The Energy Man……… and more
Kerr stayed in Temple Village, MIdlothian, and had done for many years, but my connection with him was centred on the less rural areas of the Inch and Gilmerton in south Edinburgh.
When I became active in the SNP in 1974, it was a party in rapid transition. The by-election victories of Winnie Ewing at Hamilton and Margo MacDonald in Govan had given the party modern impetus and a lot of tartan baggage was being quietly jettisoned. For all that, in my first branch, it was possible to look about you at monthly meetings and wonder if you had somehow blundered into the back lot of a Compton Mackenzie film.
Adjustments were made and I ended up working for the Inch Gilmerton Branch in Edinburgh South, alongside Kerr MacGregor. In a sense, the Branch was a good template for what was happening in the Party at that time. There was a mix of incomers and locals on the activist rota and we all got on famously. However, we must have presented an interesting prospect to the shoppers at the various shopping parades amongst the housing schemes on Saturday mornings over the next few years as we urged them to vote for Candidate Bob Shirley (Shirley? Surely!), for whom Kerr was election agent. As well as my student self (all long hair and peculiar LIverpool Scots accent) and my American girlfriend, there was Branch Organiser Mairi Roche, who could have passed for a Scottish Miss Marple and Irish academic, Owen Dudley Edwards, even then much given to dressing as Sherlock Holmes.
Somehow, it worked: the SNP vote rose to 21% in the October 74 election and though that proved a high point I like to think our constant campaigning from 74 to 79 helped politicise an area of a constituency that was to see furious LibDem and Labour battles over the next generation after the demise of the Tory vote.
And it was Kerr who made it happen. When I met him I was as green as it was possible to be in the realm of electoral politics. He was a lecturer in Energy Engineering at Napier and had a young family, as well as operating almost full time as agent in the consituency. He probably could have done without my eager ignorance, yet he was patience itself as he introduced me to the protocols of political activism. He taught me how to canvass – explaining the mysteries of F, D, D+, A, and watch out for the big dug; trained me in shinning up lamposts to tie up posters ( and remove them after the event!) and alerted me to the hours of fun you could have with screen printing and (in those days) purple ink!
You would guess if you met him that he was interested in science – he had a slightly boffin air about him – the big beard, the rimless glasses and the baggy tweed jacket, and, indeed, interested in ecology decades before it hit the national consciousness, he went on to promote solar energy and contribute many inventions and initiatives in that specialist area. But Kerr was so much more than that. In other tributes he has been referred to as a polymath, and that would be accurate – his interest in travel, Scottish culture, music and history sat well with his utter commitment to Independence and the work necessary to achieve it.
Campaigning in those days, long before computer aided systems, was based on hard graft. The voters’ list had to be copied and pasted on to canvass cards; returns had to be manually collated. As a young newcomer it never occurred to me to wonder how, when I went out leafletting or canvassing, there appeared as if by magic a map, the street highlighted in yellow felt tip, the last canvass returns filled in, and a polythene bag in case of rain. The answer was Kerr – who certainly put his scientific and organisational abilities to constant use on behalf of the Party.
There was something of the mildly eccentric about him: careering round the schemes in his yellow three wheeler, long before Delboy Trotter, a Heath Robinson speaker system tied to the roof, exhorting the vote to come out, was a regular routine that certainly raised local awareness that ‘the Nats were in town’ and many were the times when his dry comments would mean I had to switch off the mike in mid exhortation, to cover my laughter.
He had that rare ability to take something seriously whilst remaining cheerful and humorous about the enterprise. We got through a power of work in the last half of that decade – but it never felt oppressive or onerous. Kerr inspired us with his can do attitude and positive bonhomie.
Even as a youngster, I used to worry about the amount of time he committed to the cause – because it was clear that he also contributed hugely to his academic career and various other outlets for his many interests and talents. He moved out to the village of Temple in Midlothian and perhaps became the only political activist who really meant it when he said he was resigning (from the Constituency and Branch) so he could spend more time with his family.
And so he did, but, inevitably, continued to throw himself wholeheartedly into his many interests. Predictably he was an invaluable member of the local Moorfoot Community Council, leading many fights for education resources, rights of way and, notably, the reopening, ahead of plan, of the Temple/Carrington road. He was also Energy Spokesman for the SNP at one time, and a parliamentary candidate, and his wisdom and far sightedness still inform many of the Party’s policies in that area.In addition, he ran a solar engineer consultancy service.
Inevitably, we lost touch, but it was easy to follow his progress, especially through the letters pages of our national press, where he regularly upbraided those who misjudged the possibilities of alternative energy sources – albeit always in a very gentle and carefully explained manner.
So Kerr was driven in many ways – scientifically, politically, culturally, but this never made him narrow minded or near sighted in his plans and visions, rather the reverse. He valued the diversity he saw around him and worked hard to make it flourish – virtually the antithesis of the cartoon nationalist.
Of course, I’ll always be indebted to him as the man who explained electoral politics to me – patiently, with clarity and humour, but I’ll remember him more for his focus, his twinkling good humour, his appetite for hard work – and making it fun.
Ultimately though, it was his kindness that left a lasting impression. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and could be quite cutting about those he felt were wrong in their views or attitudes, but he would express his reaction with a kind of resigned understanding. It wasn’t his way to belittle or demean his opponents; he would rather debate their misconceptions than insult them, explain their errors rather than shout them down.
I feel lucky that my approach to electoral activities was shaped by such a man and, as with each subsequent election campaign, there will be times in the next month when I’ll smile, remembering our three wheeled progress round the outer areas of Edinburgh South.
For many he will be remembered, in more ways than one, as The Energy Man; for me he will always be the Gentle Man.
I am so glad to have known him.