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by Margaret Taylor
11 April 2023
Edward Mountain: 'No one knows where the cancer journey is taking you – recovery, remission or your coffin'

Edward Mountain: 'No one knows where the cancer journey is taking you – recovery, remission or your coffin'

There’s a coathanger in the corner of Edward Mountain’s Holyrood office that is weighed down with ties. The Conservative member for the Highlands and Islands clearly likes to cut a dash when wearing an anonymous suit. But this is politics and there are rules: never wear a red or yellow tie, lest anyone thinks you’re batting for another political team, and never wear anything with images of animals on it – too distracting. I’m here to interview him and, as we get ready to head downstairs for photographs, Mountain picks out the perfect accessory for the occasion – a yellow tie adorned with little grey hippos. If he cares that he’s breaking any rules he doesn’t show it.

Down in the Garden Lobby, Mountain is in a jovial mood and is happy to head out to the garden for more shots, shifting the furniture to prop the door open on the way and almost seeing how funny it would be for him to leap behind a railing to recreate that famous scene from Titanic. When we point him towards some grassy steps the mood changes. “Those grassy steps look interesting,” we say, “let’s get some pics over there.” “Those steps are interesting,” he replies,  before telling us they were where he sat, dumbstruck, on the day he thought he was going to die. He’d just been told he had bowel cancer and, while his staff enjoyed a barbecue in the summer sun, he sat himself down, unable to eat or engage.

“It feels weird,” Mountain says as he sits on the exact spot he did that day. “It’s the first time I’ve been back out here. Why wouldn’t it feel weird?”

Back in his second-floor office, sitting beneath a Union Flag that covers an entire wall, Mountain becomes emotional as he thinks back to the sequence of events that led him to where he is now, speaking to a journalist in the run up to Bowel Cancer Awareness Month in the hope that by sharing his story he can inspire others to look out for and act on the tell-tale signs of cancer. He’d noticed blood in his poo in March 2021 and, though he felt perfectly well and continued to throw himself into that year’s parliamentary election campaign, was sent for a series of colonoscopies. He didn’t win enough votes at the election to oust the SNP’s Fergus Ewing from his Inverness and Nairn seat, but the 12,679 he did get were 5,000 more than he’d received in 2016 and his party got more than enough to see him return to Holyrood on the regional list. When it came time to be sworn in, he was given permission to do so remotely as he had yet another procedure to attend. Weeks later he got the call he had been dreading.

“I was rung here in my office, on my mobile, by a doctor at Dr Gray’s [Hospital, in Elgin] who said I had bowel cancer and I would see an oncologist in due course,” Mountain recounts, his voice cracking. “It was a shock, to put it mildly, and my message for oncologists is don’t do it over the phone. I was sitting in my office on my own. I rang my wife, but I had all those thoughts running through my brain – I’ve got cancer, I’m going to die. I went out for a walk, I went up Arthur’s Seat then came back for the summer barbecue in the parliament. I didn’t tell anyone other than my head of office, Tricia, then I went home and went through a period of waiting to speak to the oncologist.”

The first time most people knew Mountain had been ill was last April, when, just weeks after undergoing treatment, he posted a short and candid video to Twitter in which he showed his ‘shit happens’ stoma bag and urged viewers to “please have a quick look at this, it may help”. The video, which has been viewed over 77,000 times, allowed him to tell everyone what he had been going through without having to directly tell anyone what he had been going through. The message also won him the Tweet of the Day award at Holyrood’s Garden Party and Political Awards. 

“I didn’t tell anyone in parliament because my thought process was that I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to respond to it if anyone said anything,” he says, the tears still welling in his eyes. “I decided not to tell anyone here and not to tell anyone in my constituency. I started my radiotherapy in Aberdeen, which was fun. That was the end of July 2021, then I started chemo in September – four sessions. That was a jag in Elgin. I’d go in for four to five hours for a slow-delivery injection, then I had pills for two weeks, which were pretty unpleasant and I felt rotten. 

“By that stage we were back to work [following the pandemic] and I decided to continue working. The only days I couldn’t work were when I had my chemo injections because I’d get home in the afternoons and crash and burn, but other than that I’d work every day until 2pm, when I’d run out of energy. I’d developed a system during Covid that when someone emailed me they’d get a call back – I’d have a researcher with me and we’d agree a plan of action – so no one knew. It’s an impossible situation because no one knows where the cancer journey is taking you – recovery, remission or your coffin. It’s easier not to address it.”

Mountain, who in his early years in parliament repeatedly raised concerns about bullying within NHS Highland and is currently campaigning for a new hospital for Inverness, styles himself as a defender of the national health service. He is nevertheless unashamed to admit that, after those initial treatments, he decided to opt for private healthcare. Everything from having to wait three months for a first meeting with his oncologist and being unable to easily access his medical notes to being given no timeline for when his post-operative stoma would be reversed convinced him that the publicly funded system was not for him.

“I knew what was coming down the track at me was probably an operation to remove part of the bowel, which was fine,” he says. “I met with the surgeon at ARI [Aberdeen Royal Infirmary] on 29 December 2021. He said he wasn’t convinced I needed an operation but for safety’s sake it could be done. I asked how it would be carried out and he said it would be a long lateral cut to reveal my stomach, he’d do the surgery and I’d end up with a stoma but that he hoped that in due course the stoma would be reversed. I’d asked for a second opinion from the Royal Marsden Hospital in London and decided to see if I could have the operation done down there. I spoke to the surgeon there and he said he could do the operation at the end of January but it would have to be done privately. I then got a letter from NHS Grampian saying they were aware I was down for an operation but they had no idea when it would be done because they were struggling for space. I opted to go privately and pay for it myself. I don’t feel the need to justify that. For anyone who has cancer in their body the most important thing is to get it removed, so I took that option. But I’m incredibly angry that someone else not in my position would not have been able to take that option. It should have been delivered to me on the NHS within that timescale.”

Mountain does not know how much his treatment actually cost, but says the £1,800 insurance premium he paid last year was “the best £1,800 I’ve ever spent”. In truth, the total amount he has paid for private medical insurance is a lot more than that, with his father advising him to pick between that and saving into a pension when he passed out from Sandhurst military school in 1981. That he chose the former is perhaps unsurprising, given that his family not only has a deep involvement with the insurance industry but is also so gilded with wealth that saving for a pension would have been all but redundant. Indeed, so establishment is the Mountain family that Mountain is known officially as Sir Edward, though he chooses not to use the title and looks somewhat aghast when I bring it up. The honorific was passed down the male line after his great-grandfather, Edward Mortimer Mountain, was knighted for services to the insurance industry in 1918 before being made a baronet – the hereditary version – in 1922. The current Sir Edward “inherited it with the cornflakes” on the day his father passed away in 2005 and, as he doesn’t use it, that’s all we need to say about that. “Where I’ve come from isn’t important,” he says, “it’s where I’m going that matters.” But Mountain has mentioned that the family insurance business was called Eagle Star and, as a former financial journalist, I’ve heard of it. My interest is piqued so, naturally, I do a little digging.

The original Sir Edward, who was important enough that the National Portrait Gallery in London holds several pictures of him in its collection, started his career as an insurance clerk before becoming a broker at Lloyd’s of London. He founded his own business – British Dominions Marine Insurance Company – in 1904 and over the next decade added departments covering everything from fire and motor claims to accidents and life insurance. He even blazed a trail by establishing an all-female department to deal with female customers. Following a series of acquisitions, including that of Eagle Insurance Company – which in the 1800s had issued a £5,000 life policy to Victorian author Charles Dickens – the company changed its name to Eagle Star. A one-time constituent of the FTSE 100 index, the business, which was based on Threadneedle Street in the heart of the City of London, had a Mountain at the helm until it was taken over by British American Tobacco (BAT) in 1984, with Sir Edward’s son Brian succeeding him as chairman in 1948. Brian’s son Denis – Mountain’s father – duly took over when Brian retired in 1974.

Like Denis, who went to Eton, Mountain was privately educated, attending the King’s School, Bruton before enrolling at Sandhurst. Unlike Denis, he did not go into the family firm, with Denis securing the BAT deal while Mountain was serving in the army. Having seen off a £688m takeover bid from German insurer Allianz, Denis was able to arrange the £968m BAT deal before ending the family’s association with the business – which is now subsumed into the Zurich group – when he retired in 1985. When he died two decades later, Denis left a £14m fortune to Mountain and his two siblings, with Mountain also inheriting the Speyside estate Brain had purchased in the 50s, a champion herd of Simmental cattle and the baronetcy.
Mountain was already living in Scotland by that time, running the Inverness office of agri-consultants Bidwells after training as a surveyor when he came out of the army. When his father died he moved with his wife and three children – all now in their 30s and living in London – to the Delfur Estate, but while rearing cows and producing barley for the whisky industry interested him he had always “had a hankering to get into politics”. 

“I delivered my first campaign leaflet in 1979 and had always found politics quite interesting but went away from it,” he says. “I came back to it because I was pretty fed up of being told by people in Holyrood how they could run the countryside better than the people living in the countryside. That’s what inspired me and drove me to it. I was very lucky, I managed to set up a really good team to run the farm and that allowed me to step back from it to go into politics.” 

Mountain first stood for Holyrood in 2011, when he was resoundingly beaten into fourth place in the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross seat that has been in the SNP’s hands since, passing from Rob Gibson to Gail Ross and onto incumbent Maree Todd. He’d “loved every moment of the campaign trail”, though, and stood again for the Inverness and Nairn constituency in the 2015 general election. He had, he says, no intention of going to Westminster in the highly unlikely event he won, but the fact that incumbent Danny Alexander – at that time the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury in David Cameron’s coalition government – was likely to be ousted meant all eyes were going to be on the seat. “I was trying to improve my profile,” Mountain says. “That stood me well for Holyrood in 2016.”   

“You only ever get two in on the list but in that election [2016] we got three – there was the Ruth Davidson bounce and we also worked really hard on that seat,” he says. “We came second as a party in Inverness and Nairn [Ewing held the seat with 48 per cent of the vote], which we’d never done before and that started my life here.”

Though he is not a constituency MSP, constituency work is what interests Mountain most and, driven in part by his own recent experience, fighting for his constituents’ healthcare rights has become a major focus.

“What directs my future is getting the best for everyone I represent, which is why I’m happy not to be a shadow appointment,” he says. “I’m very happy dealing here on a day-to-day basis with constituents and trying to make their lives better. I know I’ve had an easy paper round, I have, but I want everyone to be able to get the best they can from what’s provided to them in Scotland. It infuriates me that it doesn’t come about. My cancer journey has driven me to focus even more on getting the best possible healthcare for everyone.”

That cancer journey is still not at an end. Mountain had his stoma removed at the Royal Marsden last May and in January was given the good news that his scans were clear. But that milestone is starting to recede and the next one is looming large, meaning Mountain is taking nothing for granted.

“Everyone who has had cancer lives from scan to scan,” he says. “My January scans were clear. The next ones are in July so we’ll see how they go. I have what I call scanitis – for three weeks before the scan if your finger hurts it’s to do with the scan, if your throat hurts it’s something to do with the scan. When you’re waiting for them to be read, you’re sure it’s taking a long time because there’s a problem but if the doctor says they’ll call at 10.30 and then they call at 10.20, it’s a problem. It’s very stressful.”

No wonder he cares so little for the unwritten rules about how to wear a tie.

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