Dr James Hunter (b 1948), writer and historian, nominated
St Columba (521-597)
Tom Johnston (1881-1965)
Although I wrote extensively about both of them in 'Last of the Free,' my attempt at a millennial history of the Highlands and Islands, Coumba and Tom Johnston are separated there by several hundred pages as well as by 14 centuries. While I had not a moment's hesitation – for reasons touched on subsequently – in nominating them, it's only now that it occurs to me to think of them, as it were, in conjunction. On so doing, it seems to me immediately apparent that they were two of a kind.
Were I, which God forbid, talking about St Columba and Tom Johnston on the 'Good Morning Scotland' Thought for the Day slot, I should doubtless say that both brought light – the one metaphorically, and other literally – where previously there had been darkness. But that would be to turn into Sunday school ciphers two men who, though they became, in their different ways, establishment figures, first demonstrated their shared strength of character by selecting career paths that were as different as they could possibly be from those normally followed by people of their backgrounds.
Tom Johnston was reared in a douce, middle-class home in late Victorian Kirkintilloch. He was expected by his shopkeeper father to follow his uncle into the law. Instead he became a socialist and a journalist whose skill with a pen is preserved for all time in the most searing polemic ever produced in Scotland, 'Our Scots Noble Families.' Whether those MSPs who will shortly be considering the Scottish Executive's land reform proposals have read this book (recently and laudably reprinted by Argyll Publishing) I don't know. But I hope they have – for then they'll be aware just why land reform, as radical and far-reaching as possible, is so long overdue.
Columba or Colum Cille, as he was and is called in his own Gaelic language, began in equally rebellious fashion. His family circumstances were not so much bourgeois as aristocratic. His great-grandfather was Niall Noigiallach, Niall of the Nine Hostages, one of early medieval Ireland's most successful hero kings. And collectively Columba's kin, the Ui Neill, were starting to take charge, at the time of Colum Cille's birth, of Ulster. Columba, then, was meant to be a princely warrior. Instead, at a period when Christianity was viewed with as much suspicion in Columba's Donegal as socialism was to be viewed in Tom Johnston's Kirkintilloch, he became a monk – a monk who proceeded, moreover, to fall out spectacularly with Ireland's ecclesiastical authorities and who departed for Scotland, therefore, under something of a cloud.
Lots of others from Ulster were then doing the same thing. They called themselves Gaels, these folk. But the Romans, years before, had dubbed them Scoti, Scots. Thus it came about that when the Gaelic-speaking kings of those Gaelic-speaking immigrants eventually united their new homeland under their rule, the country thus created became known as Scotland.
For centuries, of course, our kings were buried in Iona, the little island where Colum Cille, on getting there, created the monastery that became one of Europe's principal centres of learning. Today, when the Highlands and Islands are habitually regarded as peripheral and insignificant, it gives me some comfort to know – and every time I visit Dublin I go to look at the volumes in question – that once our place was capable of turning out, in the so-called 'Book of Kells,' the greatest artistic masterpiece of Europe's early middle-ages.
What the Highlands and Islands were once, I reckon, it can be again. A place that gives a lead – whether culturally or in other ways. We're just beginning, I think, to realise that ambition. But such success as we're achieving we owe very much to my other candidate for greatness. Tom Johnston went on from his agitating beginnings to become Secretary of State for Scotland in Winston Churchill's wartime coalition. In that capacity – recalling, all the while, his youthful determination to do something constructive for landlord-ridden localities like the Highlands and Islands – he created the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.
After the war, Johnston became the Hydro Board's chairman and insisted – in the face of Whitehall's determination to have Highland electricity exported south – that his priority was to extend to every Highlands and Islands' household a domestic electricity supply. Johnston won that battle. In doing so, he made possible the regeneration of the Highlands and Islands. If Columba's memorial is the 'Book of Kells,' Johnston's memorial consists of something equally impressive – a set of architecturally outstanding dams and power stations. They were great Scots, both of them.