Sandy at 80 – a lifetime of public service

Sandy Matheson’s entry into local government was pretty much predestined. Over six decades, his name was never far from headlines that reflected island issues.

Thursday, 11th November 2021, 12:22 pm
Sandy was elected convener in 1982

As he hits his 80th birthday, he is more observer than participant. His recent success has been to keep at bay the cancer which gave him a five years life expectancy nearly 20 years ago. Sandy’s most prized achievement is now his role in establishing the Hebridean Mens’ Cancer Support Group which has done so much to help others facing a similar predicament.

He describes the family background in local government. “My grand-uncle Roderick Smith, was my mother’s guardian, she being an orphan from Partick. Hence he was a substitute grandfather with whom I spent a great deal of time as a boy, a teenager and then as successor in his chemist’s shop on Point Street.

“He served on Stornoway Town Council and related bodies from 1911 to 1961. I almost subliminally absorbed a great deal about his local authority work and some of its characters. He often took me along when he gave relatives and overseas friends a tour of the Town Hall and council chambers.

‘I also met Alasdair Macleod, the Town Clerk, who helped me with some of my contributions to the Nicolson Debating Society and then when I was elected to Stornoway Town Council in 1967 became my patient mentor. My own father, Dr Alex Matheson, also served on the Town Council though I never got much out of him!”.

Sandy went to Aberdeen to study pharmacy and returned to Lewis and the family business in 1965, by this time married to Irene, a fellow student from Kirkcudbright. “I had no thought of becoming a councillor so soon, but I was approached by two ladies from Newton Street about the neglect of the area. We set up the Newton Ratepayers Association with me as spokesman.

“As a result, I stood in May 1967 and was elected, aged 25, at the top of the poll. At the following statutory meeting I was appointed to Stornoway Trust and Stornoway Pier and Harbour Commission”. Sandy’s public career was off and running. In 1968 he became Burgh Treasurer and was delegated to Ross and Cromarty County Council. In 1971, he became Stornoway’s youngest and, as it proved, last Provost. He recalls: “My main mentors and supporters were Murdoch Macleod, the Town Clerk, and D M Smith, who was factor of the Stornoway Trust”.

By the early 1970s, local government reform was on the agenda and a critical debate ensued. The Wheatley Commission had proposed the Western Isles should become a District within a pan-Highland and Islands Region. Sandy recalls: “Stornoway Town Council and all the other authorities within the Western Isles opposed this and eventually an amendment was accepted to create a single authority. I became bound up in laying the ground for the new authority through a Joint Advisory Committee, which I chaired”.

These were heady days, with the huge challenge of “levelling up” between Lewis and the other islands which had been under the thrall of Inverness County Council. When it came to electing the first convener of Comhairle nan Eilean, Sandy lost to Rev. Donald MacAulay on the cut of the cards, after a tied vote. Close identification with Stornoway probably cost him the job. However, it all turned out for the best as he got his teeth into economic development and, crucially, the debate over the Arnish yard.

Sandy recalls: “The early aims and achievements of Comhairle nan Eilean were pretty impressive - the new secondary at Linaclete; improved inter-island transport; establishment of a Gaelic policy and for my part a new and vigorous attitude towards economic development. There was also the challenge of attracting new staff resident in the islands whereas local government had not previously been a career prospect.”

On Arnish, Sandy says: “The HIDB approached Stornoway Trust for land and D. M. Smith and I jumped at the chance to negotiate with Fred Olsen. There was some opposition from traditional employers like the Harris Tweed mills in Stornoway and the usual crop of naesayers. The one real issue was over Sunday work and negotiations on this were very complicated especially as Olsen had said they would withdraw if any details of the entire plan were released prior to agreement in principle.

“These were challenging and educative days for me, but again I had D. M. Smith to keep us on the right track. Despite the many ups and down at Arnish over nearly 50 years, it is still there and has - as we recognised from day one - the biggest roll-mill for tubes in Europe”.

While very much the local politician, Sandy was ready for a wider role. Again with D.M. Smith, from a prominent Labour family, as his source of encouragement he was adopted as Labour candidate to fight the 1979 General Election. He dates Labour sympathies back to student days “when I was a deeply committed anti-capital punishment person much influenced by Sidney Silverman”. These were reinforced by the Arnish experience when the local Labour Party were the only ones to come out fully in support while others sat on the fence.

He recalls: “To my domestic critics I made clear that I was not standing against our old colleague and indeed friend Donald Stewart but for the Labour Party to which I had been sympathetic since my student days”. He did well in the unfavourable climate of the 1979 election, increasing Labour’s vote and paving the way for Calum MacDonald’s eventual success eight years later.

“in retrospect” he says, “it was a blessing. If elected, I would have been a minor backbencher in opposition with too much time on my hands away from Irene and the children. When things settled down, my response was really one of relief – I had a wife, four young children, a business to run and an awful lot to do locally”. In 1982, he became the second convener of Comhairle nan Eilean and led it successfully for eight years, through trying times for local government everywhere.

In the late 1990s, Sandy – having held just about every office his home islands could offer – sought a wider role as chairman of Caledonian MacBrayne. By this time, an appointments system had been put in place which gave discreet powers to civil servants to block individuals they did not want to see appointed – and the last thing, then as now, they wanted was an able islander at the head of CalMac.

When Sandy learned that he had been excluded from selection by being categorised as “unappointable”, he challenged the process and had his complaint upheld. Shortly afterwards, the man who had been “unappointable” to CalMac became chairman of Highlands and Islands Airport Limited – and an outstandingly successful one at that.

He says: “Undoubtedly the happiest role in public office was my six years at HIAL along with Bob Macleod, the chief executive and fellow Lewisman. He had a tremendous sense of vision and how best to achieve his aims with the minimum of rancour or upset, a really fine and sensible man. We had a very good Board and I was able to achieve a great relationship with officials from the Scottish Office”. Everyone associated with HIAL recalls it as a golden period.

Another role in which he flourished was chairman of the Harris Tweed Authority. There I owe him a personal debt. Shortly after he left that post, Sandy was early to recognise the potential crisis facing the industry following the sale of MacKenzie’s mill. From these conversations the idea of Harris Tweed Hebrides arose with Ian Angus Mackenzie, who had worked closely with Sandy at the HTA, as chief executive. The rest is history.

In 2002, Sandy had been diagnosed with leukaemia. How did he respond? Above all he pays tribute, as in everything he has done, to the support from Irene and the rest of the family. “At first it was frightening but then became a lesson in self-awareness – and I did have a smattering of clinical understanding of leukaemia.

“The prognosis was for a five year survival rate coupled with debilitating and painful medical interventions, which I refused to undergo. There was a new and untested drug called Imatinib and although so expensive it had not been approved for NHS treatment, my clinician was able to put a case for its use. Here I am nearly 20 years later thanks to our truly wonderful NHS.

“After a couple of years moping, I went along to an open session of the Lewis and Harris Ladies Cancer Support Group, where to my surprise I found men with whom I became very friendly. We agreed cancer was the elephant in the room and men were far too reticent to come to terms with it. Along with the late Willie Mackenzie and Norman Macfarlane, both from Tong, I was inspired to set up the group which now seems to have broken the taboo”.

Looking back, Sandy concludes: “The underlying progress that has been made is in community confidence. Notwithstanding the globetrotting Merchant seamen and the emigrated diaspora, there was a huge disconnect with the cultural and attitudinal realities of the home islands. We seemed to have lost hope, were very dependent on Government funding and wages, and had developed an inward looking attitude.

“For most families the only road to success was to depart rather than develop. Now although there are many problems we have at least a spirit of confidence to innovate and take business risks. Community land ownership has been a prime example”.

His recipe for retirement? “Nowadays I lead a fairly relaxed life which is rather compromised by my deafness, so I have to choose the company and situations I get into. I have two coffee sessions with friends every week, keep up my passion for local history and family roots and have developed a keen interest in green house gardening. I recommend a glass house or Poly curb to all retired souls”.