Gordon Wilson
Gordon Wilson.jpg
Leader of the Scottish National Party
In office
15 September 1979 – 22 September 1990
Preceded byWilliam Wolfe
Succeeded byAlex Salmond
Depute Leader of the Scottish National Party
In office
LeaderWilliam Wolfe
Preceded byDouglas Henderson
Succeeded byMargo MacDonald
Member of Parliament
for Dundee East
In office
28 February 1974 – 18 May 1987
Preceded byGeorge Machin
Succeeded byJohn McAllion
Personal details
Robert Gordon Wilson

16 April 1938
Glasgow, Scotland
Died25 June 2017 (aged 79)
Dundee, Scotland
Political partyScottish National Party
Spouse(s)Edith Hassall (m. 1965)
Children2 (Margaret and Kate)
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
ReligionFree Church of Scotland

Robert Gordon Wilson (16 April 1938 – 25 June 2017) was a Scottish politician and solicitor. He was the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) from 1979 to 1990, and was SNP Member of Parliament (MP) for Dundee East from 1974 to 1987. He was Rector of the University of Dundee from 1983 to 1986.


Wilson was born in Govan, Glasgow, the son of Elizabeth Murray and Robert George Wilson, a butcher's van driver. He was educated at Douglas High School for Boys on the Isle of Man, and the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree.[1] Following graduation, Wilson qualified as a solicitor, and worked for T.F. Reid Solicitors in Paisley from 1963 until his election as an MP in 1974.[2]

Political career

Wilson joined the Scottish National Party in 1959, on his graduation from university.[3][4] He was "controller" of the political pirate radio station Radio Free Scotland, which broadcast on a frequency used by BBC between 1956 and 1965, moving the location of the transmitter to avoid being caught.[1] Wilson served as Assistant National Secretary of the SNP from 1963 to 1964, as National Secretary from 1964 to 1971, and was vice-chairman of the SNP Oil Campaign Committee, which was responsible for the party's iconic It's Scotland's oil campaign.[5] It was Wilson who coined the slogan.[3][6]

Wilson was Executive Vice-Chairman in 1972–1973, and while Executive Vice-Chairman he had a responsibility for oil.[7] Wilson stood as the SNP parliamentary candidate at the Dundee East by-election in March 1973, where he was narrowly defeated by Labour's George Machin. He did however clearly out-poll Lord Provost of Dundee, William Fitzgerald, standing as Conservative who was thought to have had a good chance of winning the seat.[8][9] Machin was a native of Sheffield and some thought Labour made a mistake by selecting an Englishman for a Scottish seat.[9] Anti-English feeling was reported to be shown during Machin's victory speech which was reportedly disrupted by 'angry shouts of Scottish Nationalist supporters', with 'chants of "Go back to Yorkshire" and "Go home, Englishman"'.[8] Wilson was reported to be disappointed by losing narrowly, but was pleased by the considerable increase in the SNP vote since the last general election.[8]

Gordon Wilson was elected as Member of Parliament for the Dundee East constituency at the February 1974 general election,[10] and increased his majority to 6,983 at the October 1974 general election.[11] He was the deputy leader of the SNP parliamentary group at Westminster from 1974 to 1979, and served as parliamentary spokesperson on oil and energy (1974–1983) and joint spokesperson on devolution (1976–1979).[12]

He was one of only two SNP MPs in the aftermath of the 1979 UK general election. Anthony Finlay, writing in The Glasgow Herald opined that Wilson held his seat "only because the Labour Party was foolish enough to pick Jimmy Reid" as his opponent.[13] On 15 September 1979, at the SNP Annual National Conference in Dundee, Wilson was elected as National Convener (leader) of the SNP, succeeding Billy Wolfe. He had with 530 votes, defeating Stephen Maxwell (117 votes) and Willie McRae (52 votes).[14][15]

In the early 1980s when the party was in internal turmoil, and he was a key mover in condemning both Siol nan Gaidheal and the 79 Group.[16][17] At the SNP's conference in Ayr in June 1982 he announced in the middle of his keynote speech that there would not be "parties within the party".[1][18] Using his executive position he was able to force an emergency motion and a vote on his proposal.[19] He received the backing he needed.[20]

Wilson led the party through two poor general election performances in 1983[21] and 1987.[22] In 1987, Wilson lost his seat to Labour's John McAllion.[23] After his defeat at the 1987 general election he returned to legal practice.[1]

He remained as party leader, and Jim Sillars won at the Govan by-election victory in 1988. Wilson attempted to involve the SNP in the Scottish Constitutional Convention but due to the convention's unwillingness to contemplate discussions about Scottish independence as a constitutional option the SNP did not get involved.[24][25][26] He announced his resignation as leader of the SNP in May 1990,[27] with Alex Salmond succeeding him.[1]

In September 1998 he was selected by delegates at the SNP's conference as a candidate for Scotland in the 1999 European Parliament elections.[28] He was placed fourth on the SNP's list and with the SNP only winning two of the eight seats, he was unsuccessful.[29]

He wrote three books that were published between 2009 and 2014 which detailed aspects of his political life.[1]

Wilson continued to have a modest presence in Scottish politics after his retirement. He was active in the Scottish independence referendum campaign. In November 2012, he and Sillars suggested that Scotland should consider joining the European Free Trade Association as an alternative to remaining in the EU,[30] and voted Leave in the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum.[31] Together with Sillars he then established think-tank Options for Scotland, publishing articles and papers.[1]

Personal life

Wilson married Edith (née Hassall) in 1965 and they had two daughters; Margaret and Katie, and five grandchildren.[1]

Wilson was a devout Christian.[4] Later in life, he was a member of Saint Peter's Free Church in Dundee.[1][32] In 2010, Wilson and David Robertson co-founded Solas (Centre for Public Christianity) - an evangelical Christian body dedicated to the revival of the faith in Scotland and abroad.[18][32]

He had retired to Broughty Ferry, Dundee and sailed his boat Saorsa on the Firth of Tay.[4]

Wilson died in the Roxburghe House hospice in Dundee on the morning of 25 June 2017, after a short illness.[33][34][35] His funeral was held at Saint Peter's Free Church in Dundee on 5 July 2017. His party colleague John Swinney and Rev Robertson gave eulogies.[36]

Awards and honours

He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D) degree by the University of Dundee in 1986.[37]

Wilson's papers are held variously by the National Library of Scotland,[38] Archive Services at the University of Dundee[39] and the Scottish Political Archive at the University of Stirling.[40] His collection of historical nationalist pamphlets is held by the Macartney Library at SNP headquarters in Edinburgh.[41]


Further reading


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Wilson, Brian (26 June 2017). "Gordon Wilson obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  2. ^ Alison Rennie (16 November 2009). "Ex-SNP chief Gordon books in with fond memories of Paisley". Daily Record. Glasgow. Retrieved 17 February 2015.
  3. ^ a b Findlay, Anthony (17 September 1979). "Will Gordon keep on smiling?". The Herald. p. 6. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Davison, Phil (26 June 2017). "Gordon Wilson, obituary: former SNP leader who coined the slogan 'It's Scotland's oil!'". The Independent. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  5. ^ "Gordon Wilson: Former leader who steered party through stormy waters of the 1980s". The Herald. 25 June 2017. Retrieved 5 September 2021.
  6. ^ a b "Ten Minutes' 'Freedom'". The Courier. 24 October 2011. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  7. ^ Clark, William (28 May 1973). "Nationalists end conference in mood of expectation". The Glasgow Herald. p. 3. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  8. ^ a b c Warden, John (2 March 1973). "Taverne Landslide. Labour Hold Dundee". The Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  9. ^ a b Clark, William (1 March 1973). "East Dundee voters may upset form book". The Glasgow Herald. p. 3. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  10. ^ Clark, William (1 March 1974). "SNP lose Govan gain E. Dundee". Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  11. ^ Clark, William; Fyfe, James (11 October 1974). "big leap in SNP vote. Gain of three seats". The Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  12. ^ Clark, William (15 October 1974). "SNP to press Labour on assembly pledge". The Herald. p. 14. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  13. ^ Finlay, Anthony (5 May 1979). "Tale of brave soldiers who brought down their own castle". The Glasgow Herald. p. 4. Retrieved 20 June 2021.
  14. ^ Clark, William (17 September 1979). "Margo stays in SNP despite defeat". The Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  15. ^ Lynch, Peter (2002). SNP: the history of the Scottish National Party. Welsh Academic Press. p. 170.
  16. ^ Clark, William (3 June 1979). "SNP faces split in Left-Right power struggle". The Herald. p. 7. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  17. ^ "Election 2010. Profile: Scottish National Party". BBC News. 5 April 2010. Retrieved 17 February 2015.
  18. ^ a b Torrance, David (25 June 2017). "Obituary - Gordon Wilson, SNP leader during the turbulent years of the 70s and 80s". The Herald. Retrieved 31 July 2021.
  19. ^ Clark, William (5 June 1982). "Wilson gambles his SNP future". The Herald. p. 7. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  20. ^ Clark, William (7 June 1982). "SNP candidate turns on Wilson over groups' ban". The Herald. p. 3. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  21. ^ McConnell, Thomas (11 June 1983). "SNP appeal to oppose Thatcher". The Glasgow Herald. p. 6. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  22. ^ Clark, William (12 June 1987). "Labour gains raise the Doomsday issue". The Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  23. ^ "Election 2010: Dundee East - Profile". STV. Archived from the original on 14 March 2012. Retrieved 17 February 2015.
  24. ^ "SNP votes for boycott of convention". The Herald. 3 March 1989. Retrieved 5 September 2021.
  25. ^ Taylor, Brian (25 June 2017). "Gordon Wilson: An appreciation". BBC News. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  26. ^ "Life of a Scottish nationalist: Gordon Wilson on Labour and Scottish identity". CommonSpace. 21 July 2017. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  27. ^ Clark, William (15 May 1990). "Man who mobilised SNP into fighting force for the 90s". The Herald. Retrieved 5 September 2021.
  28. ^ "SNP chooses Euro candidates". BBC News. 24 September 1998. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  29. ^ "Vote 99. Euro elections. UK regions". BBC News. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  30. ^ "Scottish independence: Ex-SNP grandees issue EU warning". BBC News. 6 November 2012. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  31. ^ Rampen, Julia (17 May 2017). "What next for the SNP voters who voted Brexit?". New Statesman. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  32. ^ a b Pollock, David (29 June 2017). "Obituary: Gordon Wilson, former SNP leader and MP for Dundee". The Scotsman. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
  33. ^ MacPherson, Gareth (25 June 2017). "Former SNP leader and Dundee MP Gordon Wilson dies at age of 79". The Courier. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  34. ^ "Former SNP leader Gordon Wilson dies". BBC News. 25 June 2017. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  35. ^ "Gordon Wilson, former Scottish National party leader, dies aged 79". The Guardian. 25 June 2017. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  36. ^ Morkis, Stefan (5 July 2017). "Funeral of former SNP leader and Dundee East MP Gordon Wilson". The Courier. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  37. ^ "Honorary Degrees". University of Dundee. Retrieved 5 February 2016.
  38. ^ "Inventory. Acc.13687 Gordon Wilson Papers" (PDF). National Library of Scotland. December 2015. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  39. ^ "MS315. Gordon Wilson, MP for Dundee East and Chairman of the Scottish National Party". University of Dundee. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  40. ^ "SPA/GW. Gordon Wilson collection". University of Dundee. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  41. ^ McKay, Girvan (24 August 2015). THE LION AND THE SALTIRE A Brief History of the Scottish National Party. Lulu.com. p. 70. ISBN 9781326400903.
  42. ^ Iain C. Hutchison (November 2010). "Gordon Wilson, SNP: The Turbulent Years, 1960–1990, Stirling: Scots Independent (Newspapers) Ltd, 2010. Pp. vi + 266. Paperback...". Journal of Scottish Historical Studies. 30 (2): 203–205. doi:10.3366/jshs.2010.0110.

Further reading

Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byGeorge Machin Member of Parliament for Dundee East Feb 19741987 Succeeded byJohn McAllion Political offices Preceded byMalcolm Shaw National Secretary of the Scottish National Party 1964–1971 Succeeded byMuriel Gibson Preceded byDouglas Henderson Senior Vice Chairman (Depute Leader) of the Scottish National Party 1973–1974 Succeeded byMargo MacDonald Preceded byWilliam Wolfe National Convener (Leader) of the Scottish National Party 1979–1990 Succeeded byAlex Salmond Academic offices Preceded byBaron Mackie of Benshie Rector of the University of Dundee 1983–1986 Succeeded byMalcolm Bruce