GORDON Wilson, who has died aged 79, was one of the giants of the SNP.

As leader of the party from 1979 until 1990, he was one of the masterminds who led the parliamentary breakthrough of the 1970s and helped drive the SNP from the fringe to the mainstream of Scottish politics.

Armed with considerable campaigning, political and administrative acumen, he built the SNP into a major political force – although his tenure as party leader was not without controversy.

Born in Govan on April 16, 1938, Robert Gordon Wilson steered the party through turbulent times.

The son of Elizabeth Murray and Robert George Wilson, a butcher’s van driver, Wilson was educated at Douglas High School for Boys, on the Isle of Man, then at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied law. He qualified as a solicitor and worked in Paisley from 1963 until 1974.

He joined the SNP as a student when the party was unable to gain much more than one per cent of the vote. He proved to be a canny propagandist becoming co-founder and director of programmes on the political pirate station Radio Free Scotland, which notably gatecrashed the BBC wavelength late at night. Its exploits were later documented in his book Pirates of the Air.

He was elected as MP for Dundee East in 1974, having been narrowly defeated in the by-election for the seat the previous year. His selection followed his rise through the party ranks, serving as assistant national secretary from 1963 to 1964, national secretary from 1964 to 1971 and executive vice-chairman between 1972 and 1973. Wilson was also vice-chairman of the SNP oil campaign of that time, coining the slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil.”

In his maiden speech in the House of Commons, Wilson percipiently argued that the North Sea oil industry should be controlled wisely to prevent it going from “boom to bust”, with revenue being used to build up “the industrial fabric of Scotland”.

In his years at Westminster he was the SNP’s deputy group leader, oil and energy spokesman and joint devolution spokesman and became a staunch advocate of his adopted city, holding on to his seat until 1987.

He was well regarded by his constituents, one of whom took his campaigning so seriously that he broadcast slogans from a tape recorded inside a pram that was wheeled around the streets of Dundee. The story goes that one suitably impressed matron exclaimed: “Meh, son, yer bairn’s got a bra’ voice!”

Wilson was one of only two SNP MPs in the aftermath of the 1979 UK General Election that saw Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power.

He became leader of the SNP the same year – a very depressing time for the party as it followed the 1979 referendum on devolution that was scuppered by the infamous George Cunningham amendment, which ruled 40 per cent of Scottish electorate had to be in favour before power was devolved to Scotland from Westminster. That was in March and two months later Wilson was only one of two MPs of the “football team” of 11 SNP MPs to keep his seat in the General Election.

It was a turbulent time for the SNP and Wilson had to preside over internal squabbles with the militaristic Siol nan Gaidheal and, on the left of the party, the 79 Group whose members included such notable names as Alex Salmond, Kenny MacAskill and Roseanna Cunningham.

WILSON’S answer was to ban all independent groups. The decision, announced at the 1982 SNP conference in Ayr, led to a walkout by leading members of the ’79 Group, including Salmond.

Matters continued to go downhill the following year, when the SNP gathered just 11.8 per cent of the vote in the General Election. Wilson later wrote about the divisions in his book SNP: The Turbulent Years 1960-1990.

“I was the conductor of a very discordant band hoping that it would learn to play in tune,” he said.

The situation was bleak and could only get better. Wilson tried to maintain unity and eventually persuaded Salmond to come back on board as he steered the party to what he regarded as more realistic policies such as membership of the European Economic Community, devolution and membership of Nato.

Thatcher’s assault on manufacturing in Scotland and the introduction of the hated Poll Tax increased Scottish enthusiasm for devolution but as Labour had embraced the policy, voters failed to see the need for the SNP. Wilson lost his seat in 1987 to Labour’s John McAllion, although the party did increase its vote share to 14.1 per cent.

Jim Sillars’s triumph in Govan in a by-election in 1988 was a highlight of Wilson’s leadership but with the charismatic double act of Salmond and Sillars at Westminster, his influence began to wane.

He resigned ahead of the 1990 SNP conference amid tensions over whether to remain within the cross-party Constitutional Convention. Wilson decided to take the SNP out of the Convention because of the refusal to consider independence as an option but this proved controversial for those who favoured a gradualist approach and allowed the opposition parties to paint the SNP as uncooperative and immature.

He did not step down from politics and was selected as a candidate for Scotland in the 1999 European elections. He was unsuccessful as he was fourth on the list and the SNP won only two seats.

In 2010, Wilson co-founded and became chairman of Solas, the Centre for Public Christianity. In addition to writing several books about his time in the SNP, he rose to prominence again as an active campaigner for independence in the run-up to the Scottish referendum of 2014, setting up the think-tank Options for Scotland with Sillars.

He is survived by his wife Edith, daughters Margaret and Katie, and five grandchildren.