Gordon Wilson, obituary: former SNP leader who coined the slogan 'It's Scotland's oil!'

Wilson was a unifying figure leading a divided party in the 1980s

Phil Davison
Monday 26 June 2017 15:21
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Wilson was passionately nationalist, but he believed a second independence reference would be ‘a waste of time’
Wilson was passionately nationalist, but he believed a second independence reference would be ‘a waste of time’

Gordon Wilson led the Scottish National Party throughout its turbulent 1980s, helping the party move from the fringes to the mainstream of Scottish politics before handing the reins in 1990 to Alex Salmond.

Wilson also sat in Westminster for the SNP from 1974-87, where he spoke out passionately on behalf of Scottish independence. He was perhaps best known for coining the phrase "It's Scotland's oil!", which became the party's campaign battle cry. The slogan could be seen on buses, car stickers, T-shirts and mugs as Scots laid claim to the North Sea oil off their shores.

“No more shall Scotland take her orders, policies, instructions from London,” he once said. “We are a nation. Soon we shall become one of the free nations of the world.”

A lawyer by profession, Mr Wilson also spent some of his spare time as a pirate radio presenter, pioneering Radio Free Scotland from his flat by muscling in on a BBC radio frequency. The station became a significant and popular outlet for the nationalist movement. He was seen as a unifying figure in a divided party and was credited with “professionalising” the SNP by whipping its bickering factions into shape. Although by then not directly involved in the SNP, the 2014 independence referendum was his dream, although the result was not as he wanted.

Born in Govan on Glasgow's Clydeside in 1938, Robert Gordon Wilson was the son of Robert Wilson, a butcher's delivery van driver. After his parents moved to the Isle of Man to run a boarding house, young Gordon, as he was always known, attended Douglas High School on the island before studying Law at the University of Edinburgh and working as a solicitor for the firm TF Reid in Paisley, Glasgow. It was at university in 1959 that he joined the SNP, at a time when the aim of the party's candidates was usually to retain their deposits rather than win seats.

He worked his way up through the ranks of the party, finally becoming leader (chairman) in 1979. After several poor performances in the general elections of 1983 and 1987, the party picked up with the victory of Jim Sillars in the Glasgow Govan by-election of 1988. After standing down as SNP leader in 1990, Wilson stood unsuccessfully in the 1999 European Parliament elections.

In the last couple of years, while no less passionately nationalist, Wilson was critical of the current party policies. He said any second independence reference would be “a waste of time” in the present climate, although he predicted one “five or 20 years away”.

Having retired to Broughty Ferry, Dundee, Wilson served as rector of Dundee University for three years. He was an avid vegetable grower and enjoyed sailing his boat Saorsa (Gaelic for freedom) on the Firth of Tay. A devout Christian, he warned his party against legalising gay marriage, saying it might erode support for independence. Strongly anti-EU, he supported Brexit in contrast to the majority of Scots.

Wilson wrote several books relating to the SNP, including The Turbulent Years: 1960-1990, Scotland: The Battle for Independence and Pirates of the Air about Radio Free Scotland.

Gordon Wilson died from prostate cancer in the Roxburghe House hospice in Dundee. He is survived by his wife Edith, their daughters Kate and Margaret, and five grandchildren.

Gordon Wilson, lawyer and SNP leader; born 16 April 1938, died 25 June 2017

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