Alex Salmond biography: Leading lady the driving force behind First Minister

In the latest extract from his biography of SNP leader Alex Salmond, David Torrance uncovers the pivotal role wife Moira has played in his career

ON 6 MAY 1981 at St Cuthbert's Parish Church in Colinton, Edinburgh, Alex Salmond married Moira French McGlashan, a motor engineer's daughter from Peebles who he had met while they both worked for the Scottish Office's Department of Agriculture. The Linlithgowshire Journal and Gazette carried no photograph of the happy couple, simply reporting that Alex was now "settling down to married life".

The newlyweds soon moved to a new home at Rivaldsgreen House on Linlithgow's Friars Brae, Salmond having finally moved out of his parents' house at 101 Preston Road. Everyone who knew either Alex or Moira at this time recalls them being a perfect match, while their 17-year age gap was barely perceptible. Although not the political animal her husband was, Moira had significant political influence. She was among those unfailingly credited in pamphlets edited by her husband, while Salmond would later acknowledge her shrewd advice and unswerving support. She was certainly devoted to her husband, even teaching him to drive shortly after their marriage.

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Some contemporaries, however, regarded Salmond's marriage to Moira with "bemusement". "It was so out of character, so out of style with Alex generally," recalled one, "this young radical working class person marrying someone not only 17 years older than him, but, by her own admission, of a more Conservative-leaning background and so much more proper than he was."

It certainly must have been a big decision for Salmond to make, not least in terms of family: by marrying a woman in her early 40s he was more or less deciding that children would not be part of his life. But while these considerations would intrigue journalists and, indeed, biographers, it is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that Salmond was deeply in love with Moira and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. When Salmond was elected to Parliament in 1987 she gave up her job and devoted herself to supporting his career. Although not completely invisible, working for a while in his Peterhead office, she remained better known to the party faithful rather than the general public.

"She is invariably cheerful, optimistic, welcome and friendly, but determined to stay in the background," wrote former diplomat Paul Henderson Scott in his memoirs."She never speaks to the press or appears on a political platform, but it is apparent to everyone who has met her that Alex could not have a more sustaining ally."

"I'm no Glenys Kinnock," Moira told a reporter self-deprecatingly in 1990 in her first - and last - media interview. "I married Alex, not politics. That's his life and I am happy to be in the background. I share his convictions, but one politician in the family is quite enough."

Rather she saw the role of an MP's wife, and that of herself, in the more traditional Tory mould, helping with constituency work, opening flower shows and supervising their three homes, not least their Strichen cottage in Salmond's constituency, with its open log fire, beams and stripped pine floors.

"Sometimes I go to make a cheese and tomato toastie in Linlithgow," said Moira, "absolutely sure I've got a pound of cheese in the fridge, and then I remember it's in the kitchen in Strichen!" It seems colleagues later teased Salmond about this particular revelation. "I do get lonely when he's away all week in Westminster,' she said, "so our time alone together is very precious. We drive up to Strichen on a Friday and like to potter around the cottage, having meals by the fire and a long leisurely fry-up on a Sunday morning."

The couple also liked playing Scrabble and cards, although it invariably caused rows due to Salmond's tendency to change the rules as he went along. "He gets mad because I invariably win Scrabble," said Moira. "The thing is, he can't spell."

Salmond, it seems, was not really a man for the Nineties. "He can't cook, is reluctant to do housework and still hasn't put up the new pole for her curtains," noted their interrogator, "even though she's had it for six months."

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"Let's just say I'm not inspired by doing household jobs," he admitted. "Moira gets on to me for spending a lot of time on other people's problems and never having time for our own." Alex did, however, remember anniversaries, although sometimes dinners had to be delayed due to other commitments. Moira also admitted doing all Alex's packing and always making sure he had enough shirts to last a week. "Sometimes I switch on the six o'clock news and I'm horrified by what he's wearing," she said with a shudder. "He hasn't a clue about the colours of ties, shirts and socks. He just puts on the nearest thing to hand."

Salmond then broke into another grin: "She phones me up to give me a telling off." Indeed, as he prepared to be grilled by Brian Walden in the run up to the 1992 general election, Salmond took care to pull up his socks with his wife in mind.

"I was on Panorama a few weeks ago and I got gyp from Moira," he explained to a bemused Walden. "I came home and said: 'How did I do?' And she said: 'I could see your legs.'"

Moira's hobbies, meanwhile, included collecting antiques, gardening and floral art. But above all, she enjoyed privacy."I regard myself as public property," explained Salmond, "but I like to protect Moira as much as I can from the limelight. We are not a political couple and I find it refreshing to come home and let off steam to someone who isn't in the thick of it."

The journalist Kenny Farquharson remembered having lunch with both Mr and Mrs Salmond in the early 1990s, an encounter that captured a more playful aspect of their marriage. "Alex was obviously playing up to Moira, putting on a show, telling anecdotes and providing mischievous commentary on the events and political personalities of the day," he recalled. "Moira had her elbows on the table, leaning forward and lapping it all up, occasionally shooting me an 'Oh, isn't he awful!' look, as if she was an aunt with a naughty favourite nephew." Such meetings, however, were rare, and it seems that having seen the result of Moira's one and only media interview, Salmond decided there would be no more.

Senior figures in the SNP recognised the importance of the stability and support she offered the party leader. As party veteran Winnie Ewing informed the 1993 SNP conference, Moira was "an absolute cracker".

Having campaigned with Mrs Salmond, added Ewing, she could vouch that she was "dynamic, efficient, totally dedicated and Alex is a very lucky man to have her. And we have an extra weapon - we've Moira as a secret weapon."

Her people skills could be disarming. After a rare period of co-operation between the SNP and Labour - then led in Scotland by Donald Dewar - for the 1997 referendum campaign, Salmond and his wife were invited to the Secretary of State's Christmas party. At Bute House, while Salmond was talking to Muir Russell, then permanent secretary at the Scottish Office, he looked around but could not see either Dewar or Moira. "Muir said: 'They've gone up to the private apartments,'" recalled Salmond jokingly. After heading upstairs he discovered them coming out of a cupboard. It was, of course, perfectly innocent; Dewar had merely been showing Moira the Bute House library. "You want to be careful with Moira," joked Salmond to the future first minister. "You don't realise she's got a measuring tape in her handbag for the curtains."

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In 2007, as it became clear Salmond had a good chance of becoming first minister, it was proving more difficult to keep Moira out of the limelight. Asked by an interviewer what influence she had on his ability to do his job, Salmond replied: "Very substantial. She tells me not to take myself too seriously." He also committed Moira to occupying a more high profile role should he become first minister. "I certainly couldn't do that job without her," he said. "My wife has enormous grace and style."

Newspapers, meanwhile, tried in vain to delve into her life, but so fiercely did Salmond protect her privacy all they could find were bland off-the-record quotes from friends to the effect that she was "chic and witty".Some anecdotes also scraped the barrel of absurdity. At "the Edinburgh branch of Slater Menswear", reported one tabloid, "an emphatic Mrs Salmond was overheard telling her husband quite simply: 'You will not be getting those trousers.'" The writer Ian Jack, when interviewing Salmond in early 2009, thought the "most interesting thing about Salmond is that he has flourished in politics without the conventional prerequisites of a public family life". "There has been very little intrusion, so little that most people, even in Scotland, are surprised (and, believe me, fascinated) when they learn of the 17-year difference in ages between husband and wife," wrote Jack. "The English press wouldn't have been so well-behaved."

Salmond concurred: "There are certain essential differences between Scottish politics and politics down south and one of them is that. I don't think that, to use Gordon Brown's phrase, politicians have ever paraded their family in Scotland. Donald Dewar didn't. John Smith didn't until he was persuaded to by (Peter] Mandelson, and that was probably a mistake; certainly he (Smith] thought that. I remember the Smith girls were announced at a Labour conference and the next day they were busted in the Sun for being in a nightclub or something - the usual process."

Salmond, of course, had no children on whom the tabloids could prey. "Moira does stuff. She does events, races, dinners, all the things that a political spouse does - the most exacting and unrewarding profession you could have," he told Jack. "It's a lot of trouble for absolutely no reward whatsoever, but she does it gracefully and willingly."

"I think it's been hard," says another former aide of the transition from protest to power in 2007. "She believes in him, she's his number one fan, his confidante. Moira believes in her husband and the party, but she doesn't miss a trick. I know it's cheesy, but behind every good man there's a strong woman, and that's certainly the case with Alex."

"Moira is his principal gauge of people's character," says former Salmond staffer Colin Pyle, "of those he meets and may need to trust. She is a good judge of people and he relies on that judgment all the time. You underestimate Moira at your peril."