WHEN Dr Elaine Murray was appointed as the leader of Dumfries and Galloway Council last year she was surprised to find she was the first woman ever in the job.
For she never particularly set out to be a trailblazing successful female, even though that’s exactly what she’s done in her career: firstly in science and most recently in Scottish politics. Ambitious, yes. Feminist, yes. But actually she’s more concerned about doing and giving her best in whatever role she’s in.
It’s a trait that stems from childhood, she said: “I was brought up to feel like you had to achieve, but it’s quite intrinsic in me too. “When I was a wee girl, I did not think about being a girl because I wanted to be a fighter pilot.”
Her maternal grandmother was clearly a strong influence and probably her biggest role model: “She was interested in women in positions of powers. She sympathised with Labour and the Greens,” recalls Elaine. “It was mainly her in the family, but my father was in a trade union. “I was politically interested and my parents tried to ban us both from talking about politics!”
But she never considered it as a career, instead opting for a physical chemistry degree at Edinburgh University, followed by a doctorate at Cambridge, a contemporary of Mary Archer, and in both places outnumbered by men. Positions followed in the labs at the Royal Freeman Hospital in London and the National Institute for Research and Dairy Institute for Research at Reading, where she studied areas ranging from how molecules exist and behave in space, to enzymes linked to muscular dystrophy and then proteins.
Explaining her passion for science, she said: “Always from the age of about ten I was interested in science. My father was an engineer and a boy I knew had a chemistry set. I liked experiments when very young, that you could put things together and make something out of them.
“I was good at it. I also thought about doing computing and psychology, but I went to a careers day and was told there were no jobs in it.”
It did not bother her to be in the minority as an undergraduate or post grad. In fact, she’s never let her gender hold her back, adding: “I always felt as a female scientist that you wanted to show women could do it. I like make up and clothes, but it was partly to say you do not have to look like a female Einstein, you can look like an ordinary woman and still be a scientist.”
She herself is a strong role model for women, particularly those balancing work and family, having had three children in the space of four years. During the early years following the birth of her eldest son she worked full time in science and said: “There was a lot of jugging, you could not really do it part time in those days. “Sometimes he came into the lab with me. It was very difficult. What ended my scientific career was having children. When my daughter was born, I came out of science.”
A move back north to Scotland kick-started her political career. But there were a few false starts and it was third time lucky before she finally got elected as a councillor for South Ayrshire, representing Labour. However, her early views were more to the left and she said: “I was not originally Labour, in my early 20s I was to the left of Labour, but I realised you had to be more pragmatic if you were going to achieve things.”
Achieve things she did and creating more pre-school opportunities in South Ayrshire is one of the things she’s still most proud of.
Alongside her council role, Elaine worked for MEP Alex Smith in his south Scotland constituency and was lecturing with the Open University, as well as bringing up her children with husband Jeff Leaver, then a biochemist and now a fellow Dumfries councillor.
A long time supporter of a parliament for Scotland, she watched the national machinations carefully: “For a long time I felt there should be a parliament in Scotland, so when the opportunity arose I was quite keen to put hat in ring,” she said. In 1999 she was successfully elected on a Labour ticket as Dumfries’ first MSP, becoming part of history.
“It was exciting, particular for those of us who had wanted a parliament. It was exciting to be there at the beginning, we felt we were making history,” she said. For the next 17 years Elaine served the region, as well as becoming Deputy Culture, Tourism and Sport Minister in Jack McConnell’s government and later Shadow Justice and Community Safety Minister for Johann Lamont and Shadow Environment Minister under Iain Gray.
While thoroughly enjoying the challenges and frustrations, she admits it was all encompassing with her work-life balance tipped decisively in favour of work, and many seven day weeks and just snatched holidays. And she’s not sure now that it is best suited to family life, adding: “You cannot make politics family friendly. The Scottish Parliament tried to do that, but unless you live in Edinburgh you need to stay there. However, you can try and separate your life at Parliament, then in the constituency.”
“Interesting but frustrating” is how she now sums up the Holyrood years: “It was more constraining than I expected. In local government you have more opportunity to shape things,” she explained. And while listing many highlights, she’s also realistic that it can be difficult to leave a permanent legacy at national level, adding: “Very few people make a mark for very long. Other people come along after you and pick things up and take it on. Things move on.
“I enjoyed it and met a lot of good people. Even if they have different views, there’s a lot of people trying to do as good a job as possible.”
It all ended in May 2016 when she lost her seat to young Tory rival Oliver Mundell, but she believes it was her time to go and said: “My constituents of Dumfriesshire made a good decision for me. My father was at the end of his life, badly failing and with not long to live, and my mother was ill. If I had been re-elected, I would have found it difficult.”
However, instead of taking a well earned break, she was soon gearing up for another challenge and was last year elected as a ward councillor for Nith and immediately took on the role of council leader, supported by depute Rob Davidson in a Labour-SNP alliance. Of the first year, she said: “It has been full on from day one. It has been a busy year, life is never dull in Dumfries and Galloway. There’s always plenty going on, even things like DG One.”
Looking ahead, she hopes for a revival in the region’s fortunes, adding: “There is a lot of good stuff. If you look at what previous councils have achieved with school buildings, etc. Going forward we want to build on some of that and see the regeneration of Dumfries and Galloway, hopefully.”
Vibrant and lively town centres are another aim, as well as making the most of all the opportunities offered to the area: “If we get the new enterprise agency right then there’s a lot of potential to grow the economy here. And if Borderlands works, that will give us the opportunity to be ahead of game rather than lagging behind the cities.” She’d love to encourage more businesses to locate here and boost tourism, adding: “It’s about seizing opportunities to shout about D and G. I’m fed up of it being a secret place, it’s a beautiful place but not getting exposure. There’s a lot on offer here and I would like to get that message out there: Dumfries and Galloway is where it’s at. Highlands and Islands is yesterday’s news, we are up and coming.”
Unassuming about being the council’s first female leader, she said: “Everyone brings different skills to the job, men and women. One of things, in my view, about being leader is enabling others to play to their strengths. It’s how good your team is as well.”
Nevertheless, Elaine admits she would be keen to encourage other women to get into local government and break the male dominance: “I wish I knew how to change it,” she said. “I did wonder if other women would see me and go ‘if she can do it’ . . . but it does not seem to work like that. I do not know what it is, but I’d like to see more women coming forward for future elections.
“It is something you can do when you’re a parent with children.”
Still “fairly busy”, she now has slightly more free time than in her previous incarnation and enjoys walking her two dogs, motorhome trips, reading, gardening, cooking, baking and spending time with her 17-month-old grandson. As for what’s next, she’s not got a firm plan and said: “We will see how it goes and what happens over the next few years. I’m 63 and I do not intend to go on in politics until I drop, you have to step aside.”
When she does finally bow out, it will surely be with a sense of pride for what she’s achieved as a scientist, a politician and as a woman.