Be Prepared!


Ian Mitchell’s recent book about Nicola Sturgeon (see below) concentrates on what he calls her “political personality”. This, to me, is another word for “character” in a public context. Anyone seeking to bet on how much longer Sturgeon would remain in Bute House could have done worse than to study the way she walks. This was one useful fact I derived from spending a wet afternoon last weekend on Great Todday re-reading one of the best autobiographies of modern times.

It was written by—and I quote from the title page in order to convey the full effect—“Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell G.C.M.G, G.C.V.O, K.C.B., LL.D., D.C.L.” I am not sure what most of those abbreviations mean, though the last one could have had some connection with the Distillers Corporation Limited (as it once was), except that Baden-Powell was a lifelong teetotaller. I always thought that “LL.D.” was a Doctor of Laws, but he cannot have earned that the honest way since he went straight from Charterhouse into the army, at the age of 19 in 1876. He never made it to “varsity”. Perhaps he bought the degree on one of his trips to America?

But never let a title page put you off reading the narrative that follows it. Baden-Powell’s wonderful book is called Lessons from the ’Varsity of Life. It was published in 1933, just eight years before the old Boer War hero (Siege of Mafeking, founder of the South African Constabulary, etc.) died at the age of 83 in the White Highlands of Kenya. He had moved there in 1939, apparently to recuperate from psychosomatic difficulties which some (including his biographer, Tim Jeal) have said were due to the effect of a late marriage on repressed LBGT sympathies.

Nicola Sturgeon’s LBGT sympathies do not appear to be repressed, at least in a political sense, but let us not get onto that dull subject. My point in raising “B-P”—not to be confused with “BP” which refers to what in those days was called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company—is that the founder of the Boy Scout movement had some uncanny ways of detecting the inner character of people he encountered, including the lady who he married. Her name was Olave Soames, and she was later to be the aunt of Christopher “Fatty” Soames, the last Governor of Rhodesia and son-in-law of Sir Winston Churchill, another Boer War hero.

“In the course of following up the science of tracking,” B-P writes, “I had practiced the art of deducing people’s character from their footprints and gait.”

He goes on to say that “native trackers the world over” can read the character, behaviour and “intentions of the footprinter.” (my emphasis)

B-P was also an early statistician, calculating with precision that “about forty-six percent of women were very adventurous with one leg and hesitant on [sic] the other, i.e. liable to act on impulse.”

He then says that when he noticed “an exception” (presumably to the 46%, i.e. one of the majority), it caught his attention. Outside Knightsbridge Barracks one day in 1910, B-P spied a “girl” whose face he did not see at the time, but who “trod in a way that showed her to be possessed of honesty of purpose and common sense as well as of the spirit of adventure.”

He did not follow the lady’s spoor, but by chance two years later, while on board ship traveling to the West Indies, he “recognised the same gait in a fellow-passenger”. B-P concludes the story as follows:

          “‘Were you never in London? Near Knightsbridge Barracks?’
          ‘Yes. Two years ago.’
          So we married—and lived happily ever after.”

If any reader who once was a Boy Scout and who earned a tracking badge cared to examine Mrs Murrell’s curious, prancing gait—which suggests to me a cat on a hot tin roof—they might have learned something important about the First Minister’s intentions in connection with her extended occupancy of Bute House.

I wonder if her husband, Mr Peter Murrell, was once in the Boy Scouts? Or did he have a native tracker investigate the way his bride “trod” while doing his due diligence before “tying the knot”? If not, I trust he has not come to regret that omission.

Along with 76% of Scots, I devoutly hope that “the Peter Murrells” will be able to make a life together outside Bute House. The secret is to learn all your knots, do a good turn every day and “be prepared”. Thus equipped, it should not be difficult to slough off the cares of high office and, like the old soldier, live happily ever after. I gather Kenya is still a wonderful place to settle if you have a fully-funded pension payable in sterling.

Republished by kind permission of Think Scotland.

Hamish Gobson lives on the isle of Great Todday (Todaidh Mór) and features in Hating Tories: How Nicola Sturgeon Got into Government (1970-2007) – A Citizen’s Biography of a Driven Woman in a Drifting Parliament (Ian Mitchell, 2023) – available on and also reviewed here by Tom Gallagher.