Obituary: Robert Salmond, civil servant and war veteran who raised a future First Minister

Robert Salmond with son Alex after the Queen Elizabeth II was officially named the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier in 2014 (Chris Watt/Getty Images)
Robert Salmond with son Alex after the Queen Elizabeth II was officially named the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier in 2014 (Chris Watt/Getty Images)
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Robert Fyfe Findlay Salmond, civil servant. Born: 21 August, 1921, in Linlithgow. Died: 5 June, 2017, in Erskine, aged 95

Were it not for some gently judicious obfuscation on the part of Alex Salmond’s mother, the Scotsman’s letters editors over recent decades would have received many lengthy epistles from the former First Minister’s father, Robert Salmond, who died last week at the age of 95.

Even though it regularly infuriated him, he took this newspaper every day, and would frequently give lengthy, handwritten letters – on various subjects in the news – to his wife, Mary, asking her to type them out so he could send them in for publication. In the time-honoured method of one who sees the wisdom in an alternative approach, she’d agree to “do it later”.

He was “thrawn”, as his son puts it, acknowledging that the apple did not fall far from the tree.

There was a period when the former First Minister, his father and his mother all supported different political parties. Although Robert, who died just three days before the general election, spent most of his life promoting the cause of the SNP with gusto, he had once been a Labour man. In fact, his views were so left wing that he was nicknamed Uncle Joe (after Joseph Stalin). Mary was a Tory, but she later switched sides in order to support her son’s political career, and it was a relief for father and son that SNP posters could now be placed in the window.

The story of the moment Robert Salmond’s allegiances changed is one that vividly illustrates the importance he placed on respecting those with differing opinions. When a Labour canvasser came to his house half a century ago, perhaps jokingly saying the SNP was short for “Scottish Nose Pickers”, he was outraged, partly on behalf of his good friend, who supported the party, which in those days had yet to develop the support and momentum that would make it the formidable force it is today.

Not only did he give that canvasser a stern telling-off, he vowed then and there to redirect his political support, and later said that he’d been voting for the SNP since Alex “was in short trousers”.

Robert Fyfe Findlay Salmond was born in 1921 in Linlithgow – where his family had lived since the mid-18th century. The son of the plumber, he trained as an electrician. Like many men of his generation, the Second World War had a dramatic impact on his life. He became a petty officer in the Royal Navy, where his duties focused on repairing radios on aeroplanes. He worked on two different fleet carriers, including HMS Indomitable, when she was torpedoed during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

When the ship went off to Virginia in the United States to be repaired, Salmond and his team transferred to HMS Hunter, and saw more action in the Salerno landings.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Salmond, along with other crew members who had been on the Indomitable, had contracted tuberculosis, and he spent the rest of the war in 
hospital in Bangour, West Lothian.

He put his experience into practice while there and set up a radio for his fellow patients. After the war he became a civil servant, working for the Ministry of Pensions and helping miners who had contracted lung disease to get compensation. He was known for going the extra mile to ensure that those who were suffering receive received what was owed them.

As his son, Alex, told The Scotsman: “He would work long into the night on the cases, which was quite a contrast to the way he was at the weekend, whistling and reciting poems. It was golf on Saturday and church on Sunday.”

It was during his time at the Ministry of Pensions that he developed a deep disdain for Winston Churchill because of the way he had treated miners while he was Liberal Home Secretary in the early 20th century, sending troops to Tonypandy in Wales to quell dissent among the workers. His wife, meanwhile, regarded Churchill as a hero, though for different reasons. They agreed to disagree.

He had fallen for Mary Milne – who had gone to the same schools as him – while at the Ministry of Pensions. Working nearby as a clerk in the national insurance department, she had been a Wren during the war, working during the Blitz in London and then Plymouth. At their golden wedding anniversary Robert told the story of how, when he’d asked her out, she’d turned him down because his hair was too long. Not one to disregard crucial feedback, he ran off to the 
barber and was back within half an hour, with a haircut and, before long, a more 
satisfactory response from Mary.

They both enjoyed reading, working hard and taking care of their family. Mary was involved with the Girl Guides for many years and her great love was hillwalking.

After retiring, he threw himself into golf, playing most days and perfecting his technique.

Robert Salmond was a long-time supporter of Hearts, often going to games with his politician son. He was known to joke that he’d wished Alex had become a professional footballer. He had been to Holyrood to see his son in action, but had not visited him at Westminster. “I think he felt more comfortable in Holyrood,” his son said.

Alex Salmond recalls taking his father to see the Queen naming HMS Queen Elizabeth in Rosyth in 2014. “I thought he would find it interesting – and he did. I remember thinking, ‘He’s probably the only person here who’s done their military service on a ship.’ But he never really talked about the war.”

Three years before that, for a 90th birthday treat, Salmond had brought his father to the same dockyard, and the nonagenarian had climbed the gantry to reach the controls of the enormous crane as work started on the 65,000 tonne carrier.

Robert Salmond died at the original Erskine Home for ex-servicemen, where he had been given the best of care.

He is survived by his children Margaret, Alex, Gail and Bob, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Mary died in 2003 after collapsing while walking in the Highlands.

He was buried yesterday at St Ninian’s Craigmailen Church, where he had been an elder.