Obituary: John Farquhar Munro, politician and crofter

John Farquhar Munro: Liberal Democrat MSP and father of the Scottish ParliamentJohn Farquhar Munro: Liberal Democrat MSP and father of the Scottish Parliament
John Farquhar Munro: Liberal Democrat MSP and father of the Scottish Parliament
Born: 26 August, 1934, in Kintail. Died: 26 January, 2014, in Kintail, aged 79

John Farquhar Munro and I shared many things: happy days; a love of the Highlands and its people; its culture and its sport. He was a shinty player, and his family roots were in Harris, which clearly elevated him on to another plane altogether. We shared the full panoply of life’s rich tapestry; we faced down the same demons, we laughed at the same things and we shared the same values. We were, in fact, related through “bonnie Jeannie Munro” of whom songs were written by his mother, and of whom he wrote himself.

A former teacher of his in the 1950s confided last week: “I never imagined that that naughty little boy would go so far. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye, and maybe I should have known.”

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This was a temperament he took to three sessions of the Scottish Parliament.

To John, the fancy protocols at Holyrood were a bit of a trial. He preferred the original site of Parliament on The Mound at the top of the Royal Mile because he could keep an eye on the comings and goings in the High Court when he was out packing his pipe.

Political skills honed in the chambers of Skye and Lochalsh district council and then Ross and Cromarty were the groundwork for a political career which saw Munro at the heart of many key events from 1999 – and never unwittingly.

When in Skye he, along with chief executive David Noble, ran the council in a sort of parallel universe. Meetings were held and started when Munro could make it through from Kyle, the giveaway always the slightly oily hands and the whiff of WD40, masked only by a stronger blast of his favoured Bogie Roll.

He was a practical man, impatient with rhetoric, the empty kind most of all. He practised rather than preached, and was, as many have said a good man, a kind man.

He attended Plockton High School, and eventually Merchant Marine College, Sharpness. Working backwards, he was a crofter, a civil engineering and quarrying contractor, bus operator, heavy haulage contractor, self-employed, manager of a contracting company, plant fitter with Kings, did road construction and was in the merchant navy, perhaps the most colourful and challenging period of his life, which included attempts to stowaway on the Queen Mary and blagging his way home from London to Inverness on the train with no ticket or money.

His life changed for the better in 1959, two years before he meet Celia at the Plockton Sailing Club Dinner Dance. His decision to stop drinking was pivotal and provided him with the platform which was to see him go from bread van delivery man to a senior and much respected figure in the Scottish Parliament. He became “father” of the institution, its oldest MSP.

In 1999 he had been elected to the first Scottish Parliament and he served there until he stood down in 2011, three years ago. Prior to that he had served as a local councillor with various Highland local authorities for 33 years, a fantastic level of commitment to local politics and community life.

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JF loved stravaiging round Edinburgh showing off his beautiful Kintail Gaelic. Having lived a life which was very different from most other MSPs, he brought his own remarkable interests and influence to the fledgling Scottish Parliament. These went way beyond the clichéd portrayals of the Highland crofter, albeit with stylishly crafted tweed suits.

His greatest achievement and his most compelling arguments were reserved for the Skye Bridge. JF was immensely proud of his part in ensuring the Scottish Executive eventually bought the bridge out from private hands and abolished the tolls in 2004.

Proud too of being named “Maverick of the Year” in the Herald Scottish Political awards the previous year, JF was against the original Lib-Lab pact at Holyrood and is often referred to as an eternal backbencher. He thought he could get more done there.

He was always busy and a nightmare when it came to scheduling and attending to deadlines. He would always be on time for a feed though, as I discovered. He always relied on his team, with various happy helpers attending to his every need, writing speeches he might mislay, and making the tea. He got more mileage out of teabags than he ever did out of his blue Mercedes (registration number JFDID) and he got in excess of 500,000 miles out of that.

Parliamentarians of every political hue paid tribute to John Munro, including Charles Kennedy in whose propulsion to Westminster JF played such a significant role.

After an illness bravely borne, it was time for John Farquhar to go home – where else, but to Crò Chinn t-Sàile.

Théid mi dhachaidh hi ro dhachaidh

Théid mi dhachaidh chrò Chinn t-Sàile

Théid mi dhachaidh ho ro dhachaidh

Théid mi dhachaidh chrò Chinn t-Sàile

JF’s own translation was:

I will go home

I will go home to the fold of Kintail

I will go home

I will go home to the fold of Kintail

Gu robh Dia maille ris, agus sìth aig anam

John Farquhar Munro is survived by his wife Celia, daughter and son Shanae and Paddy, five grandchildren and one great grandchild, brother Winkie, and sisters Mary and Christine.

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