Home   News   Article

Who is Kate Forbes, the Highland girl who grew up to be Scotland’s new Deputy First Minister?

By Alasdair Fraser

Register for free to read more of the latest local news. It's easy and will only take a moment.

Click here to sign up to our free newsletters!
Kate Forbes MSP. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Kate Forbes MSP. Picture: Callum Mackay.

She is now surely the most influential political voice to emerge from the Highlands in a generation.

But just who is Kate Forbes? And what do we know about how profoundly or otherwise the former Dingwall Academy pupil might come to influence the future direction of Scotland and the Scottish Government?

With the benefit of last year’s narrowly failed leadership campaign, we already know considerably more about the new deputy First Minister than we might have.

Intense spotlight on the savage contest between her, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf gave us a fair insight into what she would like to do - at least with a free rein - in Government.

The acrimony and divisions exposed by the three-way fight also shed light on where Ms Forbes’ values, beliefs and policy preferences align with, or sit uneasily against, various factions within the SNP.

Caricatured as centre right, her social conservatism and an economic outlook that prioritises growth over wealth redistribution. are eyed with suspicion by a good many within her own party, not to mention erstwhile partners the Greens.

A great unanswered question as she returns to office after a year on the backbenches is this: just how much influence will she be able to exert on policy direction under new FM John Swinney, and how much will she seek to?

Former cabinet members John Swinney and Kate Forbes might have faced off against one another for the SNP leadership, but Ms Forbes chose to endorse the veteran politician.
Former cabinet members John Swinney and Kate Forbes might have faced off against one another for the SNP leadership, but Ms Forbes chose to endorse the veteran politician.

Were there unwritten deals done in persuading Ms Forbes to step in line behind Mr Yousaf’s veteran successor, rather than hammer it out at the hustings?

And will Ms Forbes seek to use her return to the heart of Government to pursue party unity in the cause of independence or as a pathway to power in her own right?

One striking aspect of the ministerial positions announced in Mr Swinney’s first cabinet was the sheer dearth of change.

Ms Forbes had memorably insisted “continuity won’t cut it” as Mr Yousaf strove to become Nicola Sturgeon’s anointed successor.

This suggests pragmatism, at the very least, as she takes a seat around a cabinet table brimful of familiar faces fulfilling the same roles.

Her dramatic return to frontline politics as deputy leader has brought only a couple of tweaks to team Yousaf/Sturgeon.

Kate Forbes. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Kate Forbes. Picture: James Mackenzie.

She supplanted Shona Robison, who keeps the finance brief. Ms Forbes also embraces the economic remit previously held by Mairi McAllan, who retains the remnants of her old job with oversight of the net zero and energy portfolios.

Ms Forbes also takes responsibility for Gaelic, the native tongue she became fluent in during early school days spent in Marybank in Easter Ross.

At 34, she is Scotland’s youngest to hold the office of deputy First Minister.

Describing her appointment as “a moment of extraordinary privilege for me” there was surely a moment or two of quiet personal reflection given the journey travelled by the eldest of four children of evangelical Free Church of Scotland missionary parents.

Ms Forbes was born in Dingwall on April 6, 1990 but her father’s fervour for helping those less fortunate took her family to India for childhood spells while he worked for the poor in healthcare.

There then came a spell living in Glasgow at 15 before a Highland homecoming to complete her comprehensive education at Dingwall Academy.

Fiercely intelligent, she attended Cambridge’s Selwyn College, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in History in 2011, before further studies at Edinburgh University for a Master of Science in Diaspora and Migration History in 2013.

Two years previous to that, she joined the SNP after previously becoming an activist in the party's youth wing.

Kate Forbes in Dingwall
Kate Forbes in Dingwall

She would later qualify as a chartered accountant and worked for two years as a trainee with Barclays bank, but politics always seemed to fire her professional passion.

A job as parliamentary researcher for past SNP Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Dave Thompson fitted the bill.

Clues as to how her faith as a member of the Free Church of Scotland might instruct her politics came in last year’s revelation by openDemocracy that the year-long job as a political researcher was funded by Christian Action, Research and Education, an organisation opposed to abortion and LGBT rights.

She strode out on her own to be elected as Mr Thompson’s successor in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, doubling his Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch majority to a whopping 9045.

As a backbencher, her work ethic, intellect and popularity among the electorate quickly singled her out as a formidable rising star within the SNP.

Kate Forbes
Kate Forbes

She deftly embraced varied committee responsibilities and drove campaigns on issues such as the gender pay gap, UNESCO status for the Gaelic language and the banning of single-use plastics.

Closer to home, her keen engagement with what really mattered to local people from all backgrounds chimed well with constituents, as did her championing of the Highlands and rural life.

Entering Government in 2018, she became Nicola Sturgeon’s deputy finance secretary before a dramatic twist of fate thrust her into the frontline with little warning or preparation.

In early February, 2020, on the day of the Scottish Budget, Derek Mackay resigned as finance secretary after unsavoury tabloid revelations.

With only hours of preparation, Ms Forbes became the first woman to deliver a budget in either the Scottish Parliament or Westminster.

Lauded for her calm in the crisis, she was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Finance soon after, a post she held until 2023 after winning re-election in her constituency in 2021 with a giant majority of 15,681 votes.

Somewhere in between she found time to marry Alasdair MacLennan in 2021 at Dingwall and Strathpeffer Free Church, with images captured on the pitch at Ross County’s Victoria Park.

Kate Forbes, husband Ali and newborn daughter, Naomi. Picture: Ruaraidh White
Kate Forbes, husband Ali and newborn daughter, Naomi. Picture: Ruaraidh White
Kate Forbes and Ali MacLennan
Kate Forbes and Ali MacLennan
Kate Forbes getting married: Ali Maclennan trying to get the ball of Kate Forbes at Ross County Football Club.Picture: James Mackenzie.
Kate Forbes getting married: Ali Maclennan trying to get the ball of Kate Forbes at Ross County Football Club.Picture: James Mackenzie.

Economy was added to her portfolio, underlining her status within Ms Sturgeon’s Government.

Yet fissures became evident after the Covid-19 outbreak that came to dominate her tenure. It emerged during evidence sessions of the UK Covid Inquiry hearings that she had not been invited to the un-minuted inner circle "gold command" meetings on pandemic strategy.

It wasn’t always plain sailing in parliament, either, where her track record on Scotland’s finances was sometimes savaged, although most recognised her competence.

When Ms Sturgeon stepped aside engulfed in scandal, many outside the party looked to Ms Forbes as natural successor.

Within the SNP though, her popularity was never quite as strong.

Conservative stances on certain issues were tolerated rather than embraced by many colleagues, yet her popularity with the public bolstered her status where her star might otherwise have fallen.

There was also at least recognition that her views came from genuine conviction and principle, however misplaced they seemed to some.

There was also an upswell of sympathy last year when Ms Forbes laid bare the fact she had suffered from postnatal depression in the aftermath of the birth of daughter Naomi.

During the early exchanges of the 2023 SNP leadership campaign, she was a huge initial favourite - and then a meltdown struck.

Nicky Marr, Ash Regan, Humzah Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Nicky Marr, Ash Regan, Humzah Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: Callum Mackay.

Ms Forbes’ refused to fudge questions on her faith and personal beliefs and came under fire for views on gay marriage, abortion and trans rights.

The furore heightened after she told Sky News that she saw having children outside of marriage as "wrong" as a member of the Free Church of Scotland, later telling the New Statesman she would have been “haunted” had she answered untruthfully.

She had previously been among 15 SNP politicians who wrote an open letter to Ms Sturgeon asking for a delay to gender recognition reforms that would make it easier for people in Scotland to self-identify their sex.

The final vote on the proposals was held while Ms Forbes was on maternity leave, but at the launch of her 2023 leadership campaign she echoed significant concerns on self-identification and admitted she would not have voted for the bill.

The public were as split as her party and among those expressing disdain for her views within the SNP was Mr Swinney, who said he profoundly disagreed with her despite his own Christian faith.

In the Highlands, though, her powerful backing for upgrading the A9 and condemnation of delays sat well with a great many.

At the hustings, there was an unexpected ferocity in some attacks between candidates with Ms Forbes’ criticisms of Mr Yousaf’s track record in Government, and indeed the SNP’s, criticised by some in her party.

A Kate Forbes' leadership, it also became clear, would have brought an end to the SNP-Green power-sharing deal.

Ironically, the man who did win the contest, Mr Yousaf, would seal his own downfall by terminating the Bute House agreement himself to deliver the minority government Ms Forbes expressly favoured.

Only time will tell if supplanting Mr Yousaf with seasoned Mr Swinney cements continuity for the Sturgeon old guard or the beginnings of a new direction for Scotland, ultimately led by a talented lass from the Highlands.

Do you want to respond to this article? If so, click here to submit your thoughts and they may be published in print.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More