by Nicola Barry
ALEXANDER Elliot Anderson Salmond likes to describe himself as a genuine “black bitch”. He has every right to.
An expression for those born within the sound of the bells of St Michael, in Linlithgow, West Lothian, he qualifies by making his own grand entrance on Hogmanay 1954. At 4.30pm to be precise.
For civil servant parents Robert and Mary, the arrival of their second child on that snowy afternoon was, naturally, a joyous occasion. They would go on to have two further children, but little would they know it would be Alexander who would go on to write his name in history.
A full 56 years later, and now First Minister of Scotland, Salmond has fond memories of his childhood. Indeed, it’s fair to say they help shape the man he has become today.
“As a child, I believed that if anything bad happened, my family would always be there,” he recalls as he chats in his office at Bute House, in Edinburgh’s douce Charlotte Square. “I had loving parents, a supportive community, a real nexus. Nothing bad was likely to happen, whereas now some children are lucky if they have one parent, and safety is so often an issue.
“At first there was just me and my sister, Margaret, who was three years older. We very much had a big sister/wee brother thing – one of those childhood relationships that had its tensions.”
And that’s how it remained at the family home in Linlithgow, with Alex and Margaret the only children until, a full decade later, more siblings were added to the nest.
“Effectively my parents had two sets of family,” Salmond says. “Margaret and me three years apart and then, 10 years later, Gail and Bob. It actually led to Mum occasionally calling me Bob, or Gail, Margaret.”
There is a definite hint of nostalgia as Salmond – more used to booming tirades against Labour at Holyrood – speaks ever so fondly about his early life in Linlithgow, or “Lithgae” as he calls it.
“There were three bedrooms in our house,” he says. “I had a small room at the back. There was a painting on the wall – well, a photo actually, of a sheep. I always liked that sheep because whenever I looked at it, I thought I could see it move. It fascinated me. Lithgae was the most marvellous place on earth to be a child. It was a very close community back then, and Preston, where we lived, was the best kind of council scheme in Scotland. The houses were nicely spaced out with a decent bit of garden.
“My parents started their married life in that house. They had the downstairs and my aunt and uncle had the upstairs. A lot of folk lived like that back then.”
With a laugh, Salmond says he was a cheeky child who talked a lot, before adding: “Nothing much has changed.”
However, he suffered from serious asthma throughout his childhood, which forced him to miss time from school.
“Whenever I suffered an attack I was moved through to my parents’ bedroom at the front of the house,” he says. “It had a fantastic view over the swing park. I used to lie there, read and ponder.
“My passion was DC comics. I had the whole range: Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel, that sort of stuff.
“In the Sixties, my dad bought a set of encyclopaedias from someone at the front door and I read every single one from start to finish. Dad wasn’t the sort of person who bought things from people at the front door, but he felt sorry for this man and it seemed like a good offer.
“I’m so glad he did. I devoured them – stories about Greeks and Romans, Charlemagne and Roland, and astronomy with fantastic pictures of planets. And because I was off school so much I had time to read them over and over again.”
Despite his asthma, the young Alex yearned to play football for Heart of Midlothian FC. “I wasn’t a bad footballer, but I was probably too small. It was my dearest wish to play for Hearts.”
The young Salmond was also a fan of Enid Blyton, especially Shadow the sheepdog, and it influenced his early years. “I was five when we got a cairn terrier, and I called him Shadow because of the book,” he admits.
“He should have been a champion show dog but he had some small ear defect. I picked him from the litter because of the way he looked, and Mum stuck him in her shopping bag, with his head sticking out.
“I was dead excited to have a dog. As soon as we got him home, he peed in every corner, much to my dad’s disgust.
“Shadow was a wonderful dog: loyal, affectionate and brave. He’d let everybody, even burglars, into the house, but nobody out. Shadow would wag his tail to be petted, but as soon as they tried to leave, he turned into Gnasher.
“Shadow hated big dogs. One time, he set about a Labrador and the owner was going to complain to the police, meaning he might be put down.
“I was dispatched to apologise to the owner to plead for Shadow’s life. So I went and said it was my fault, that I shouldn’t have let him off the lead. After listening intently, the man said, ‘OK, fine. These things happen.’
“I remember I went home skipping. Mum cared for Shadow when I went to university and he lived to be 14.”
The First Minister’s conversation is littered with stories about his parents. He clearly worships his 90 year old father who still lives in the family home. His mother died of a heart attack in 2006, on her 120th Munro, in the Cairngorms. She was 82.
Salmond recalls: “My dad took up golf at 40 and thought it was the greatest game. He immediately marched us all off to Lithgae golf course for lessons. I must have been about three at the time.
“My dad had the worst swing imaginable and he wouldn’t listen,” he adds, laughing. “My mum could hit the ball about 50 yards at most but was very intense about it. Margaret had no interest whatsoever. I quite liked it but, one day, something went wrong. I accidentally swung the club and whacked my big sister. It was years before Margaret would believe it really had been an accident.”
Pausing to have one of his favourite Tunnock’s biscuits, he continues: “Once, I was due to play golf with my dad, a miner from Kinneil Colliery called Willie Wilson, and one of their pals. My father was late because he was finishing some work.
“Being 16, I made some stupid remark such as, ‘Typical of my dad. He can’t even turn up on time for golf.’”
Salmond pauses to draw breath, before continuing. “This Willie Wilson was a fantastic guy. Until that day, he had never uttered a cross word to me. Suddenly, he turned on me and said, ‘Do you have any idea what your father is doing right now, eh? Your father is going through every single case of pneumoconiosis he can find.
‘Son, you had better believe that your dad has a reputation in the mining community as an appeal officer – the one and only person who will hunt down a reason to allow a mining appeal. Always.’”
A silence descends on the room and the First Minister’s eyes fill with tears. Composing himself, he continues:
“Then, Willie Wilson said, ‘Don’t you ever speak ill of your dad behind his back again – because everybody knows Robert is the man you can trust to fight your corner when it comes to pension rights.’
“Well, I felt terrible. All of a sudden, I understood that when my father sat up night after night with his huge pile of papers, scribbling scrupulously, he was finding a way to help miners win what was theirs through appeals to the Ministry of Pensions. That was my dad.”
Salmond has the same reverence for his mother, by all accounts a formidable woman. “She spent a lot of time unable to walk very far. There was something wrong with one of her feet. Eventually, at the age of 60 she decided to have an operation her doctor had been advocating for years.
“Straight after surgery, she was off. She decided to go climbing and managed 120 Munros before she died – truly amazing.”
He recalls her baking in huge quantities. “Mum was an industrial baker. She would make 50 Christmas cakes then distribute them to each of our relatives as presents. She would bake them, wrap them in silver foil and send me out to deliver them.”
The First Minister’s father was in the Navy during the Second World War, an electrician on aircraft carriers who sorted radio sets. He was on a carrier, the Indomitable, which was torpedoed (but not sunk) in the Mediterranean.
He pauses for a sip of cold tea before adding: “Incidentally, my dad is very taciturn, not one for wasting words.
“My entire life, I never heard him make one speech, yet, at their golden wedding, 10 years ago, my dad stood up, without notes, and spoke for 30 minutes about my mother. It was absolutely riveting. You could have heard a pin drop.
“He told how he first asked her out, in 1948. They’d both been at the Lithgae Academy, so he knew who she was.
“Ten years later, he goes to ask her out and she looks at him and says, ‘Your hair is far too long for a start.’ My dad went straight to the barber, had his hair cut, then re-presented himself to Mary half an hour later and said, ‘Will this do?’
“Fortunately for me, she thought it was so funny that she said yes.”
Published with thanks to the Sunday Express Scotland