George Leslie

Born: November 21, 1936;

Died: June 13, 2023

GEORGE Leslie, who has died aged 86 after a long illness, was one of the founding stones on which the modern Scottish nationalist movement was built.

Tall, imposing and with a personality that seemed so big it demanded its own weather system, George, as he was known to political friends and foes and to generations of clients as a veterinary surgeon, was a distinctive and engaging character.

He served the Scottish National Party with extraordinary vigour and longevity. He was consistent and untiring too in his day job as a vet, only retiring at the age of 74, holding mild regrets about that decision until his death.

Born in Partick, he attended Hillhead Academy and Glasgow University, practising as a vet in Pollokshaws, Philipshill, near East Kilbride, and in Ayrshire, latterly at North Glassock Boarding Kennels, near Galston.

His political career had similar geographical variations as he contested elections for Glasgow corporation, the Pollok parliamentary by-election in 1967, Strathclyde East in the European elections, and in the parliamentary seat of Kilmarnock and Loudoun.

His adherence to self-determination, though, was constant wherever he stood. He rose to high rank in the party, being in effect depute leader from 1969 to 1971, and serving various terms in posts on the executive.

A rumbustious, hearty individual, he was a considered thinker. In particular, he was an advocate for an independent Scotland finding a place and voice in a wider Europe. His nationalism was far from that insular variety that pollutes much of modern Europe today. His vision was for Scotland to prosper as a partner with the rest of the continent and beyond.

His intellectual hinterland was considerable. He was a reader of all points of view and a student of history, particularly in regards to politics.

He was also, unwittingly, a teacher. Generations of nationalists drew on his enthusiasm and learned from his example and words. He was the primal, political animal. He loved argument, was passionate in campaigning and was shrewd in strategy.

He joined the SNP in the 1960s when it was far from the electoral juggernaut it is now. The party was almost a family then, with most members known to each other and all inured to the catcalls rained upon them by the ruling forces of the day, particularly the Labour Party.

George played a significant part in changing that landscape, He stood for the party in the Pollok by-elections of 1967, gaining 28% of the vote. This was hugely encouraging to activists and significant to the small band of party strategists.

The latter believed that George’s tilt showed that the by-election in Hamilton, later the same year, could be won by Winnie Ewing. The SNP team may have been small but it was prodigious in talent. Such as John McAteer, Hugh MacDonald (my father), Alex Ewing, Angus McGillveray. Stewart Ewing, and George committed skills and intelligence that were simply revolutionary in 1960s Scottish politics.

George plunged into these meetings in the manner of Don Quixote spotting a windmill. He was aware of the toil of the long walk to independence and the obstacles placed on that road but he was always inspiring.

The meetings largely took place in a living-room in Busby, just down the road from his then surgery in Philipshill and George would regularly be accompanied by Rab Ha’, his gentle Great Dane. Rab, the size of a convincing favourite for the Derby, would lie in a comer, surrounded increasingly by cigar smoke and the whiff of good malt, and listen unconcerned as ideas were thrown about in the manner of frisbees in a gale.

This work, however seemingly manic the surroundings, was always completed to an extraordinary level of professionalism. Winnie Ewing was duly elected in what remains one of the most historic by-election victories.

The more than half a century since has seen the SNP become the party of government and other figures now carry the standard held by the few. Both developments were welcomed by George. He did not see the SNP as a romantic cause but as a political route to self-determination.

Similarly, he was supportive of younger leaders when lesser souls might have carped or indulged in self-serving criticisms. He was, in this and in so much else, a generous soul. His Ne’erday parties in Philipshill were renowned. With barrels of Guinness, wheeled out at regular intervals to complement the routine diet of good malt, there were reports that people could be found down the back of couches well into February.

This was George in his element, singing anything from Stirling Brig to Bandiera Rossa, and taking particular delight in discovering that many of his guests were erstwhile strangers.

His first marriage, to Louise, ended in divorce but he found considerable happiness and an unaccustomed contentment with Nancy, whom he met 37 years ago and married in 1995.

They ran the kennels at North Glassock together and with a faithful staff. Rab Ha’, the original Great Dane had long gone to that farm in the sky, but George always had one of the breed at his side. Torrin, the most recent of those canine companions, survives him.

As does Nancy, his brother, David , his stepson, David Rooney, daughter-in-law Victoria, and his grandchildren, Olivia and Finlay. His funeral will be held at Holmsford Bridge Crematorium, near Irvine, on Monday, June 26, at 3.30pm.

He was a great Scotsman, driven by his love of his nation. But he knew the worth of the wider world and the imperative to make it better in some way for every living creature. He would raise a self-deprecatory snort at this somewhat pious assertion, but it is nevertheless true.