I am saddened by the death of my old friend and mentor, and predecessor as Rector of Dundee University, Gordon Wilson. It is nigh on 40 years ago that he converted me to the cause of Scottish Independence (though not then to the SNP), much aided by Edith’s magnificent potted Arbroath smokie. To this day I have never enjoyed a food more. The last time I spoke with him he was criticising a passage from Sikunder Burnes as insufficiently precise in its expression. I think every conversation I ever had with him contained a caution of some form or another. He was very – lawyerly.
But those who knew only his public persona did not realise how much fun he was in private. A permanent twinkle in his eye, a dry wit, and the ability to find the exact word about someone to be scathingly funny without being unfair. Some of his best stories related to running the pirate Radio Free Scotland station in the 60’s, moving the equipment from tenement to tenement in Edinburgh as detection drew near, and occasionally getting tip-offs from the odd secret nationalist in the police force. Radio transmission required bulky units in those days, and the techniques developed for strapping transmitters under coats were deployed to good effect when they liberated the stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey. I have written before that if I could have one evening of my life again, it might well be the dinner in Gordon and Edith’s house in Broughty Ferry with all those involved in that escapade.
Gordon took a religious turn in late life and I was saddened to see his comparatively recent stance against gay marriage. Certainly, to me as a student he was one of the most socially liberal of an older generation I had ever met, and he treated members of the gay student community exactly as he treated anyone else, at a time (and place) when that was not something you took for granted.
His commitment to Scottish Independence was absolute, on grounds of national self-determination. He was concerned that a central belt, socialist oriented nationalism would alienate the traditional supporters of the North East, and this actuated the bitter disputes in the party while he was leader. Sadly some of the bitterness of this lingered, and combined with his latter-day socially conservative views, the result was he was not given the personal respect by members of the greatly expanded SNP which he deserved. At a party conference in Perth a couple of years ago I was really saddened to join him for a while as he cut a rather forlorn and unacknowledged figure wandering in the fringes. This was a sorry return for a lifetime completely dedicated to the cause. He stood reference for me when I applied to be a SNP parliamentary candidate, and wryly remarked to me after my rejection that if it were anyone else, he would have fretted that it was his name that had caused the veto from the leadership, but in my case he did not have to worry!
I agreed with Gordon that the 2014 referendum campaign lacked an emotional charge from the leadership to counter the powerful Gordon Brown led unionist media onslaught of the closing week, and we should be less shy of rousing what he called cultural nationalism. I still think that is the case and that it is not incompatible with civic nationalism sometimes to stir the blood about our culture and our history.
I attended Gordon’s installation as Rector of the University of Dundee and I was delighted thirty years later that he attended mine. Edith and he danced at my first wedding. I shall look to pay my respects at his funeral to a great Scotsman, who kept the passion for Independence burning at some of its most difficult moments, and who was an integral part of its first big parliamentary breakthrough.
Here’s to you Gordon.