The Queen Mother, the Castle of Mey and A9 improvements at Helmsdale... is there a link?
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Far north MP Jamie Stone ponders whether his cheeky request had anything to do with the road improvements between Helmsdale and the Ord of Caithness
When I was first elected as an MSP over 20 years ago, one of my big tasks was to try to get the A9 between Tain and Caithness improved.
One of the worst stretches was the bendy bit between Helmsdale and the Ord of Caithness – and to this end Highland councillors Alistair MacDonald, John Rosie and I met in Edinburgh with civil servants to persuade them that this stretch of road needed expenditure if it was to be straightened and made safer.
After the meeting I felt positive about our chances of having been successful. However, John Rosie (sadly no longer with us) was not so optimistic.
“One of those civil servants is from Wick – in fact I think I remember playing football with him – and because he’s from Caithness originally, I’m not at all sure that he will be wanting to be seen favouring the county he comes from…”
Annoyingly, it turned out that John was absolutely right and that our meeting had been fruitless.
But nothing hazard, nothing gain – and a few months later I raised the issue again in the Scottish Parliament and managed to secure a second meeting with civil servants, this time to be attended by myself and our then MP, John Thurso.
Well, we waited and waited, but we heard nothing back. Oh dear, it looked as if we had failed yet again.
On March 30, 2002, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, died in her sleep at the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park. Accordingly on April 3, 2002, the Scottish Parliament formally met to pass an appropriate motion of condolence – and I very well remember, dark tied and suited, sitting silently with the rest of the MSPs waiting for our presiding officer Sir David Steel to enter the Chamber and commence formal proceedings.
As it happened, I was sitting directly behind Scotland’s First Minister, Jack McConnell, on whose shoulders was about to fall the task of proposing the motion of condolence.
I glanced over his shoulder, he was closely reading the printed copy of the speech that he was about to deliver. Suddenly I thought of something and tapped him on the shoulder.
“First Minister, I hope you’re going to mention the Queen Mother staying at the Castle of Mey in Caithness in my constituency.”
“Yes, yes…” He muttered and semi-brushed me away. Then suddenly after a short pause, he swung round and looked directly at me.
“The Castle of Mey in Caithness?? Are you quite sure???”
My God, yes I was absolutely certain. “Mey is in Caithness, Jack, on my honour.”
“Look what the civil servants wrote in my speech” and he invited me to look over his shoulder again. He pointed.
“The Castle of Mey in Sutherland…”
His speech passed off with aplomb; and apart from the sadness of the event, the memory was but a passing one. Until a few days later, I got an email from Jack McConnell. In it he thanked me for helping him to avoid a geographic gaffe which would have looked pretty bad coming from the First Minister.
When I finished reading the email I thought to myself that it was kind of him to offer such thanks – and then as I paused and looked out at the truly dreadful piper busking in the Royal Mile, a thought suddenly occurred to me and I quickly wrote an email back to Jack McConnell.
“Always a pleasure to be of help – by way of repayment could we agree on the A9 being improved and straightened between Helmsdale and the Ord of Caithness?”
It was cheeky, and not surprisingly I heard nothing back.
But then a few months later, there was an official announcement that quite a few millions of pounds were going to be spent improving the road to the standard that we see today.
Funny thing that.
Was there a connection? I’ll probably never know.