‘Madame Ecosse’ had a huge influence on Scotland

Winnie Ewing was the SNP’s first woman parliamentarian.

Hilary Duncanson
Thursday 22 June 2023 14:18 BST
Winnie Ewing has died aged 92 (David Cheskin/PA)
Winnie Ewing has died aged 92 (David Cheskin/PA) (PA Archive)

Madame Ecosse, as Winifred Margaret “Winnie” Ewing was affectionately known, was, quite simply, one of the most influential Scottish women of her generation.

Courageous, even “superhuman”, the SNP’s first female parliamentarian was considered by many to be the mother of the party, having won arguably the most important by-election in Scottish political history and changing the course of the nationalist cause forever.

Revered as one of the greatest political communicators, Mrs Ewing marked her shock victory with the declaration: “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”

From that moment, she may not have stopped the world but she went on to become an almost unstoppable force in three parliaments, and within a party which has, in recent years, become the dominant force in Scottish politics.

It is now more than 50 years since Mrs Ewing, then a young lawyer, succeeded in that 1967 by-election in Hamilton, a parliamentary constituency which was widely considered to be an impenetrable Labour Party stronghold.

Her victory lives on in SNP supporters’ memories, as her son Fergus Ewing, then Scotland’s energy minister and now a SNP MSP, recalled in 2015.

In an interview with Holyrood Magazine, he said: “She was pretty superhuman then and has remained so, and wherever I go in Scotland very often people come up to me and say, ‘oh I remember Winnie at Hamilton’ or ‘I was there when your mum won’ and so on. She did make an impact on people, far more so than most politicians that you know now.

“She really got through to people by the way she communicated and the way she moved them in her speeches, but also in her general style of being a politician; it was all about people.

“People remember her hospitality and they also remember her courage.”

Mrs Ewing was born in Glasgow in 1929 and educated at Battlefield School and Queen’s Park Secondary. She attended Glasgow University, where she graduated with a law degree.

Her father was a supporter of the Independent Labour Party and it was while at university that she joined the Student Nationalists.

After graduation she qualified and practised as a solicitor, but her legal career was put on hold when she was chosen as the SNP’s candidate for the 1967 Hamilton by-election and scored a sensational victory.

Reflecting on that triumph more than 40 years later, she told Holyrood Magazine: “After the victory, telegrams came to me from all over the world. It was an amazing experience.”

She was unsuccessful in retaining the Hamilton seat at the next general election in 1970 but she was re-elected to Westminster in February 1974 for Moray and Nairn, and held her seat in the second election in October of the same year.

In the years that followed, there was a “palpable sense of change”, she said, as the 1970s heralded a period of boom and bust for the SNP.

The party, with 11 MPs, had become a contender in Scotland at general elections, but despite this success tensions had begun to develop within its ranks.

The 1979 referendum failed to gain enough support for a Scottish Assembly and the SNP entered a period of instability.

Mrs Ewing lost her Westminster seat in the 1979 election but went on to win the Highlands and Islands seat in the first election to the European Parliament that same year.

It was here that she earned the nickname Madame Ecosse for her passionate defence of Scottish interests over two decades.

She said: “You could talk to people across all parties, make your points and persuade them by the rightness of your cause.

“I was quite a colourful character then. I wore a long tartan skirt, spoke some of the languages and was regarded quite favourably.

“It would not have occurred to me to call myself Madame Ecosse, but I liked it; it was a good label and evoked Scotland every time it was used.”

In 1999 Mrs Ewing gave up her seat in Europe to stand for the new Scottish Parliament and as its oldest member she had the honour of presiding over its historic opening – which began with her declaring that “the Scottish parliament, adjourned on 25th March 1707, is hereby reconvened”.

She represented Highlands and Islands there until 2003.

It was in this year that her husband Stewart Ewing – an SNP force in local politics, and heavily involved in the party – died after a fire at their home, near Elgin.

Mrs Ewing, who was president of the SNP until 2005, stood down from elected office later that year, but she remained an ardent and at times vocal supporter of her party’s central cause.

Described by Alex Salmond as an “icon of the SNP”, she said she hoped she would live long enough to see independence.

AS well as Fergus, Mrs Ewing’s daughter Annabelle also became an MSP.

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