Margaret Ewing

Schoolteacher turned Scottish Nationalist MP and, later, MSP who married into the Ewing dynasty


Margaret Anne McAdam, teacher and politician: born Lanark 1 September 1945; assistant teacher, Our Lady's High, Cumbernauld 1968-70; special assistant teacher, St Modan's High School, Stirling 1970-73, principal teacher, Remedial Education 1973-74; MP (SNP) for East Dumbartonshire 1974-79, for Moray 1987-2001; Senior Vice-Chairman, SNP 1984-87; Leader, SNP Parliamentary Group 1987-99; MSP (SNP) for Moray 1999-2006; married 1969 Donald Bain (marriage dissolved), 1983 Fergus Ewing; died Lossiemouth, Morayshire 21 March 2006.

In October 1974, somewhat unexpectedly, Margaret Bain, as she then was, won the seat of East Dumbartonshire for the Scottish National Party. When she arrived in the House of Commons, badge messengers would stop her in the corridors, thinking she was a secretary, and say, a little severely, "Sorry, you are not allowed in there." In her soft, lilting voice, she would explain that she was an elected Member of Parliament.

She did enjoy herself, because at that stage there was a minority government and the 11 SNP members and three Welsh Nationalists really mattered when it came to voting and getting the government business through. What was important about her victory from the SNP's point of view was that East Dumbartonshire was not a seat on the Celtic fringes but was at the heart of industrial Scotland.

Like many of her SNP generation, Margaret Bain had been inspired by the dramatic by-election victory at Hamilton in 1967 of Winnie Ewing (who in 1983 would become Margaret's mother-in-law on her marriage to Fergus Ewing). Indeed, it was Winnie Ewing who went round "pouncing on anyone she thought had potential, particularly women, to put their name forward".

Margaret and I were both elected to the House of Commons at the same age of 29. Years later, she was to tell me, "I think you and I might agree it was too young for our own good!" I had only been to the House of Commons once, as a fidgety child sitting in the gallery; in Margaret Bain's case, she had never spent a night in London, only passing through the capital on a couple of school trips.

Although bewildered at first, she soon took to the Commons as a duck to water, partly because of her friendly willingness to chat to colleagues of all parties, partly on account of the obvious sincerity about her case for an independent Scotland, and, it must be said, partly on account of her fresh-faced rural beauty. If men in grey suits referred to her as a "sweet and charming kitten", it was meant as a compliment. She was deemed, even by men who were appalled at the prospect of an independent Scotland, to be one of the most beautiful ladies to be elected to Parliament.

She was born Margaret McAdam, the daughter of a farm worker. Her mother recounted to her often the story of her father being dragged out of the harvest field on a glorious September day to drive his wife to Lanark so that she could give birth. Margaret and an elder brother who became a senior prison officer at Saughton in Edinburgh spent a lot of their time as children just being associated with nature.

Margaret Ewing would say that there was nothing like a healthy respect for wind and weather to make one recognise one's place in life. Throughout her political career, both at Westminster and latterly, from 1999, in the Scottish Parliament at Edinburgh, she contributed to discussions and committee work on rural affairs, being in the vanguard of the environmental movement before it became fashionable.

When she was only 12, she had the misfortune to contract tuberculosis and spent 13 months in a hospital in plaster from neck to toes. She was in Ward 13 and would wryly tell us that she spent her 13th birthday in the hospital. She wanted to be a doctor but was advised that, having missed so much schooling, she should study languages, in which she went on to get a good degree at Glasgow University.

But her hospital experience directed her towards remedial teaching, in which she was to specialise. In 1968, she began as Assistant Teacher at Our Lady's High school in Cumbernauld and the following year was married to Donald Bain. By the time of her election to Parliament in 1974, she was Principal Teacher in Remedial Education at St Modan's High in Stirling. Her colleague the Labour member Dennis Canavan testified that she was an extremely well-respected and effective remedial teacher, and I know at first hand from constituents how caring she was.

I remember Margaret Bain as a woman of forthright views wanting Scotland to be part of the European Community and totally independent, having Scotland's own voice on international affairs and defence. She really did want a Scottish Secretary of State for Defence sitting down at the United Nations and talking to other ministers.

It would be unfair to say that she wanted anything other than an outward-looking nation with something to offer the international community. She would chide me during my opposition to Margaret Thatcher's Falklands war that a Scottish government would not have allowed itself to become involved in military action, and that policies towards South Africa, overseas aid and Central America, Nicaragua and El Salvador would be wholly different.

She made no secret of the fact that her feelings were left-wing and she was very uncomfortable at the decision of the SNP in 1979 to vote to bring down the Labour government. The electorate punished the SNP and, like many of her colleagues, Bain lost her own seat. She secured only 12,654 votes to the 20,944 of Michael Hirst, the Conservative Party chairman in Scotland and the 23,268 of Norman Hogg, later to be Labour's deputy chief whip and now Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld. (In fairness to her, there were also disadvantageous boundary changes.)

She turned to journalism and, her first marriage having ended in divorce, in 1983 she married Winnie Ewing's son, Fergus Ewing (now MSP for Inverness East), entering into what was to become an outstandingly happy relationship. In 1987, almost as part of the Ewing dynasty (her sister-in-law Annabel is the SNP MP for Perth), she became MP for Moray, the area that her mother-in-law had represented before going to the European Parliament as Madame Ecosse.

Colleagues on the Select Committee on European Legislation have said that for 10 years Margaret Ewing did valuable if unsung work on a committee that should be less obscure than is now the case. She also took a serious interest in the services, representing the big RAF base at Lossiemouth, and concerned herself in a serious way with the very real problems of low-flying training.

In 1999 she had no hesitation in opting to go from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh for which she had worked throughout her life. There she took an active part in the Rural Development Committee and in the Justice Committee of the Parliament.

In her last long illness she was without self-pity and typically courageous.

Tam Dalyell

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions