Getting to know you: Liam McArthur

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 2 October 2018 in Inside Politics

Lib Dem MSP for Orkney discusses squeezing his bum into a tutu and his love of Showaddywaddy with Mark McLaughlin

Image credit: Holyrood

What is your earliest memory?

It may be a false memory but it’s seared into my consciousness because it is regularly retold in the annals of McArthur history. My sister was met with rapturous applause on her birthday when she turned up in her ballet outfit, so when she got changed I decide to put on her tutu. I marched confidently into the room expecting the same reception, only to be met with loud guffaws and pointing and I think I broke down in tears.

Is that the last time you wore a tutu?

Discretion is the better part of valour.

What were you like at school? 

I generally enjoyed school. I was pretty decent across the board without being outstanding at anything academically, and the woodwork and metalwork teachers knew I wasn’t going to push the boundaries of their subjects. I was pretty sporty, musical and into drama so I got a fair amount out of school. I started in primary in Edinburgh and then my family moved to Orkney when I was ten. We lived on Sanday and I went on to be a monthly boarder at Kirkwall Grammar School which was pretty difficult – particularly in the winter. The ferry took around eight hours as it went round all the north islands, and Sanday had a tidal pier so if you got in late, it was doubtful if you were going to get in at all.

What do you dislike about your appearance?

I’ve always been blessed with a fairly large backside.

I can’t say I’ve noticed but if you ever catch me looking, it’s purely for fact checking.

Maybe I should tip off security. This conversation has taken a funny turn.


It did have its benefits in playing football, allowing me to drive into the tackle fairly hard, but it’s not an advantage when you’re one of only three Mods on Orkney in the early 1980s, trying to squeeze yourself into a pair of sta-pressed trousers.

That sounds like the most fearsome scooter gang in Britain.

I didn’t have a scooter. After my early tutu experience, I realised I was at risk of looking like an elephant on a hairdryer, and to be honest, you’re never that far away from a beach on Orkney so you can just walk.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I’m mad keen on music and I have what you could charitably call a fairly eclectic collection full of guilty pleasures. If I had to pin it on one, it would be the first record I bought, which was Showaddywaddy’s ‘Under the moon of love’. The fact that I still like it is probably what makes it a guilty pleasure, rather than a moment of madness in my youth.

What is the worst thing anyone has said about you? 

Quite a few people have said, ‘What’s it like representing Shetland?’, which isn’t a vote-winner here in Orkney.

How does Tavish Scott feel when you tell him representing Shetland is the worst thing anyone can say about a person?

He would probably feel much the same if someone asked him, ‘What’s it like representing Orkney?’

Does Alistair Carmichael live in a perpetual state of self-loathing representing them both, then?

Self-evidently, it’s true in his case. He just has to roll with it.

Who would be your dream dinner date? 

I have always been absolutely fascinated by Robin Williams, because I find him hysterical and such a complex character. He’s certainly somebody I’ve had an enormous amount of respect for, and like many people, I was moved by the circumstances which led to his suicide. It flagged up how those who have the greatest ability to make you laugh, and seem to be having a high old time, are often masking deep and bleak thoughts.

What is the worst pain you’ve ever experienced? 

I’ve had a number of football injuries which felt pretty painful at the time. I’ve broken a few bones and knackered my calf muscle, which at the time felt like a lone sniper had taken me out from the changing rooms. I also broke my ankle and the immediate impact and the pain after would probably take some beating. My football career came to an end upon the realisation that I would do more damage to myself than the person I would be coming into contact with.

What is the best piece of advice anybody has given you?

In a political context, I was told early on, ‘Be careful how you treat people on the way up because you’ll meet them again on the way down’.

Politics is cyclical and if you go throwing your weight around, try to undermine people and be overly partisan, don’t be surprised if that rebounds on you in due course. It’s pretty sage advice in a time when politics is probably more febrile than it’s ever been.

In saying that, the current parliamentary session feels a more healthy environment, slightly less poisonous in terms of personal relationships between MSPs of different political parties. It helps that we’re not in a state of permanent elections or referendums. The parliament is also functioning more in the way that was anticipated now, as a parliament of minorities again.

It stands in contrast to what is happening more widely, where there are politicians who are guilty of stoking things and stirring the pot and overly personalising matters, even ones who at other times are quite happy to accept that this is what we need less of in politics.

The new intake of MSPs seem to be better than their counterparts from previous sessions. The Corporate Body can probably take some of the credit for this, with its new induction course at the beginning of the current session. MSPs from all parties were thrown together, and retained a willingness to engage with each other as individuals, rather than party representatives, which is a good achievement at the end of a divisive election campaign.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have various football medals and trophies that I am fairly proud of, but as somebody who has just deposited my eldest son at university a couple of weeks ago, I am now growing more attached to the things that provide memories of my kids growing up. I feel a greater need to treasure old photographs, drawings, news reports about things that they have achieved, which have more value to me now than perhaps they did at the time.

What era would you visit if you could time travel?

All of the publicity surrounding the Ness of Brodgar dig reminds us that Orkney was reckoned to be the centre of civilisation in the neolithic era, and I think I would find it absolutely fascinating to go back there.



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