Historian and politician;

Born: February 27, 1927; Died: January 3, 2013.

Jimmy Halliday, who has died aged 84, represented a generation of Scottish Nationalists who laboured within the National Movement without any realistic hope of success; keeping the independence flame alive when it often appeared in danger of flickering out.

The SNP of the mid-1950s may have been tiny, but it nevertheless suffered from internal factions. In 1955 one such dissident grouping organised a slate of candidates in opposition to the then chairman, Dr Robert McIntyre, who had become the party's first MP in 1945.

Although the challenge failed, Dr McIntyre saw the writing on the wall and approached Mr Halliday, a recent addition to the party's National Executive Committee (NEC). Considered an acceptable replacement, he succeeded Dr McIntyre as SNP chairman (or leader) the following year. He was just 28.

Mr Halliday served as chairman for four years, during which he kept a small – and often fractious – show on the road without making much of an impact on the Scottish political consciousness. At the 1959 General Election he was one of five candidates, although the party's share of the vote remained miniscule.

In 1960 he decided not to continue as leader, telling the SNP conference it was time for a change and that he intended to go, as he later recalled, "before too many of them agreed with me". He was just 33.

Although it was not obvious at the time, Mr Halliday's diligence had prevented the party disappearing altogether, ensuring, as he put it, the party was able to grow "out of all recognition" in the 1960s, a phenomenon he attributed to his successor Arthur Donaldson. After Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election in 1967, the SNP was there to stay.

James – usually known as Jimmy – Halliday was born in Wemyss Bay, the son of an estate gardener. He was educated at Skelmorlie Primary School and Greenock Academy. He later said he could not remember a time when he was not a Nationalist, even as a child. "You were just a Scot and Scots should rule their own country," he recalled in his memoirs, "no-one ever preached nationalism to me until I was old enough to preach it to others."

He joined the SNP as soon as he was able in 1943 and, unlike some Nationalists during the Second World War, registered for service. Deferring his place at Glasgow University for a year, he matriculated in 1944, joining the Nationalist Association and playing an active part in union debates.

A few months later he was struck down with tuberculosis of the spine and it was not until 1947 that he was able to stand. He returned to Glasgow University in 1948 and graduated in 1952. Thereafter he taught history at Ardeer and then Coatbridge, Uddingston and Dunfermline high schools.

In 1954 he was invited to become the prospective SNP candidate in the constituency of Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth. Soon to be married (to Olive), he did not immediately accept, but when Dr McIntyre said he would not stand unless accompanied by at least one other candidate, he eventually agreed.

During the rest of that decade – and as chairman between 1956-60 – Mr Halliday was part of what the academic Jack Brand called an oligarchy which ran the SNP. Although cautious and, at least in electoral terms, unsuccessful, without it the party might not have survived such instability.

After making way for Mr Donaldson in 1960, Mr Halliday took more of a back seat. He contested West Fife in 1970 and became convener of the SNP's election committee, which was responsible for interviewing, training and selecting Parliamentary candidates. Given the continued growth of the party in the 1970s (peaking at 11 MPs in October 1974), this was an onerous task.

Internal tensions also resurfaced, mainly between MPs and the party's NEC in Edinburgh. The hostility, noted Mr Halliday, laid the ground for more bitter infighting the following decade. Indeed, Mr Halliday formed part of an old guard response to the radical posturing of the 79 Group (whose membership included a young Alex Salmond) and in 1982 was returned to the NEC on that basis. In 1979 he had also become principal lecturer in history at Dundee College of Education (which he first joined in 1967), from which he retired as head of department almost a decade later.

A talented writer, Mr Halliday produced several books, including World in Transformation – America (US politics was a particular interest), as well as his memoirs, Yours for Scotland, last year.

Although Mr Halliday was impressed by another young leader – Mr Salmond – he was suspicious of gradualism as a strategy and equally suspicious of apparent allies in other parties. Nevertheless, he recognised the opportunity devolution presented for the SNP.

He remained busy as a director and chairman of the Scots Independent, a pro-independence newspaper that predated the SNP. As well as penning a lucid column he fended off attempts by the NEC to exercise greater editorial control in the 1980s and 1990s.

With his dry sense of humour and long political view, Mr Halliday was a popular elder statesman figure as the SNP adjusted to being a party of government following election victories in 2007 and 2011.

He is survived by his wife Olive, two sons, David and Gavin, and two grandchildren, Grace and Flora.