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Surprise honour for former Highland MSP and MP as he wins top student award at Edinburgh University


By Val Sweeney

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Former Highlands and Islands MSP David Stewart was was awarded the prize for Best Overall Performance in his course at Edinburgh University.
Former Highlands and Islands MSP David Stewart was was awarded the prize for Best Overall Performance in his course at Edinburgh University.

Retired Inverness politician-turned-student David Stewart may have been 40 years older than his classmates – and even the tutor – on his post-graduate course.

But his efforts at Edinburgh University won him a surprise honour after he graduated when he was awarded the prize for Best Overall Performance in his Master of Science by Research course.

Mr Stewart, who is also a columnist for the Inverness Courier, returned to studying at the age of 65 after bidding an emotional farewell to the Scottish Parliament in 2021 after three decades of service to constituents in the Highlands as a Labour councillor, MP and MSP.

During the two year part-time programme, his studies focused on a pioneering American nurse who visited the Highlands in the 1920s and culminated in an 18,000 word dissertation.

Retired MSP David Stewart won a surprise award after he graduated.
Retired MSP David Stewart won a surprise award after he graduated.

Although his return to the classroom was recent, he recalled as a working class child growing up in a council house in the Highlands, the importance of education was instilled in him by his parents.

"I studied politics in the mid-1970s as a fresh-faced young man and found, and developed, a thirst for knowledge, which has never left me," he said.

"In a warm, summer afternoon in May 1997, I became the first Labour MP for my home constituency, in Inverness. My big boss was Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

"His political mantra was 'education, education, education'.

"He understood that the single most powerful transformational force in any democratic, egalitarian society is an expansion of higher education, to include those groups traditionally excluded by class and income."

Mr Stewart – who doubled his majority in 2001 before losing the UK Parliamentary seat to Lib-Dem Danny Alexander in 2005 – re-entered politics as a Highlands and Islands Labour MSP on the regional list in 2007.

He was elected for a further two terms but decided to retire at the last election two years ago.

David Stewart retired as an MSP two years ago.
David Stewart retired as an MSP two years ago.

He then became a mature student at Edinburgh University, studying the Highlands and Islands Medical Service of 1913 (HIMS).

He studied pioneering American nurse, Mary Breckenridge, who in 1924 visited the Highlands to investigate HIMS.

In 1925, she returned to Kentucky and set up the Frontier Nursing Service – a nurse-led maternity service based on HIMS.

Mr Stewart said one of the most striking differences he had observed when comparing his recent experience as a post graduate with his undergraduate studies four decades ago was the strong international dimension of the student body in the university.

When he attended the standard two-hour tutorial for his class, for example, he said it was akin to a mini commonwealth of nations with students from India and China, America and Canada, Germany and France, as well as the UK.

"Although I was 40 years older than most of my classmates – and indeed the tutor – and could bring life experience to the table, they all brought so much more – dynamism, fresh perspective and intellectual agility," he said.

"This was a true 'learning exchange-from Delhi to Detroit, Berlin to Bordeaux, Beijing to Barra."

He said although it could be demanding being a mature student, he received excellent support from his tutor, Professor James Mitchell, as well as the Highland Archive Centre and other local historians, archivists and GPs, such as Dr Jim Hunter and Dr Miles Mack, who were always on hand to help.

He felt his own learning journey was a richer one because of the mix of students, internationally and generationally.

Having graduated, Mr Stewart his keeping his options open regarding his next steps.

"I have no firm plans but I will look to further projects around HIMs which was a huge achievement for the north at the time but there is little understanding of its significance today," he said.


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