It was with a heavy heart that I learned yesterday of the passing of Michael Martin, Lord Martin of Springburn, to give him his proper title. He was 72. Michael was a real man of the people who rose from the ranks of trade unionism to the exalted position of Speaker of the House of Commons.
He was also a piper and having started with P/M Norrie Gillies (Alasdair’s father) in the 52nd Lowland TA band, developed a love for the music that stayed with him all his life. A much respected Labour MP for Springburn, a not too well off area of north-east Glasgow, Michael was a restless servant of his constituents. He was possessed of a marvellous memory.
When he met an old wifie out on the stump in Petershill Road or some such, Michael knew that her husband had a bad back, that her daughter had just had twins, that their names were Jeannie and Joseph. You can imagine how that personal touch endeared him to people and, from memory, I don’t think that in winning his MP’s seat he ever had less than a five-figure majority.
His empathy with the downtrodden and disadvantaged came from his own upbringing in the tenement hell that was his home in the city’s Anderston district post WW2. There a brutal, drunken father abused a helpless mother and her children eventually splitting the family and raining down on them all the hardship most can only imagine. As a result of his father’s excesses Michael was a lifelong teetotaler and the comfort the church provided at this time of need stimulated a devout faith.
Industry followed and his natural concern for his workmates led, as it did for so many socially conscious men, to trade union activism and from there to local and national politics. The higher he rose the more he enjoyed the bagpipe as a means of escape, of relaxation.
He enrolled at the College of Piping and became a dedicated pupil of Pipe Major Angus MacDonald working hard on his tunes and relishing the banter the great pipe major always alloyed to his meticulous instruction. When the new home for the College was first mooted Michael lent his every support and attended the early meetings of the Piping Trust, the body set up to steer the way forward and marshal the cash for the project.
Michael’s Labour Party connections did no harm at all in recruiting the support of Glasgow City Council and the Lord Provost, and generally added to the goodwill that the proposed move to MacPhater Street enjoyed. When things turned sour and Seumas MacNeill backed out, Michael understood the reasons and stayed on at Otago Street even when P/M Angus was lured away to Cowcaddens.
Michael talked reverently of the late Joe Wilson who was often called on to give him his monthly lesson and he always looked into my office for a chat before leaving for home. I had known Michael from my newspaper days and many is the time we spent talking of the big political stories of the 70s, 80s and 90s. No matter how long the conversation he would always finish by asking ‘And how are you doing? Is everything okay? How’s the College doing? Now you take care.’
He was a conscientious student, always determined to improve even if he knew that the bar could never be set too high. Eventually I was able to propose to our directors that he become a member of the board of the College. He was honoured to achieve this distinction – and unlike some he actually did something to help.
It was Michael, who through his contacts at the House of Lords, got us the high level meeting with the Clydesdale Bank, our bankers and would be lenders. His friendship with its Chairman Lord Somebody or Other meant we got the very favourable loan terms that enabled us to build the auditorium as part of Phase 2 of the College redevelopment. I hope the new owners, Sir Brian and Lady Ivory and the rest of the National Piping Centre board, appreciate the debt due to Michael Martin for that and will insist on the retention of the plaque marking the day he openend the building. The auditorium wouldn’t exist without him.
Michael came to national prominence on his election to the high office of Speaker of the House of Commons and when Phase 2 was concluded he readily agreed to cut the tape (as he had done for Phase 1) with the London and local press in eager attendance – and he marked the occasion by shouldering the pipe and playing a tune for the photographers (main picture).
Thereafter Mr Speaker’s limo was a regular in the College car park, his driver waiting for him whilst he sorted out his GDEs and spent some money in the shop, often on things he didn’t really need, he just wanted to give additional support.
And so the months and years passed in happy innocence…….
When the then College Chairman began his repellent manoeuverings back in summer 2014 Michael was having none of it. So disgusted was he that he resigned immediately from the board knowing that others, myself included, were soon to follow. He now feared for the future of the place and everything we had worked for. Who could gainsay that?
Michael Martin spent his life helping the underdog, the disadvantaged. He was always of cheery demeanour even when under extraordinary and often unwarranted pressure at Westminster. It never soured him. He sought solace in his family and his music. He died loving that family, loving the people he represented and still, to the last, loving his pipes.
I am sure those who knew Michael from his time at the College would like to join with me in offering sincere condolences to his wife Mary and son Paul and to their wider family at this very sad time.