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A Short History of Stewart Stevenson MSP

Laura MacLaughlin

I am sure that I am not alone in the chamber in regarding Stewart Stevenson as something of a visionary” – Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

In the first of an occasional series on the lighter side of Parliamentary contributions, we take a look at some of our favourite quotes from MSPs. Beginning with Stewart Stevenson, what follows is a potted history of what must be Holyrood’s most eclectic CV – in the words of the man himself:

A Star is Born

In a debate on Winter Festivals: “The word “hogmanay” is a mysterious one. It might come from the Gaelic “oge maidne”, or “new morning”, or—and this is my preference—from the Flemish “hoog min dag”, which means “high love day”. I say that that is my preference because there is the opportunity to celebrate the old new year, which comes in the middle of January, and that is something for which I feel a particular affection, because I was born on 15 October. Members of a gynaecological disposition will think about that carefully and work out why I feel as I do. My brother was born on exactly the same day three years after me, so my parents clearly shared my enthusiasm for the old new year.”

The Stevenson Family

In a debate on Older People (and again in debates on Flexibility and Autonomy in Local Government and Culture, Visitor Attractions and Events): “All my grandparents were born before the first secret ballot in a parliamentary election, which took place on 15 August 1872. When my paternal grandfather was born, Abraham Lincoln was president”.

A variation of this anecdote has surfaced in debates on Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, Animal Rights and Human Responsibilities, the Scottish Economy and Television in South Scotland (to name but a few):

“My great-great-grandfather Archibald Stewart, who was born in Bannockburn in 1778, emigrated to Canada in 1853 after he was widowed, taking most of his family with him. Thanks to an act of breathtakingly successful fecundity, I now have 500 living relatives in Canada and the United States who stem from that migration of my great-great-grandfather and his offspring”.

“One of my great-grandfather’s offspring was responsible for the Bruce and Wallace statues that are at either side of the entrance to Edinburgh castle. He unveiled them in 1929 and they are tourist attractions to this day”.

On the other side of the family (in a debate on the curriculum): “John Stevenson, a mining serf who was killed in a mining accident in Fallin in 1833. No, that was not the family's hidden secret. The secret was that John Baird's sister was one of my ancestors. So, for me, the motion has a personal resonance”

His mother and father have found their way into contributions on issues as varied as Fur Farming, legal aid reform and Scotland’s Road Network:

“My mother, who as a youngster was an active tennis player, developed arthritis in her late 30s and early 40s”.

“As a little lady of 4 feet 10 and a half, she ran around on elbow crutches for most of her adult life, but it was different when she got in her Mini Cooper S. I remember being with her on one occasion on the Baiglie straight up to Bridge of Earn doing 100mph—she was liberated by some technology—which was before Barbara Castle brought in the 70mph limit, just in case anyone thinks otherwise”.

“My father graduated MB ChB in 1945 at the relatively advanced age of 41. That was, of course, before the health service was established. He very much welcomed its establishment; he was the traditional old-style GP whom we used to have in the 1950s and 1960s. The front room of the house was the surgery; there were no ancillary staff; his working hours were 7.30 in the morning until 9 o’clock at night; and the range of services he provided and the skills he had were probably substantially fewer than those of a nurse practitioner in today’s GP practices”.

“Joyce Banda is, of course, no relation to Hastings Banda, who was the first president of Malawi. In 1941, he got his second medical degree at the University of Edinburgh and—I say this so as not to disappoint my fans—my father was at university with Hastings Banda and was doing his medical degree and was president of the union at that time. A further connection—I know that members want more—is that David Livingstone’s grandson was a gentleman called Dr Wilson, who lived in St Fillan’s. He came and did my father’s locum so that we could go on holiday each year”.

Early Childhood

On topic, sort of, Members learned this during a debate on identity cards: “Identity cards were abolished when I was six so I have some experience of them, on which I will, of course, draw. When identity cards were abolished in 1952, they had 39 purposes as distinct from the three for which they were introduced. Patrick Harvie was right to remind us of function creep, just as we have seen mission creep in military campaigns”.

School Days

In a single debate on the dairy industry: “As with other members, milk is very much woven into my personal history. Dave Thompson referred to the dairy break. He is not that much younger than me, so he probably remembers, as I do, the third-of-a-pint glass bottles that came to the school for us all at our 11 o’clock break. That was done and paid for by the Ministry of Food, which existed through the war and after the war, for health reasons. It promoted health and good eating habits. I have to say that the quality of the milk in Castlehill primary school in Cupar—I can refer to it as it is not there any more—was not greatly improved by the crate of milk sitting next to the radiator. The curdling was well under way by the time the milk reached the pupils’ mouths at 11 o’clock, so it perhaps did not have the positive effect on us that it might otherwise have had. The issue of milk not reaching its markets in the required condition has been mentioned today. My father was a country doctor, and when there was too much milk on the farm, the farmer’s wife would make crowdie in the kitchen, and the crowdie would come home with my father. Now, it is almost impossible to get hold of crowdie; only our former colleague Jamie Stone’s company in the far north seems to get any of it into our supermarkets. It is not quite the crowdie that I remember—it is not as moist and luscious as the stuff that I remember the local farmers making. There ought to be a market for bringing that back as an example of nostalgia food”.

A debate on the modernisation of Scotland’s careers services saw Mr Stevenson share this snippet:

“I read J D Mackie’s “A History of Scotland” when I was five and I read a biography of Lloyd George when I was seven—that probably shows that we are what we read. My reading and my enquiring mind enabled me just about to muddle through—I muddled through and eventually graduated with a modest degree in mathematics”.

First Train Trip

A recent Members’ Business on Adopt a Station: “Stations are places of happy memories for me. The porter at Cupar railway station where I lived was Stanislaw Skrodski, who had been a captain in the Polish cavalry and who stayed in Cupar after the war. He had great skill with his welding kit. Given the rather imperfect old cars that my friends and I had, we used to rely on him and we went to the station to get welding done. My earliest railway journey that I remember was from Benderloch to Oban when I was taken to hospital because I had sunstroke - 1956 was a very warm year and railways were very important in my life.”​

The Student Post Man

In a debate on Winter Festivals: “Fifty years ago, as a student, I obtained temporary employment with the General Post Office at Christmas, helping to deliver a larger than usual postbag. We were paid off on Christmas eve and the regulars did the postal delivery on Christmas day. Shops were open, newspapers and milk were delivered to the house and my general practitioner father had surgeries on Christmas day”.​

The Young Nurse

His formative experience as a nurse has informed Mr Stevenson’s contributions on occasions well into the double figures, including this debate on Chronic Pain Services: “When I started as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital as a fresh-faced, innocent 17-year-old in 1964, my first task was to go and see Jimmy in the corner. I was told, “He’s got a problem with his legs.” I asked Jimmy what his problem was and he said it was his legs. I said, “What’s the problem, Jimmy?” He said, “My legs.” Eventually, of course, I rolled back the sheets; there were no legs”. ​

First Yoghurt

The members first taste of yoghurt has made it into two debates, one on Dumfries and Galloway Food and Drink and another, several months’ months later, on a Dairy Action Plan:

“I have previously referred to the fact that Dumfries and Galloway was where I very first had yoghurt, in the 1960s. I continue to have fond memories of that.”

“Yoghurt has been mentioned. I can actually remember where I had my first yoghurt: it was on the pier at Kirkcudbright in August 1966. It was made by one of my fellow sailors with whom I was attending a regatta. It was absolutely terrific stuff, and I got addicted to the extent that, when the former First Minister Alex Salmond and I were down in the south-west campaigning in 1997, we visited the Rowan Glen factory, which produced what was—certainly back then—the best yoghurt in Scotland”.

Marriage to Sandra

A debate on the Caledonian Canal held romantic significance: “My wife and I were married in Bona kirk in 1969, and my mother-in-law and my now wife lived at Lochend, which is a mere 400m to 500m from Bona lighthouse. Indeed, the canal contributed to the good eating in the Pirie household because, whenever a fishing boat came through, my mother-in-law used to dash up and persuade the fishermen to provide her with free fish, which was excellent nutrition”.​

The Water Bailiff

Prickly debates seem to prompt Mr Stevenson’s memory of his time as a Water Bailiff, as he mentioned it both in a debate on the impact of Brexit, and at the Stage 3 debate of the contentious Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 (and many other times besides…): “In 1968 I was a water bailiff for the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board, and as a minister I had the great privilege of having dinner with members of the fisheries board in Mr Carson’s constituency. At that time—I am uncertain as to whether it was 2008 or 2009—the board reported that, as a result of the environmental improvements that were made under the previous Labour-Liberal Administration and continued by the SNP Government, the number of wild fish in the River Nith had quadrupled”.

The Pilot

In a debate on Inverness Airport: “I am once again the meat in the sandwich of the Ewing family. I recall an occasion, immediately after a general election in the 1990s, when I was the pilot who was sent to collect Winnie and Margaret from Inverness airport to get them to a press conference in Edinburgh. I enjoyed the experience, but I regretted not being at the party; I had to be sober to fly the plane”.

The Bank employee

The Members’ 30 years in technology at the Bank of Scotland understandably left an impression, as his fellow MSPs learned time and time again:

“I worked in technology in the Bank of Scotland for 30 years. When we introduced our first cash dispensers in 1980—my brother had developed them for the Royal Bank of Scotland three years earlier, so I was behind him—we found that people would stand in the rain to queue for a cash dispenser rather than go into a bank branch”.

“As a bank employee, I operated under the Financial Services Act 1986, which had restrictive and specific requirements to register and to relate information. In my circumstances, those requirements were difficult, because I worked for one bank, my wife worked for the stockbroking arm of another bank and my brother worked for a third bank. None of us was a banker, but nonetheless, the rules covered us”.

“On one occasion, 25 years ago, I had to fly from Vienna to San Francisco so that a contract could be signed. I had a very nice dinner with a director at Bank of America, who was the other party to the contract, I had a good night’s sleep, and then I got a taxi back to the airport and flew to Glasgow. I spent a total of 14 hours in San Francisco and for most of that time I was sleeping“.

The Climate Minister

The passing of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act during his tenure as Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change was undoubtedly a career highlight: “As the minister who took the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill through Parliament, I had two hours and 25 minutes to speak on the subject at stage 3—members will be delighted to know that I have only six minutes or so today—and the Queen graciously granted royal assent for the act on my ruby wedding anniversary on 1 August 2009, to my wife’s immense delight“.

A loving Grandfather

During a debate on the STEM Education and Training Strategy: “My four-year-old goddaughter and I dissolved salt crystals because she had seen a rock crystal and asked what a crystal was, and I said “Here’s a crystal.” We dissolved it in water, then we put that in a pan, boiled it off and got the salt back. She went away and briefed her nursery class on that piece of science. When she next comes to see me, we are going to do a couple of things. We will use a mixture of alum and vinegar to write a message on the white of a hard-boiled egg through the shell. The message can be read only when the shell is peeled off, and we will discuss why that matters. Next, because young children are always somewhat scatological, we will use human urine to write a message on a piece of paper; it will disappear but then reappear when we heat the bit of paper”.

All this is of course without even going into his tenure as Transport Minister, an appearance on University Challenge, fatherhood, his mother’s teaching career, the day he sent his first email, the last time he rode a motorbike, his maiden speech (delivered 30 hours and 36 minutes after being sworn in), his position as the Parliament’s most prolific speaker, his record for the longest speech in Parliament or his cats. All of which have made appearances in Mr Stevenson’s speeches.

We at newsdirect are certainly grateful for the members vast and eclectic contributions, which have brightened many a dry DPLPR session. We look forward to many more in 2017!

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