Alistair Carmichael - From the Oa to the Cabinet

Ileach Newspaper 30 Nov: "It seems particularly appropriate on St Andrew’s Day to celebrate the achievement of an Ileach who is currently Secretary of State for Scotland. I am referring, of course to Alistair Carmichael. Alistair was born and brought up on the Oa, schooled at Port Ellen Primary School and Islay High School and did all his growing up on Islay.

Clearly, both his parents have had a major influence on the way Alistair has conducted himself throughout his life. His father, Alistair Snr. is a quiet spoken, thoughtful man, more at home in his wellingtons than any fancy dress shoes. He is a farmer through and through and has dedicated his life to making a success of the family farm. From his earliest years young Alistair helped his father round up and feed the sheep and did his share of the work required of a farmer’s son. He learnt very early on that when a job needs doing it needs to be done, that duty comes before comfort and the easy life.

His mother, Mina’s influence was of a different kind: leading by example she showed Alistair that it was important to contribute to community life. Mina was a leading light in developing play group and nursery provision in Port Ellen. She also ran a drama group for the teenagers of the village so that they had something productive to do in the evening. Alistair was a keen participant in these dramas but more of that later. When Alistair reached school age MacMillan’s bus would take him from the Oa to the village every morning and take him safely home at the end of the day.

Freddie Bell who was the headmaster of Port Ellen Primary when Alistair was a pupil there remembers him very well. He thought that he was an ambitious, hard-working boy. Mina still has the school report, written in Freddie’s fair hand where he concludes, “The boy will go far!” Freddie thinks that the school’s high expectations and work ethic spurred pupils like Alistair to do their best and achieve success in whatever field they chose. He reminds me that five of the current distillery managers on Islay were schooled at Port Ellen Primary. Continue reading....


With a twinkle in his eye, Freddie, an ardent independence campaigner, declares that Alistair’s position as Scottish Secretary will have great historical significance: he hopes that Alistair will be the last Secretary ever after a resounding Yes vote in the 2014 referendum! Alistair would of course disagree with his old headmaster. He wants to maintain the Union and his appointment is, in part, to front a government campaign to secure a No vote.

Living on an isolated farm, Alistair would often have friends and cousins come up to play with him. I have been told a family story about a cousin who wanted to go up to the cottage where the cat slept on the mantelpiece and play with the boy who wanted to be Prime Minister. Alistair was ten at the time! (It perhaps points to a charming naïveté that the boy who wanted to be prime minister would join the Liberal Party or perhaps it is a sign that Alistair puts principle before personal ambition.)

Even before Alistair moved up to Islay High School the staff there had high expectations of him. His sister, Hester, had shown herself to be a gifted pupil and the teachers expected no less from her young brother. They were not disappointed: his chemistry teacher, Tommy Thomson says, “Alistair was the kind of pupil that every teacher wants more of, a hard working, intelligent, polite and well behaved student. His ability was evident, his diligence too. He was, and presumably still is, gentle and soft spoken, a pleasure to teach.” Alistair coped well with his academic work but also showed that he had other talents. His piano playing lead to his being named Islay High School Young Musician of the Year. And there are still a lot of people around who remember with pleasure his performance in PEDS’ production of “The Diary of Ann Frank.”

Jane McQueen certainly remember it, having been in the play with him. She remembers his expertise at public speaking and ability to win an argument. She says, “Neither of us (Alistair's Peter van Daan, me as Anne Frank) looked like the starving Jewish fugitives we were depicting in the Diary of Anne Frank! But Alistair played the part with sincerity, determination and conviction qualities that he has embraced in his life and which will stand him in good stead as he makes the role of Secretary of State for Scotland his own.”

While he was involved in the music and drama and schoolwork Alistair was also honing his political skills. His mother, Mina, had found a home in the Liberal Party after abandoning Labour because of their excesses of the late seventies. She campaigned for Rae Michie to be elected MP for Argyll with much success and Alistair joined in the many discussions. When he left Islay, Alistair continued to be a Liberal Party activist and was elected to Parliament in 2001, replacing Jim Wallace as MP for Orkney and Shetland.

After the 2010 UK General Election produced a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, Alistair was appointed as Deputy Chief Whip to the government, a role which he held until October 2013, when he became the Secretary of State for Scotland. In 2012, Alistair was also appointed as the deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

So there you have it: a lad born on a farm up the Oa and schooled in Port Ellen Primary and Islay High School has found himself a seat in the Cabinet of the British Government and has become Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Scotland. We can all be very proud of Alistair Carmichael and proud that our island can produce people ready to take on such significant roles. I have been reminded that Port Ellen has produced two Cabinet Ministers, two Presidents of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a hero of the American Revolution. Well done, Alistair. We salute you.

If you are interested in a political debate you can see Nicola Sturgeon and Alistair Carmichael go head to head.

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