Grantown-on-Spey to honour former resident Aung San Suu Kyi with plaque

The sleepy town of Grantown-on-Spey seems far removed from the tumultuous events of Burmese politics and the painful struggle for democracy led by one of the world’s most charismatic politicians.

Aung San Suu Kyi picnics with her family in Grantown-on-Spey
Aung San Suu Kyi picnics with her family in Grantown-on-Spey

But a matter of days after Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a famous landslide victory in the Burma election, Grantown residents are launching a campaign of their own to recognise their town’s unique connection with the legendary peace campaigner.

It is a little known fact that the Highland settlement was once home for Suu Kyi – long before the award of her Nobel Prize for Peace and before she was imprisoned for 15 years for speaking out against the Burmese dictator U Ne Win.

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In 1975, Suu Kyi and her late husband Michael Aris, the British academic who specialised in Tibetan and Himalayan studies, spent about a year in Grantown.

Suu Kyi stayed on the outskirts of the town in a house called Clachnastrone owned by her husband’s father John Aris and his stepmother Evelyn.

The couple, who had met while they were both studying at Oxford University, and their eldest son Alexander retreated there so that Michael Aris could work on his PhD in the quiet surroundings of the Cairngorms.

Although she kept a low profile during her Highland sojourn and had yet to become the internationally renowned figure she is today, Suu Kyi made quite an impression on the locals, some of whom can still remember her vividly. In the wake of her triumph in Burma’s first openly contested election for 25 years, the people of Grantown now think their town’s connection with her should be commemorated.

Nessa MacKenzie, one of her closest friends in Grantown, believes a plaque should be put up on the house where she once lived.

Suu Kyi was in her late 20s and was always with her eldest son Alexander, who was then a toddler when MacKenzie first met her. MacKenzie was in her late 40s and had three sons: Graham, then aged eight, and twins Stuart and John, who were then six. Suu Kyi did not have a car, so MacKenzie would help out with lifts.

Their families often picnicked together in the Speyside countryside, and in the evenings the two mothers attended sewing classes.

“Suu was the best in the class,” MacKenzie recalled. “She lived here for a year and she used to come back after that to see her in-laws after her second son Kim was born. She was serene, had great presence and she was very beautiful. It would be lovely to see a plaque on the gate of the house. I am sure it could be done.”

Anne MacLean’s mother Jean was out walking her dog in the mid 1970s near Clachnastrone when she bumped into a “very slim” female stranger, who mentioned she was finding life in Scotland cold and was having difficulty with her central heating.

According to MacLean, her mother went inside the house and helped her new acquaintance “fire up the Aga”. From this first meeting between the families, Suu Kyi’s son Alexander began playing with MacLean’s young son Christopher.

“I can remember them playing football in the grass in the way small boys do,” said MacLean. “I suppose I only met her a couple of times, but she was very impressive. She was calm and self-possessed, but had this inner drive. A lot of people who have drive can be over-assertive. She, however, was just so calm. She had this stillness about her that I really admired.”

Marie-Louise Napier’s mother, Margaret Cumming, was the librarian in the town.

“She was in the library a lot. My mother talked a lot about what an amazing and charismatic person she was. And also how beautiful she was. It is lovely that she lived here and was very happy here.”

Sharon Hamilton, who lives in Clachnastrone today, said: “We do know about the house’s history. I have got three girls and to think that someone like that lived here is quite inspirational. In fact, when one of my daughters was asked to do a school project on someone who had inspired her, she chose Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Mary Scanlon, Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said: “I remember hearing so much about Aung San Suu Kyi and in particular a conversation I had with her late mother-in-law, who talked about her son, Aung San Suu Kyi and her grandchildren.

“I think it would be most appropriate if there was some recognition of the connection with Grantown-on-Spey in the town. I will be writing to Highland Council to see if something could be considered to mark this Scottish connection.”