Obituary: Sir Albert McQuarrie, former politician

Sir Albert McQuarrie, Conservative grandee who relished his nickname as 'The Buchan Bulldog'. Picture: PA
Sir Albert McQuarrie, Conservative grandee who relished his nickname as 'The Buchan Bulldog'. Picture: PA
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Born: 1 January, 1918, in Greenock. Died: 13 January, 2016, in Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, aged 98.

Sir Albert McQuarrie, thought to be the UK’s oldest surviving former MP, was the colourful Conservative Member of Parliament for Banff and Buchan, the Aberdeenshire constituency he both gained from and lost to the SNP.

Known as rarely modest but always effective, he relished his nickname “The Buchan Bulldog”, a cognomen bestowed on him by Margaret Thatcher for his tenacity in defending fishing interests in his constituency.

Firmly of the Right, Sir Albert’s loyalty to the Conservative Party could never be questioned, though he hung his hat on a constituency peg rather than establishing a career as a parliamentarian. Thus his Commons activities reflected those of his constituency – vice-chairman of the Conservative Fisheries Sub-Committee, and secretary of the Scotch Whisky All-Party Group. He is best remembered for introducing regulations improving safety on board fishing vessels

Educated at Greenock High School and the Royal College of Science and Technology, Glasgow, Albert McQuarrie began working life as an apprentice plumber. He joined up immediately on the outbreak of war in 1939, serving in the Royal Engineers and being commissioned. A bomb disposal expert (a “sapper” he always termed himself), he dealt with unexploded devices across an area from Bristol to Portsmouth. His tools were primitive and home-made, and included a doctor’s stethoscope. The life expectancy of bomb disposal squad members was not high, particularly as the Blitz witnessed the use of new and deadlier technology by the Luftwaffe, then unknown to British engineers and scientists.

Enemy devices included a variety of fuses designed to prevent the bombs from being made safe, and a bomb with a new type of delayed-action fuse; the latter meant it could remain inactive for days before detonating.

Early methods of dealing with a bomb included building a wall of sandbags round it, or lassoing it with stout string and then tugging hard from a safe distance.

Sir Albert held justifiable pride in having worked in bomb disposal, daily risking life without ever leaving the shores of the UK. During the war, he and his wider comrades dealt with 45,000 unexploded bombs, 7,000 live anti-aircraft shells and 300,000 beach mines, at a loss of some 394 lives.

He entered politics through Greenock Town Council for six years from 1949, and was blooded for parliamentary contests when he faced long-running Labour Secretary of State William Ross in Kilmarnock in the 1966 general election. He won what was then East Aberdeenshire in 1979, one of 21 Scottish Conservative MPs elected as the Tories took power under Margaret Thatcher. He gained the seat from the SNP’s Douglas Henderson by 558 votes, retaining it until being dislodged in 1987 by a highly-rated young Nationalist called Alex Salmond.

He blamed his ousting on Mrs Thatcher’s introduction of the poll tax. “I told Margaret in 1985 that we would lose our seats but she said: ‘Oh no Albert, that can’t happen’”, was his recollection. Given his party’s record in later years, he calculated that if he lived long enough, he’d become the last Conservative MP who sat in the House for a Scottish seat. He was probably the UK’s oldest surviving former MP.

A sociable and gregarious politician whose friendships crossed party boundaries, his many contacts included Springburn Labour MP and later Speaker Michael (now Lord) Martin, and the late Labour Minister of Transport Barbara (later Baroness) ­Castle.

His nose for a winner rarely lost him. In September 2011, in the battle for the Scottish Tory leadership, Sir Albert came out in support for Ruth Davidson, saying she had the potential to lead the party back to its “former glory”. His message of support also declared him to be a hard-liner of the old school. “We are the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, and that is what we should remain,” he stated.

A fit man who looked a decade younger than his age, he listed the secrets for healthy long life as “an exercise bike in my garage that I use like a treadmill every day, and a wee dram of Famous Grouse every night”. He loved his adopted Buchan, and for the rest of his life remained in Mintlaw in the heart of his old constituency.

Sir Albert shared with his parliamentary nemesis Alex Salmond a love of music and singing. At 91, he turned his hand to composing, and wrote the election song used by Jimmy Buchan, the Tory trawler captain who stood for his old seat in the general election of 2010. A catchy little ditty it was too – and broadcast on radio and loudspeaker vans during the campaign – but it didn’t win Jimmy the seat.

Never known for a lack of self-profile, Sir Albert nevertheless could back every boast. When his development work in construction was commended, he put forward his own building company as a suitable candidate for acceptance by the Guild of Master Craftsmen. He was duly interviewed by the Guild, found to fulfil their exacting criteria, and accepted into the ranks. He was then 93.

Nor did he ever stop working. In 2011, he was development consultant for a proposal to create a crematorium in Mintlaw, not far from his Buchan home, and turned out to speak in support at the series of public meetings across central Aberdeenshire. At 95, in 2014, he published his autobiography, A Lifetime Of Memories. Knighted in 1987, he was interested in chivalry, and in 1991 was granted his own coat-of-arms by then Lord Lyon Sir Malcolm Innes of Edingight.

He was predeceased by his wife Rosaleen née McCaffery in 1986, and his survived by his second wife Rhoda Gall. His son Dermot, once a journalist with STV, is now a senior executive with Fox TV in Los Angeles.