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Yesterday afternoon (Monday July 31) saw the Honorary Freedom of the Western Isles conferred on Mr Alexander 'Sandy' Matheson CVO OBE.

The event took place in the Stornoway Town Hall where Sandy first made his mark as a councillor on Stornoway Burgh Council more than 50 years ago.

The great hall was resplendent and packed with invited guests from the many organisations with which Sandy has been associated since beginning his public work in Newton in the 1960s. 

Sandy, who was born in Stornoway on 16 November 1941 and was educated at the Nicolson Institute primary and secondary schools before attending Robert Gordon Technical College in Aberdeen, is the seventh recipient of this honour from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. 

The previous recipients were the late Donald Stewart, SNP MP for the Isles from 1970-1987 and his wife Chrissie; the Regiment of the Queen’s Own Highlanders; the late Duncan M Morison MBE; the late Rev. Donald Macaulay OBE from Great Bernera, as first convener of CnES; and the late Father Calum MacLellan from Eriskay, who was the first vice-convener. The granting of the Freedom does not confer any specific tangible rights upon the Freeman but conveys the high esteem in which the recipients are held.

Sandy led the consultative body which existed prior to setting up of Comhairle nan Eilean as the sole local authority for the Western Isles in the mid-1970s, narrowly missing out on becoming its first convener.  He did serve as convener between 1982 and 1990, but this was only one among many senior roles which he filled in different organisations. 

He trained as a pharmacist and returned to work at the family business, Roderick Smith Ltd., as superintendent pharmacist in 1965 and is a fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

His first involvement in politics was in 1967 when he was elected to Stornoway Town Council, progressing to serve as Provost of Stornoway from 1971-1975.

Sandy was first elected to what was then called Comhairle nan Eilean in 1974, serving as Vice-Convener from 1980-1982 and Convener, then encompassing the roles of civic and political leader of the Comhairle, from 1982-1990.

He then held several roles in public office including as Chairman of the Stornoway Trust 1981-1991, Chairman of Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd 2001-2007, Chairman of the Harris Tweed Authority 2001-2007, Chairman of Stornoway Pier & Harbour Commission 1991-2001, Chairman of Western Isles Health Board 1993-2001 and Chairman of the Stornoway Branch, RNLI 1974- 1981 and 1994-2004.

Sandy was then appointed Lord Lieutenant for the Western Isles Area and served in that office from 2001 until 2016. Outside formal public life, Sandy formed the Hebridean Men’s Cancer Support Group in 2008 following his own diagnosis and continues his work on local history in his role as Honorary President of Stornoway Historical Society.

It fell to the present Convener of CnES, Councillor Kenny Macleod, who was visibly moved by the occasion, to give the address and he talked of the huge range of work which Sandy had undertaken over the years, all across the islands, in Scotland and the UK, and beyond through involvement in the European Union.  He pointed out that – "to put it mildly" – Sandy had played a major role in local politics in Stornoway and the islands as whole. He pointed out the breadth of the legacy - from the fabrication yard at Arnish to the Vatersay causeway.  

Sandy, himself, speaking to accept the honour professed himself almost speechless and was also visibly moved by the occasion. He said he was both overwhelmed and humbled by the honour and the words that had been spoken.  He praised the work of his wife Irene and the rest of their family and extended family in supporting him through good times and bad over the decades.  

Preceding the prayer at the end of the official proceedings, Rev William Heenan of St Columba's Old Parish Church in Stornoway spoke of the welcome he had personally received from Sandy when he moved to Stornoway 11 years ago and thanked him for it. 

The platform party - which also included Mrs Irene Matheson; CnES Chief Executive Malcolm Burr; Council Leader Councillor Paul Steele; and Lord Lieutenant Iain Macaulay - then left the stage and the formal event was followed by a ceremonial tea served to guests at tables set out at the rear of the Town Hall. 

Photographs by David Mackenzie