathbed but he

didn't know me then. It was a shame because he cut himself off from the

grandchildren and he would have loved to have spent time with them.''

From Glasgow they headed back to Skye and many years of hardship.

''The hardship was not my husband's fault. He had been doing well at

cattle droving -- I think he was the last man to swim the cattle across

to Glenelg -- and had prepared a house. It was 1929 and the Wall Street

Crash, and no matter how cheaply Duncan bought lambs or ewes on Skye, by

the time he got them to the mainland the price had fallen.''

They finally leased a farm, Kraiknish, from the Forestry Commission in

a remote part of Skye and spent 10 years chasing cattle and the growing

band of sons -- seven in all. Later they moved to Toravaig just above

Portree. In 1945 Mrs MacPherson successfully challenged Sir Godfrey Fell

who had been co-opted on to Inverness County Council to represent

Portree. ''My time on Inverness County Council changed me from Liberal

to Labour when I saw how all the lairds -- the Lovats, the Lochiels, the

Lord MacDonalds of this world -- were running things.''

Ten years later the MacPherson energy was directed at writing, at

first unsucessfully. Eventually The Shinty Boys was published in 1963,

and six other books followed.'' Margaret MacPherson says her writing

days are over, which is a shame as her own story should join all the

political biographies she has on her bookshelves. It would be the story

of a true inheritor of Skye's radical tradition.