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Angus North and Mearns MSP Mairi Gougeon rises to the top with new role in Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet

Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands.
Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands.

The SNP’s Mairi Gougeon has experienced a speedy rise to the top with a promotion in Nicola Sturgeon’s new government.

The 36-year-old politician is the new Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands following a government reshuffle on Wednesday and takes over from SNP veteran Fergus Ewing who left his post.

Dunfermline MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville was also appointed to the high-profile role of Education Secretary, after John Swinney was shifted to the new post of Coronavirus Recovery Secretary.

Ms Gougeon’s expansive new brief includes responsibility for agriculture, food and drink policy, fisheries and aquaculture, as well as co-ordinating policies for Scotland’s island communities.

Rural affairs

The SNP MSP is no stranger to the issues facing the industry as she previously served as junior minister for rural affairs and the natural environment – a role she held for more than two years until December.

Mairi Gougeon on the banks of the South Esk river, learning about the work being undertaken by the SISI Project.

She took on the role of Minister for Public Health that month, after Joe FitzPatrick quit his post following his handling of the country’s drug deaths crisis.

The first minister previously described the Angus North and Mearns MSP as a “highly effective rural affairs minister working with stakeholders, balancing competing interests and taking on difficult policy challenges”.

Ms Gougeon graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a degree in history in 2007 and was elected as a councillor representing Brechin and Edzell from 2007 to 2017.

Following her election victory earlier this month, she said she was “overwhelmed” by the result, which saw her defeat her closest rival Conservative Braden Davy, with a majority of 3,509.

The SNP MSP said the “big issues are all around recovery” and pledged to “revitalise” the country’s high streets.

Her appointment has been welcomed by SNP colleagues including Aberdeen South MP Stephen Flynn who said he had “no doubt that she’ll be a huge success”.

Meanwhile, Aberdeenshire East MSP Gillian Martin said she was “particularly delighted” to see Ms Gougeon promoted.

She added that as convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee she had “seen up close how good she is”.

Scott Walker, chief executive of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, welcomed Ms Gougeon’s appointment and said he “appreciated the help” she had given to farming over the years.

New education secretary

Meanwhile, Shirley-Anne Somerville takes on the daunting task of becoming Education Secretary, inheriting an exams crisis from predecessor John Swinney who takes on a new role as Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery.

The Dunfermline MSP has some previous experience on the brief as the minister for further education, higher education and science, between May 2016 to June 2018.

Ms Sturgeon appointed her as Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People  that month.

Born in Kirkcaldy, she attended the University of Strathclyde where she studied economics and politics, before going on to take a diploma in housing studies at the University of Stirling and diploma in public relations at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

Shirley-Anne Somerville with John Swinney in 2013.

She previously worked as a parliamentary researcher for former MSP Duncan Hamilton between 1999-2001 and later as a policy and public affairs officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing from 2001 to 2004.

Prior to her election, she was media and campaigns officer at the Royal College of Nursing between 2004 and 2007.

She was first elected to represent the Lothians region in 2007 but failed to win re-election in 2011.

The 46-year-old returned to Holyrood in 2016 when she was elected as the MSP for Dunfermline.

Ms Somerville, who learned of her appointment via Zoom due to a member of her family self-isolating, said she would be “getting straight to work this afternoon from home”.

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