I FELT, and still feel, a sharp pang of grief when I heard on Friday evening that my friend Dennis MacLeod had died in Canada after a struggle with liver cancer.

Losing a committed nationalist before they have seen their labours rewarded by independence is always hard. This week alone we have lost, in addition to Dennis, Norman Allan in the north-east and Louise Brown in Irvine. They are all sorely missed.

But all weekend at SNP conference those who knew, respected and loved Dennis were talking to each other not just about politics but about how much he had touched our individual lives and brought out the best in us and our country.

For that was his unique talent.

Dennis was from Sutherland. Steeped in the history of the place, including that of the Clearances which were, and are, still keenly remembered. His own father died during the Second World War, when Dennis was a very young child, and he was brought up by his mother who struggled to make ends meet.

His first job after leaving school at 16 was in the new Dounraey nuclear plant and it is perfectly possible he might have worked there all his life had he not become, as he himself put it, hungry to see the world.

So, in keeping with his Highland background, he emigrated first to Africa, and then to Canada. He worked in the mining industry in a range of countries, developing a formidable knowledge of gold and other minerals not just as natural substances but also as businesses and investments.

Dennis was a born entrepreneur. He had wonderful stories about exploration in the wildest parts of the planet and the macro and micro politics of mining. He had, bizarrely, at one stage owned all the mineral rights to marble in post-communist Hungary and he was a strong advocate for a modern, environmentally focused, legislative framework for mineral extraction in Scotland.

Dennis moved back to Scotland in the mid-1990s and he was conscious, when he did so, that he was coming back to a very changed place.

One of the Highland papers covered his return, celebrating him as “Goldfinger”. Rob Gibson, a key Highland SNP figure, drew my attention to the article and told me that Dennis was reported to be sympathetic to independence. So, as party chief executive, I went to see him at his lovely house in Strathconan.

It was to be the first of many visits. Dennis wanted to help the cause and he did so generously, locally and nationally. At one election he paid for SNP signs all along the road from Inverness to Ullapool.

But he was also the most tremendous company and over the next few years Alex Salmond and I, along with others, grew to value his determination, vision and wisdom.

A night at Scatwell with Dennis and Glynis after a party conference in Inverness became something to look forward to.

Although he was a highly successful international businessman, he was first and foremost a Highlander who cared for people. He it was who wanted the SNP to blend enterprise and compassion into its core message, concepts that still lie at the heart of what the party seeks for Scotland.

He wanted a Scotland that treated all its citizens well. He also wanted every citizen to be helped to succeed, and he always promoted what he saw as Scotland’s talent for innovation and its global reach. Free education was, to him, at the heart of that.

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He also wanted to see radical reform of land ownership. He could have more than afforded a sizeable estate in the Highlands, but he did not want to be, and would never become, a laird.

I got to know Dennis particularly well when we co-authored a book on independence published in 2007 as Grasping The Thistle.

From the start it caused controversy because it encouraged left-of-centre and right-of-centre views to contend. He and I agreed at the outset of the collaboration that we would not identify who wrote what so that there was a genuine attempt to illustrate the range of possibilities that an independent Scotland could consider. We said so clearly in the introduction and he was very amused when opposition politicians tried to say otherwise – as they still do.

It was, perhaps, a prescient approach, welcoming diverse views and trying to reconcile them. Neither of us compromised on our very different perspectives but we also changed our minds – and each other’s minds – from time to time.

For example, Dennis was a strong opponent of the EU as it developed. But Brexit made him reconsider that position and in recent months, over long Sunday evening phone calls, we regularly considered the incredible spectacle of the UK disintegrating because of that same issue.

IT is fair to say, though, that his greatest passion was for the Highlands and his knowledge of, and feeling for, the history of the Clearances and the land was vast. He supported UHI and the study of Highland history and of course he funded the Clearances Memorial in his native Helmsdale, sculpted by Gerald Laing. As fortune would have it this was finished in time for an unveiling in July 2007, which meant that the task was undertaken by an SNP first minister. Dennis was delighted by that and by what Alex Salmond said at the event, when he asserted: “This statue is a reminder of the men, women and children who left Scotland and took their skills,

their strength and their stories across the seas and shared them around the world.

“While we deplore the Clearances we can be proud of the contributions that those cleared have made to humanity.”

That was a crucial point for Dennis. Out of the often brutal experience there had flown, eventually, something good.

Dennis had also wished to establish a study centre on the Clearances alongside the statue and to have the same statue erected wherever communities of Scots had established themselves.

However only one more has so far been put in place, in Winnipeg.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to unveil it in 2008 alongside Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, a direct descendent of the Earl of Selkirk who had led the “Red River Settlers” to that part of Canada.

I remember well the dinner laid on by the Caledonian Society that night. Dennis was rightly lauded for his efforts and his generosity but he was also, as ever, down to earth and the greatest of company.

And it is like that we will remember him. So many thoughts have turned this weekend to the western seaboard of Canada and to Glynis, Kirsten, Ceilidh, Heather, Warren and Sharon as well as to

all the MacLeod family scattered across the globe and still at home in the Highlands.

But they are not mourning alone. Literally thousands of lives were changed by Dennis, directly or indirectly, and those who came into closest contact with him had the best drawn out of them by his positive, outgoing, determined nature.

The American novelist Thornton Wilder once observed that “the highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude”.

There is much grief today but there is also an overwhelming sense of gratitude from so many, here and abroad.

That will last as long we do. And the success of our endeavours in and for Scotland will be a further tribute to what he inspired and worked to achieve.