Obituary: Jimmy Halliday, author, historian and politician

James Halliday
James Halliday
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Born: 27 February, 1927, in Wemyss Bay. Died: 3 January, 2013, in Dundee, aged 84.

Witty, amusing, occasionally acerbic, and with an uncanny and somewhat disconcerting ability to see though the pretensions of fellow countrymen. This was the essence of James Halliday, author, historian and politician, who died on Thursday, 3 January, 2013, aged 84.

Jimmy was rarely in the public eye during his later years but continued to play an important part as chairman of the Scots Independent, Scotland’s oldest surviving political newspaper. Born in Wemyss Bay on 27 February, 1927, the son of an estate gardener, he was educated at Skelmorlie Primary School and Greenock Academy, before attending Glasgow University in 1944.

Jimmy had been a Nationalist from early days, joining the Scottish National Party in 1943 as soon as he was eligible. Even so, he took the view that the war was just and registered for service with the Navy. Having done well in the Glasgow University bursary examination, he had an automatic deferment of one year.

As soon as he commenced his studies in October 1944, he joined Glasgow University Nationalist Association. They were not strong numerically so Jimmy was propelled into speaking at the legendary university debates. His first critique in the printed report was: “Speak up, son. You’re promising.” As Jimmy described it in his memoirs: “I felt slightly upset at the implication of youth but otherwise contented.”

His speaking career and studies came to an abrupt end four months later when he went down with tuberculosis of the spine and it was not until more than two years later in 1947 that he was able to stand up again. Going back to university and Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association (GUSNA) in 1948 was as if he were a mature student. He quickly became a “frontbencher” in the debates and was selected as debater of the year in 1950. He graduated in 1952 with an honours degree in history and afterwards taught at Ardeer and then at Coatbridge, Uddingston and Dunfermline High Schools.

From Dunfermline he moved to Dundee College of Education as a lecturer in history in 1967, successively becoming principal lecturer in 1979 and head of department by retirement in 1988. He specialised in modern history and was particularly interested in the history, politics and constitution of the United States, writing a book, World in Transformation – America.

Not that he ignored his own country of Scotland, being the author of Scotland the Separate, Scotland: A Concise History BC to 1990, The 1820 Rising – The Radical War and his own memoirs, Yours for Scotland. He also co-authored Story of Scotland.

Apart from inspiring generations of students, he played a huge part in stabilising a fractious and fractured Scottish National Party in the 1950s. Then the SNP was a tiny organisation with a miniscule membership. So it was that in 1954, he received an invitation to become the prospective SNP parliamentary candidate in the Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth Constituency. Although he was flattered by the invitation, it did not come at an opportune time.

He had only recently started work, and the prospect of 
unpaid leave during the campaign did not appeal, and then with his forthcoming marriage, it would take real dedication to go ahead. He accepted. It was only later that he realised his real gift to the party.

Dr Robert McIntyre had stated he would not stand unless there was another candidate to keep him company. If the SNP had gone into the 1955 general election without candidates, it would have faced a collapse in morale. As it was, internal trouble was brewing. There had been an attempt in 1955 by a dissident group of “ultras” to seize control of the party and its machinery by use of a “slate” and organised voting.

By a large majority, the party disassociated itself with its anti-English sentiments. The rebels left to form their own short-lived organisation.

But by then Robert McIntyre felt he had become a blockage and Jimmy Halliday, having newly been elected to the National Executive, became chairman in 1956 at the age of 28.

It was a promotion with problems. The party had been wrecked and was full of ill 
feeling.

So the young Jimmy Halliday had taken over a task that would have daunted an older and more experienced man – none of whom volunteered anyway. For the next few years, his task, while still working and with a family, was to keep things on the road.

By the 1959 election, there was progress with five candidates and Jimmy Halliday stood once more in Stirling Burghs. Much of the credit for the SNP revival in 1961 has been claimed by others. Yet without the stability introduced by Jimmy Halliday, it is doubtful whether there would have been an effective platform for recovery.

Taking more of a back seat after handing over the chair to Arthur Donaldson in 1959 and being a candidate once more, this time in West Fife in 1970, James Halliday took on two other major challenges.

The first was the exacting task of convener of the election committee (responsible for interviewing, training and selecting candidates) in the growth years of the 1970s. The second and most long running was as a director and chairman of the Scots Independent, which had become independent of the party while Jimmy was party chairman.

For the most part, the paper worked well with the party but there were occasions in the eighties and nineties when elements on the executive tried to take control through an attempt to appoint the editor. In these rather bitter exchanges, it was James Halliday who negotiated quietly but firmly and, as the NEC discovered, had a backbone of steel.

And what of the man? He was someone you wanted to hear at a meeting or have at a dinner table: urbane, well read and interesting, with that dash of quiet humour emphasising a point that had not occurred to the rest of us.

Throughout, he was supported by his wife Olive, whom he married on 12 July, 1955. She survives him, along with their two sons, David and Gavin, and two grandchildren, Grace and Flora.