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New BBC Alba documentary explores life of former Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Charles Kennedy

By Philip Murray

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Charles Kennedy on Dingwall High Street.
Charles Kennedy on Dingwall High Street.

CLOSE friends of a former Ross-shire MP have opened up about the "vicious social media abuse" he endured during his failed re-election campaign.

The late politician Charles Kennedy passed away just weeks after his failed bid to be re-elected to the Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat in 2015.

The election campaign was particularly heated.

And a new BBC Alba documentary, which is airs on BBC Alba tonight (Tuesday) at 9pm, sees his close friends and former colleagues talk candidly about the abuse he faced.

The programme Tearlach Ceannadach: Labhraiche Lochabair / Charles Kennedy: A Good Man Speaking, tells Mr Kennedy’s story from his upbringing on a Highland croft, his fight for the largest parliamentary seat in Britain, to his rise to leader of the Liberal Democrats and ultimately his resignation due to alcoholism and loss of seat in 2015.

Mr Kennedy was 23 when he won the Highland seat; Ross, Cromarty and Skye, a constituency which had been devastated by unemployment after the closure of the aluminium smelter at Invergordon.

He rose through the political ranks of his party and went on to lead the merged party, the Liberal Democrats. His long political career covered everything from campaigns to save Lochaber's sleeper train service to his vote against the Iraq War in 2003.

Ultimately his battle with alcoholism led him to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats. In the wake of the 2010 coalition and 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the 2015 General Election campaign proved to be particularly heated. Friends and colleagues said he was hounded on social media.

Brian Wilson, a journalist and former Labour MP, said: “He had someone full-time deleting the abuse towards him on social media.

“Charlie was grieving the death of his parents, the loss of his best friend, and trying to hold a family together. Nobody could have been well equipped to deal with that. It was beyond belief the things that were being said and done.

“What Charles was subjected to had nothing to do with his politics, had no respect for what he’d done in politics or in public life, and had no respect for his personal circumstances. It was naked abuse and denigration of the worst kind. I think what was done to him was cruel beyond words.”

His close friend and former brother-in-law James Gurling reveals that Charles had anonymous very aggressive notes left on his car and put through his letterbox.

He said: “The level of anger and vociferous nature of the campaign surprised and really worried him. You begin to wonder what’s in those people’s minds that they think that is an appropriate way of doing things.

“All politicians get shouted down in meetings and get called all sorts but generally speaking that’s in a public view that the community can judge is fair or not. This was something quite different.”

Mr Kennedy lost his seat in 2015, a night he described as – “the night of the long sgian dubhs”. He died a few weeks later and was buried on land in Lochaber dating back to the 18th Century when Cameron of Lochiel gifted burial rites to the Kennedys of Cluny for their support during the Jacobite Rebellion.

Tearlach Ceannadach: Labhraiche Lochabair / Charles Kennedy: A Good Man Speaking airs on BBC Alba on Tuesday, and is also available on the iPlayer for 30 days.

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