Extraordinary life of top SNP donor Rosheen Napier

A procession leaves St Giles' Cathedral on its way to the Meadows park in Edinburgh during a Scottish National Party march in 1954. Photograph: TSPL
A procession leaves St Giles' Cathedral on its way to the Meadows park in Edinburgh during a Scottish National Party march in 1954. Photograph: TSPL
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THOSE who knew Rosheen Napier towards the end of her days were aware that their cultured and charming friend was a “very strong but discreet” Scottish Nationalist.

Her unshakeable belief in Scottish independence was reflected in her will, which saw her leave £136,000 to the SNP when she died aged 94.

Rosheen Napier

Rosheen Napier

Her bequest, which has just come to light in newly published Electoral Commission documents, made her the SNP’s most generous donor in 2012. But what the Commission’s register of donors did not reveal were the details of an extraordinary life spent with a radical Nationalist who once dallied with the idea of achieving independence by armed ­insurrection.

Scotland on Sunday can disclose that Napier was once at the heart of a charmed circle of revolutionaries that included her companion of 40 years, ­Ronald MacDonald Douglas, and Scotland’s greatest 20th-century poet, Hugh MacDiarmid.

Until her death in October 2011, Napier, a long-standing SNP member, was a link to an old independence movement which flirted with paramilitary activity and was a far cry from the anti-violent, civic ­nationalism adhered to by the party today.

Napier first met Douglas, a writer, when they were both 
in Ireland. He had been exiled to Dublin after being interned by the British wartime authorities on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathiser. Despite rejecting Nazism, they had threatened to charge him with high treason.

Napier had been born in Ireland, but emigrated to New Zealand as a young girl. When her parents divorced, she left her Scottish father and moved to Italy, where she lived with her mother for seven years, learning to speak fluent Italian and French.

She was then sent to a 
convent boarding school in Ireland – an experience which put her off religion for life.

Although Douglas was already partnered with another woman, Marjorie Brock, Napier moved in with them. The three lived for spells in Strasbourg, Hawick and latterly 
Edinburgh’s Grange district, with the unorthodox arrangement lasting until Douglas’s death in his late 80s in 1984.

“She admired his passion greatly and the strength of his conviction,” said Sheena Duncan, a close friend of Napier for 30 years.

“I think there was great respect and love amongst them all, but I don’t think there was anything sexual.”

Napier provided support to Douglas in his political activities, which began before they met. In the late 1930s, Douglas was a Commandant in the Scottish Defence Force, a paramilitary group which trained on the Campsie Fells.

She was then at Douglas’s side when he became the 
leading light in the 1320 Club, described in the book Britain’s Secret War: Tartan Terrorism And The Anglo-American State as an “extreme Scottish nationalist organisation”.

According to the book by Andrew Murray Scott and Iain MacLeay, the 1320 Club’s aim was “total independence from England through violent means if necessary”. The 1320 Club, named after the date of the Declaration of Arbroath was proscribed by the SNP on its formation in 1967, but was absorbed by the Siol nan Gaidheal group in 1978. In 1982, at a stormy party conference in Ayr, SNP delegates voted for

disbanding of Siol nan Gaidheal.”’

Before that, Douglas had been honorary president and editor of the organisation’s newspaper the Catalyst. In one of his articles, Douglas makes a mysterious reference to his “abortive gun-running attempts from Switzerland” and writes of a meeting with ­Rudolf Hess, a key Hitler aide 
until his flight to Scotland ­during the Second World War to try to arrange a peace deal. He concludes, however, by ­rejecting an armed struggle, describing the “futility and dread evil of violence”.

It was in his role as a radical writer that Douglas corresponded with his good friend MacDiarmid, another prominent Nationalist. In his letters, MacDiarmid often sent his kind regards to “Roisin [sic], Marjorie and you” before signing off “Yours for Scotland”.

In one letter written by 
MacDiarmid in November 1970, the poet discusses plans for Catalyst: “What you propose to try to do with Cataylst – make it a real, revolutionary magazine and seek to regain the lost dynamic in the Scottish Movement – is precisely what is so urgently needed and I’ll certainly do anything I can to help.

“But I fear that so far as a very large part of our population is concerned the process of Anglicisation has gone so far that they are just utterly hopeless. However, as long as there are a hundred of us there is still hope.”

Napier remained devoted to the memory of Douglas, and her will included a generous bequest to St Columba’s Hospice, where he died after succumbing to cancer.

Douglas himself paid tribute to Napier, a gourmet cook who used her talent for languages to work as a translator and a tour guide throughout Europe and Scotland.

In a letter to Alan Bold, the editor of The Letters Of Hugh MacDiarmid, two years before his death, Douglas wrote: “Roisin [sic] Napier and ­Marjorie Brock and I have lived together for over 40 years – and, believe it or not, without in all that time having anything that could be called a ­serious row. We worked together. Roisin is a linguist [and Marjorie] is the best sub-editor in Scotland.”

Napier is also remembered fondly by her friend Sheena Duncan, who first met her when they worked as tour guides together.

“She always asked people about themselves and there are very few people like that. She was very cultured and was still going to the theatre and the cinema in her 90s,” Duncan said. “She was a very strong Nationalist. She was very discreet about it, but it was always there.”