Baroness Michie of Gallanach: Lib Dem peer committed toScotland and the Gaelic language

Monday 12 May 2008 00:00 BST

On 31 October 2001, a small but important piece of history was made when Ray Michie, Baroness Michie of Gallanach, became the first person ever to take the oath of allegiance in the House of Lords in Gaelic. In doing so, she was true to her inheritance. Her father, Lord Bannerman of Kildonan, had spoken the first words of his maiden speech in the Lords in Gaelic.

Whilst the event may have raised a number of noble eyebrows, it came as no surprise to those who knew Ray Michie. It reflected the inspiration which she drew from her two staunchly Liberal parents, and was yet further evidence of her commitment to causes she held dear, not least the promotion of the Gaelic language.

Ray Michie was born in 1934 at the Old Manse, Balmaha. She was educated at the Aberdeen High School for Girls, Lansdowne House in Edinburgh and the Edinburgh School of Speech Therapy. Whilst in Edinburgh, she became chair of the Edinburgh Highland Society, where, having called him to order for particularly noisy behaviour, she met Iain Michie. It was the foundation of a strong lifelong partnership.

Married in 1957, Ray gave Iain unstinting support as he progressed in his medical career, for 16 years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and then when he became consultant at the county hospital in Oban, Argyll. It was there they made their home with their three daughters, Fiona, Jo and Deirdre. Their many friends would testify to the warmth and generosity of the hospitality received.

Ray was then able to pursue her profession as a speech therapist, becoming Area Speech Therapist for the Argyll and Clyde Health Board in 1977.

The political gene, inherited from both her parents, was evident from an early stage. When John Bannerman was Liberal candidate in Inverness, Ray cut her political teeth as the holding speaker at meetings until her father arrived from the previous meeting. She set her sights on winning the Argyll & Bute seat – no small challenge given its history of Tory and SNP members. But her efforts, ultimately rewarded by success in the 1987 general election, bore testimony to her remarkable tenacity and commitment.

She held the seat at the next two general elections, her majority steadily increasing each time. Ray Michie's endeavours for her constituents were prodigious as she visited all parts of a constituency with a large landmass, more coastline than France, and over 25 inhabited islands. She spoke about "her people" and "her islands", not in a feudal, paternalistic way, but because she felt honoured and privileged that they had voted for her, and, in turn, she wanted to do her best for them.

Whether it was to ask a question or take part in a debate, Michie always went into the Commons chamber well prepared. She pursued issues arising out of the loss of the fishing vessel the Antares, and the fatal Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre, not just because of their public importance as issues, but above all, because she so readily recognised what it meant to the families of those who had lost their lives.

Appointed by the Speaker Betty Boothroyd to the Chairmen's Panel in 1997, Michie acquired a reputation for firmness and fairness, not least in her first session in the chair. She took the chair of the committee stage of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill at 8.30pm and completed the session at 4.35am!

Simply to list Ray Michie's appointments and achievements (among which were membership of the House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, and service as vice-chair of the parliamentary group on the Scotch whisky industry, president of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, vice-president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, vice-chairman of the Scottish Liberal Party, convener of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and numerous party spokesmanships) does insufficient justice to the person she was. She had a sense of fun, was loyal and generous in her friendship, and had a steely look tempered with a glint in her eye which could speak volumes. She enjoyed sport both as a participant, in tennis, swimming and golf, and as a passionate spectator of rugby union. Her father was capped 37 consecutive times for Scotland, and until latterly, Ray rarely missed a Scotland international at Murrayfield.

Ray Michie was also tireless in the support of causes she espoused, especially the Liberal tradition of Scottish Home Rule and the Gaelic language. She took particular satisfaction in participating in the legislation which re-established Scotland's parliament and used her maiden speech in the House of Lords to promote the cause of Gaelic – "one of the oldest languages in Europe, so rich in literature, music, poetry and song, which has so enhanced our heritage, our culture, our traditions and values". Appointed last year by the First Minister to the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, she valued the opportunity that gave her to advance that cherished cause, and became frustrated that her illness prevented her from taking a more active part.

She did not seek re-election in 2001 and was elevated to the House of Lords. By then, Iain was in failing health and caring for him until his death in 2006, together with her own illness, meant that she made the almost thousand-mile round trip from Oban to the House of Lords less frequently. Ray also experienced the loss of her much-loved daughter, Jo. But in spite of all her adversities, she eschewed self-pity, and never lost her abiding concern for other people and a lively interest in political developments.

Reflecting her passion for Scottish rugby, her funeral service on Saturday concluded with Scotland's rugby anthem, "Flower of Scotland" – an apt farewell to someone who, committed to Scotland and the reflowering of one of its ancient languages, made such a notable contribution to both.

Jim Wallace

Janet Ray Bannerman, politician and speech therapist: born Balmaha, Stirlingshire 4 February 1934; Chairman, Argyll Liberal Association 1973-76; Area Speech Therapist, Argyll and Clyde Health Board 1977-87; Vice-Chairman, Scottish Liberal Party 1977-79; MP (Liberal) for Argyll and Bute 1987-88, MP (Liberal Democrat) for Argyll and Bute 1988-2001; Chair, Scottish Liberal Democrats 1992-93; created 2001 Baroness Michie of Gallanach; married 1957 Dr Iain Michie (died 2006; two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Oban, Argyll 6 May 2008.

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