IN 1974 two General Elections saw 11 SNP MPs in the Commons, and we unanimously elected Donald Stewart as our Parliamentary Leader, writes Winifred Ewing. Between 1974 and 1979 we held the balance of power and in those difficult days Scotland was almost constantly on the agenda - we were virtually prisoners in the Palace of Westminster, unable to miss a vital vote.
During these hard years Donald was our father-figure, our counsellor and adviser. We rejoiced in having to guide us a man whose brilliance in conversation made many hours a delight. He was the most popular member of the Commons - he rose above normal partisanship of party. His speeches drew in large numbers and it was a mark of universal respect that he became a Privy Councillor in 1977.
His wit could be devastating. When a young Tory MP was on his first front bench in the Scottish Grand Committee, Donald said it put him 'in mind of Joe Louis the boxer, who joined the American Army because his fighting days were over'. At some of the very sad moments in the House of Commons when Scottish Bills were thrown out and we 11 sat glumly on the bench he could tell a joke and the startled Commons would see merriment instead of despair.
Donald was born in 1920 in one of the traditional black houses in the Western Isles and educated at the Nicholson Institute in Stornoway. His background made him classless and desirous of a just society with equal opportunity for all. His vast reading, meanwhile, made him a man of erudition. In the Western Isles learning is revered and he was elected to Parliament each time with ever-increased majorities.
It was largely due to his influence that the Western Isles became an Island Authority in its own right. His service to his islands was recognised in 1988 when he and his wife Chrissie were made the first freemen of the Western Isles.
Donald was blessed in his wife. We called Chrissie 'the 12th member', 'our secret weapon', 'our foreign minister', 'our supreme advocate'. She always travelled with Donald and she charmed all she met. Donald retired from politics in 1987 and started work on his memoirs. Chrissie had for some time suffered from ill-health and he wanted to enjoy a retirement together with her.
Donald Stewart was a man of the Western Isles and yet a cosmopolitan, at home in any society, or any situation. He was a Scottish stalwart standing on a bank of principle for a self-governing Scotland, speaking forthrightly for his cause, yet always in a gentle tone of voice, always in words of intellectual clarity and moderation. Such a combination made him formidable in debate and successful in winning his audience. He set his style on his party and his cause, which he advanced mightily, securing for it a permanent and respected place in Scottish politics.