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On a whim: Gillian Mackay stumbled into politics but now is taking great strides

Gillian Mackay.

Gillian Mackay stumbled into politics on a “bit of a whim” in 2015, but is now poised to contest her fourth election in four years.

The journey began with an internship at Holyrood with the Scottish Greens, as part of an initiative being run by Inclusion Scotland to identify barriers faced by disabled people in politics.

Ms Mackay, who has the sensory disability Meniere’s disease, had been assessing her options after completing a Masters degree in marine biodiversity and biotechnology at Heriot-Watt University.

“From the policy end of things, I was really interested in how the sort of internal workings of the politics meant that you could make a difference to the legislation and therefore make a difference to how it was implemented,” she said.

“I applied to one of them on a bit of a whim and was placed with Alison Johnstone and Patrick Harvie last session, and that was the start of my journey with the Greens, and I’ve never really looked back.”

Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone on the campaign trail.

After the internship, she stayed in touch with the people she had met, before being offered a job with the party as a regional campaign support officer in Lothian.

“It was really interesting, I found a bit of a home,” she said.

“I grew up in central Scotland. Labour, back in the day, was the thing, and it was interesting speaking to people who shared a lot of the values I did.

“Even just looking further into the ins and outs of different people’s policies and things like that, I found it quite striking how much they had in common with me, and how much they were willing to involve everyone in the policy-making.

“The entirety of Green members are all entitled to vote on party policy at conference, which is great and collaborative.

“It was something I think struck a chord with what my Masters project was trying to do, in a sense that public policy is a public thing, so it needs to suit the people it is there to serve.”

Experience in student politics

Ms Mackay’s Masters project had focussed on the difference in attitudes to Marine Protected Areas (MPA) between the Western Isles, where the MPA and its impact would be felt, and central Scotland, where the policy was implemented.

Grangemouth oil refinery.

She already had a firm grasp of the contrast between urban and rural, however, having grown up in Grangemouth but spending much of her free time with family in the Highlands, including Brora, where her father is from.

While at university, Ms Mackay had been involved in a number of initiatives, although without ever standing for election.

“I was more involved in support and things like that in student politics,” she said.

“I helped run some of the campaigns and things, and helped with various bits and pieces, rather than being the candidate myself.”

Her attitude towards becoming the candidate began to change in 2016, as she became more involved in the Greens’ election campaign for Holyrood.

“The lead up to the 2016 Holyrood election was the point where I went, ‘this is actually what I want to go and do’,” she said.

The first televised leaders’ debate of the 2016 Scottish Parliament election campaign.

“The first time I considered standing for election was when one of our councillors in Edinburgh said to me, ‘look, I think you would be really good to stand for the council elections in 2017’.

“I put myself forward, and since then I’ve stood for council, Westminster, EU and then it’s Holyrood next year, so I complete the set in May.”

‘Gillian works tirelessly’

After coming close in the Forth ward at the Edinburgh City Council election in 2017, she was third on her party’s list for the European elections last year, and in December, became the first Green to stand in Linlithgow and East Falkirk at a UK election.

Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater.

Party co-leader Lorna Slater said: “Gillian works tirelessly with the Scottish Green MSPs.

“She has stood up to her local polluters and been a brilliant champion of local bus routes and jobs.”

Next year Ms Mackay has her best chance yet when she contests the Holyrood election at the top of the party’s regional list in Central Scotland.

“Polling has been really encouraging as well, so hopefully in May we will have our first-ever Central Scotland MSP,” said the former intern.


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