Winner in 2016: Gail Ross (SNP)

PEMBROKESHIRE is sometimes known as “Little England beyond Wales”, and in a similar way the larger Caithness towns of Thurso and Wick can sometimes feel like exclaves of the central belt (or of the north-east) located beyond the Highlands.

That helps explain the distinctive character of Caithness and Sutherland politics down the years. Unlike in many parts of the Highlands, there’s a past history of Labour representation in the shape of Robert Maclennan, who captured the Westminster constituency from the Liberals when Harold Wilson won his landslide in 1966.

Maclennan successfully defended the seat for Labour in all four General Elections of the 1970s, although the Liberal vote remained strong – a reminder that the parts of the constituency beyond the large towns are more comparable with other Highland seats.

In 1981, Maclennan was one of the original defectors to the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP). The hope was that long-serving MPs would be able to bring Labour voters across with them, and that they would carry on being safely elected under the new party banner as if nothing much had changed.

Maclennan was practically the only person who actually succeeded in pulling that trick off, and he was able to do it because the SDP went into alliance with the Liberals, enabling him to co-opt the Liberal support that had previously threatened his tenure.

He held the seat for the SDP and then the post-merger Liberal Democrats until his retirement in 2001, although he endured a small scare in his final election in 1997 as the Labour vote in the constituency showed signs of recovery for the first time since his defection, and the SNP suddenly started to look competitive as well.

His legacy transferred to the new Scottish Parliament version of the constituency in 1999, as Jamie Stone of the LibDems became the local MSP with relative ease – although the Labour vote share of 24% continued to look potentially significant for future elections, and the SNP maintained a strong third place on 23%.

The National:

A milestone occurred in 2007 when Rob Gibson rode the national SNP surge to decisively overtake Labour and claim the runner-up spot.

A golden opportunity opened up four years later as a further huge pro-SNP national swing coincided with Stone’s decision to step down, and Gibson duly took the seat for the SNP by a mammoth margin of 26 percentage points, bringing to a dramatic close a 30-year unbroken period of success for the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor party.

In the middle part of the decade, it started to look like the LibDem era was firmly in the past, as the SNP added the Westminster seat to their collection in the post-indyref landslide, and as Gail Ross retained the Holyrood seat for the SNP in 2016 after Gibson stepped down.

However, Jamie Stone had returned to the fray in 2016 as the LibDem candidate and managed to cut the SNP’s winning margin roughly in half – which in retrospect should have been seen as a warning sign.

He stood for the Westminster constituency in the following year’s snap General Election and grabbed it back for the LibDems, before retaining it by the skin of his teeth against the SNP tide in 2019.

All of which leaves the destiny of the Holyrood seat this May looking very uncertain, especially given that Gail Ross is stepping down herself at the age of just 44 for family reasons. It’s little wonder that the LibDems have identified the seat as their top target for a gain, although one small advantage for the SNP is that their new candidate is the serving list MSP Maree Todd, who is presumably somewhat better known than the youthful LibDem challenger Molly Nolan.

Nevertheless, it would be a brave person who predicts the winner of this one, and if the SNP are entitled to call themselves favourites, it can’t be by much.