Professor Gordon Donaldson (1941-2012), physicist, nominated
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79)
Tom Johnston (1881-1965)
In choosing my nominees, I asked which Scot had given the most to the world and which most to the Scots. The first had to be James Clerk Maxwell, a scion of the undistinguished Clerks of Penicuik, who is among the greatest scientists ever, up there with Newton and Einstein. His theories unified the sciences of light and electromagnetism and laid the entire ground for radio, television, the computer, and fibre optics. They prepared science for the communication and information explosion that has revolutionised this century, tied the peoples of this planet together and enabled us to take steps towards others.
Even today, the first tools a communications engineer will turn to in designing a television antenna or a radio telescope are Maxwell's equations, four elegant expressions containing the totality of the properties of electromagnetic waves. Add to this his invention of statistical methods in thermodynamics, ideas that allow us to understand the properties of gases and liquids, enabling us to design plastics and petrol, refrigerators and rockets. Throw in his production of the world’s first colour photograph, of a tartan ribbon, at his Dumfriesshire house, and one has to conclude that his work still influences every aspect of our millennium world. Hardly a person on the planet does not benefit daily from his work.
Richard Feynman has said: 'From the long view of the history of mankind – seen from say ten thousand years from now – there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged to be Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.'
Yet for now he is his own country's forgotten genius and when the roll of the Enlightenment is given out, he rarely figures. I believe that he belongs not just in the roll call, but at its head.
In choosing Tom Johnston as my Scot of the century, I was carried back initially to 1947 and my first visit to the West Highlands. I well remember the trip back from Kilchoan, in desolate Ardnamurchan, the silencer torn from the family Ford by the vegetation in the middle of the single track road – the 'Old Road' of our youth, still to be glimpsed, if hardly believed, in places like Glencoe. In 1997, I returned to Kilchoan along an upgraded road, and called at the Visitor Centre, where there was a list of tourist activities to sample and restaurants to eat at. Ardnamurchan can now welcome its visitors with world-standard businesses. 'What difference do you see from 1947?,' I was asked. 'Well, you've got mains electricity for one thing,' I replied.
Tom Johnston brought that about, in his role as chairman of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. But he did much more, and essentially paved the way for the re-emergence of Scottish self-governance and for Scotland’s determination of its own priorities. He entered Parliament in 1922, and but for the vicissitudes of election, might have become Labour Party leader in 1935. Eschewing the international statesmanship which still beckoned, he chose instead to focus on Scotland and on making the Scottish Office responsive to the needs of Scotland rather than to the whims of Whitehall.
Johnston accepted office as Secretary of State in 1941 on the remarkable terms (his) that he should have a Council of State consisting of all living ex-Secretaries. He used his consensus approach to drive the Scottish departments, only recently repatriated from Whitehall to St Andrew's House, into radical programmes for the upgrading of social standards throughout Scotland, especially in rural areas. The Scottish Council for Industry (1942) and the Scottish Tourist Board are his. He instigated distinctive health and welfare programmes. His greatest achievement, however, was the Hydro Board (1943). So committed to the Board's mission was he that when its programme ran into difficulties after 1945, he assumed chairmanship and pushed through its controversial programme to the ultimate immense benefit of domestic, agricultural and industrial Scots everywhere.
The results of Johnston's work in wartime and later on in forestry, broadcasting, tourism and of course hydro electricity are everywhere to be seen, and nowhere more clearly than in the transformation of Kilchoan during my 50 year absence. But his achievements go deeper still. As the first practitioner of devolution, he can be credited with the sowing that has blossomed into 1999's new parliament. Yet he too is largely forgotten, and since he is less likely to be mentioned ten thousand years from now than Maxwell, it is perhaps even more important to record his achievements now.