Passing of a Highland gentleman

PROFILE - J F MUNRO 2
BY KEITH MACKENZIE

keith.mackenzie@whfp.co.uk

John Farquhar Munro, crofter, businessman and politician, was an “outstanding champion” for the Highlands, its people and language.

That was just one of the many tributes paid this week to the former councillor and MSP following his death, at home in Glenshiel, at the age of 79. Mr Munro died on Sunday after a period of ill health, compounded by fracturing a hip in a recent fall.

For almost 50 years Mr Munro had been a tireless campaigner — initially as a councillor and then as the first ever Member of the Scottish Parliament for Ross, Skye and Inverness West — on behalf of the communities where he was born and raised.

A native Gaelic speaker, brought up in Glenshiel and Cluanie, John Farquhar left school at 16, working locally before going off to forge a 12-year career at sea. He could count stowing away across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary among his many maritime tales, but he eventually gave up a life on the ocean wave to settle back at home — marrying Celia in 1962.

Various jobs followed before he launched his own quarrying and haulage firm — a business that would expand to employ some 50 workers at its peak.
He entered politics — his sympathies initially with the Labour party — in 1966 as a local councillor on the Ross and  Cromarty County Council. Under the Liberal banner he went on to hold office as convener of the Skye and Lochalsh District Council (1984-95); as chairman of Highland Regional Council’s Gaelic Committee (1978-82) and as the chairman of  Highland Council’s Roads and Transport Committee (1995-99).

John Farquhar’s stance on the Skye Bridge, and the method from which it was funded, was the sort of principled standpoint which would later mark him out as the Scottish Parliament’s “Free Spirit” during a political awards ceremony in 2003.

“Folk were so keen to get a bridge that several members said forget the tolls, let’s get the bridge and we’ll worry about the tolls afterwards,” he recalled in an interview with the Free Press in 2012. “I didn’t think that was credible. We issued a statement saying Skye and Lochalsh District Council welcomes the concept of a bridge to Skye, subject to satisfactory negotiation on tolls. But we never got an opportunity to discuss the tolls.”

The full Highland Regional Council voted for the privately-financed bridge, but Mr Munro would remain a key figure in the fight to have the tolls abolished. After becoming a Liberal Democrat MSP in 1999 he refused to back the Labour-LibDem coalition in the newly-established parliament due to the administration’s refusal to scrap the tolls. John Farquhar would eventually emerge on the winning side of the campaign when the bridge barriers were lifted in December 2004.

John Farquhar would serve three successful terms at Holyrood, continuing to make an active parliamentary contribution, despite failing health in latter years.
A passionate advocate for Gaelic, he backed equal status for the language and drew on his extensive knowledge of Highland land issues to criticise recent aspects of crofting legislation, as well as to support land reform. One of his final acts as MSP was to lobby successfully — by securing the personal intervention of First Minister Alex Salmond — to save the school of excellence in traditional music at Plockton High School.

In typically outspoken fashion, he went on to endorse Salmond for First Minister, while at the same time opposing moves for Scottish independence.

Closer to home, Mr Munro was a passionate community figure whose interests stemmed from fishing to shinty — a sport he had played in his youth and kept a keen interest in by following Kinlochshiel.
Tributes, from near and far, poured in this week. First Minister Alex Salmond, said: “My thoughts and condolences are with John Farquhar Munro’s wife and family at this sad time.

“John Farquhar was an outstanding champion for the Highlands and leaves an impressive legacy on issues such as land reform, crofting and Gaelic. He was a tireless campaigner and played a central role in opposing and ultimately securing the removal of the Skye Bridge tolls.

“John Farquhar Munro was always his own man, campaigning beyond party loyalties, which is one reason he will be remembered with respect and affection right across the political spectrum.”
Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Charles Kennedy described Mr Munro as a “great man”, who will leave a lasting legacy in his native Highlands.

He added: “John’s passing is very sad not only for all his former constituents who he represented so ably for many years, but also for the wider Highlands and islands, where he was seen as a champion.
“Since I was first elected as Member of Parliament for Ross, Skye and Lochaber in 1983, an election in which John played a crucial roll, we’ve been close friends and have worked together at all times.

“His care for his fellow man and willingness to tackle his or her problem, no matter how great or small, secured for him the absolute loyalty, one might even say love, of everyone who knew him.
John will be a huge loss to us all but he leaves a lasting legacy, one of which his grieving family can be rightly proud.”

Dave Thompson, who succeeded John Farquhar as a constituency MSP, said: “It was an honour to be elected in 2011 to represent the people of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch following John’s retirement. I certainly had big shoes to fill.

“Although we didn’t always agree politically, I had the highest respect for John. He was a true champion for rural areas and Gaelic and crofting.

“I knew John for over 30 years, first as a Highland Regional Councillor, while I was director of Trading Standards and latterly with the Highland Council. I counted him as a good friend.

“I would like to send my sincere condolences to John Farquhar’s wife Celia and family at this sad time.”
Highland Council Leader Drew Hendry said John Farquhar would be remembered for the “huge contribution” he made to civic life within the Highlands.

“On the occasions that I met John Farquhar, I found him to be a passionate advocate for the Highlands,” he added.

Depute Leader David Alston said: “I have campaigned along with John in the Black Isle and was always impressed by his ability to keep on going, street after street, door after door, engaging with everyone he met. He had time for everyone and could outlast many a younger campaigner.”

Council convener Jimmy Gray added: “John Farquhar was proud of his roots in the Highlands and always had a strong desire to do what was best for his community and the wider Highlands. He showed a willingness to work with others but was not afraid to take a stand on an issue when he felt this was needed.”

John Farquhar is survived by his wife Celia, daughter Shanea, son Paddy and grandchildren.

The funeral service for John Farquhar Munro takes place at Ault na Chruinn this Saturday at 12 noon.