BRIAN Wilson can see St Kilda from his window. He turns his laptop camera towards it and explains, “You can’t see it today – but on a clear day, I promise it’s out there.” The view he is displaying is from his office in the house he and his wife built in Uig, on the west coast of Lewis.

The couple moved there 15 years ago after Wilson, a former Labour MP and minister in the Tony Blair government, came out of politics. It's a place he feels very much part of. “The village we live in is where my wife comes from so that’s why we’re here. We built this house here. But we’ve always had somewhere here – it’s where our kids went to school and so on.”

Herald columnist Wilson has had one of those astounding careers that seem to span sectors and industries that you would think wouldn’t come together in one person’s life. This is the man who set up the West Highland Free Press in the early 1970s, but decades later, after it was sold to its workers, was sacked as a columnist from it. He has had many UK government ministerial roles, including Environment Minister, Minister for Africa and Scotland's first Minister for Gaelic. A lifelong supporter of Celtic, brought up in, he says “the Celtic faith”, he has been a director of the club. He also pioneered the Harris Tweed revival when he set up Harris Tweed Hebrides, and received Textile Brand of the Year at the Scottish Fashion Awards for his efforts.

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“I’m an unlikely receiver of fashion awards, aye,” he says. “Ach well, it was pure happenstance. I came out of politics in 2005 not knowing what I was going to do – I wouldn’t starve but I didn’t have any plans. So we moved here and it happened to coincide with this crisis in the Harris Tweed industry. I’d always tried to help Harris Tweed because I knew how important it was to this place. And so people came to me and I asked someone I knew if he would put some money into it. We started a company and did it a bit differently and did it well. Hopefully it was good for the island but it was also fortuitous for me. It gave me an involvement in something of very great practical impact on our own doorstep. It’s been a lovely journey."

It was the founding of the West Highland Free Press, he says, that set his life on its course. “It took me into politics really. It tied my whole life in a very positive way to the islands. The uniqueness of the Free Press was that it was a local paper with politics, rather than the other way round. It wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes if it had been a political paper. It did all the things that local papers should do, and well, and then people got a different angle that they could take or leave – but it was never a preachy sort of political paper.


"In the 1970s the land question wasn’t something that people were talking about and then suddenly the Free Press was there."

Those years writing about land, economic and social issues, which he specialises in for The Herald every Wednesday, made him feel that he needed to enter politics to make some of the changes that he was writing about. “That’s what took me into the Labour party, with a view to reviving some of the issues from the Free Press in the political arena.”

And, in government he really did push those changes. He established the Community Land Unit and the fund on which community buy-outs of crofting estates was based. “In my early years in government," he says, "we did a lot on land reform but it was, as I’ve always said, a low-hanging fruit – community land ownership, abolishing the feudal system, right to roam. All of that stuff happened in the early years of the Labour government and we left an agenda for the first Scottish government to pursue. But the big issues of Scottish land ownership have never been tackled – and certainly won’t be. But they’re as relevant as they ever were.”

Wilson is acutely aware of them right there still on his doorstep. “You know places like this are dying on their feet – because unless you link up issues like land and housing and employment then you inevitably just lose people and that continues to happen. You need a couple more hundred people in this community and it would be flourishing. But unless there’s somebody in government, somebody who understands the inter-relationship of needs between employment and housing and land then it doesn’t happen.”

His sacking from the paper he founded clearly still causes him sadness. “They were perfectly entitled to get rid of me, but the reasons it was done for were obviously bizarre. We had this fabulous columnist, who was a theologian, Donald Macleod and they printed his column [on the spread of Islam in the UK] and then sacked him for it. Then when I defended his freedom of speech they got rid of me as well. It was the irony of a paper called the Free Press behaving in that way – and obviously it was personally very hurtful. But there you go. It’s a pity.”

Life for him, during the pandemic, has been “pretty much as usual” apart from the fact that he no longer spends "half" his time travelling. His lockdown home has been shared with his wife, his youngest son who had just finished university, and his oldest son, who has Down's Syndrome. Wilson has spoken out, in the past, against the prenatal testing system for it.

“I detest, for obvious reasons,” he says, “this relentless pressure to eliminate people with Down's Syndrome. There’s not many of them and you would think that society could handle it a wee bit better. I’m totally signed up to a woman’s right to choose or people’s right to choose but you can only have a choice on the basis of balanced information, rather than relentless negativity."

Also, not far down the road in Uig, are his daughter and three grandchildren. Wilson’s wife, Joni Buchanan, in fact did her PhD on the Uig community, which many generations of her family were part of, examining its evolution from Gaelic-speaking crofting community to shared space with incomers.

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"It’s very different now," says Wilson, "but in a very helpful way. If people didn’t come in there would be nobody here. The stereotype of rich people coming here to retire is just not true. Most of the people coming up here face the exact same challenges as those already here. They want to be here but they face the same challenges of finding work. And the fewer people that are in a place providing essential services, the fewer people can live in a place. So you don’t, you move to somewhere where you can get essential services. Everything is interlinked.”

For him right now, however, there is no reason to leave. “I’ve no plans to go anywhere else. It’s a fantastic combination to be able to live here and be able to travel. It’s no hardship being here, and you say that with humility because it should make you aware of how totally different the circumstances are for people living in tenements and multi-stories.”

Brian Wilson appears in The Herald every Wednesday

Favourite film

Berndardo Bertolucci's 1900

Favourite album

Breakaway, Gallagher and Lyle

Favourite book

Anything by John Grisham

Favourite TV show

At the moment... The Americans