By-Election Preview: Tain and Easter Ross (Highland) 28th of September 2023

Ward Profile

Cause of By-Election

Our second autumn by-election brings us to Highland Council’s Tain and Easter Ross ward. Lib Dem councillor Sarah Rawlings, first elected in May last year, has stood down due to poor health. Given the size of the council, formerly the largest and now second only to Glasgow in number of councillors, it’s not uncommon for us to get a few Highland by-elections during a term, though it’s not been since the 2007 term that one failed to arise within the first year since the full election.

Ward Details

Tain and Easter Ross is one of 21 wards in the Highland council area, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. Although to my non-local eye this appears to encompass a single peninsula, it doesn’t appear to be particularly or especially named anything bar possibly the “Easter Ross Peninsula” locally. As the name would suggest, the core of the population here is found in Tain, with other settlements of note at Balintore, Portmahomack, Inver, Hill of Fearn, Barbaraville, and the twin villages of Milton and Kildary.

For elections to the Scottish Parliament, the ward is within the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency, which the SNP have held (with a different MSP at every election) since gaining it from the Lib Dems in 2011. The UK Parliament equivalent is Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, which has been Lib Dem consistently except for the SNP’s landslide 2015 win. Notably, this is a very rare Westminster constituency larger than a Holyrood counterpart due to rules governing the 2005 boundaries. Those were largely removed in the most recent review, and so whilst the redrawn constituency will retain the name, it’s massively expanded.

Electoral History

For the first two elections, the ward returned the same pattern of councillors: a pair of Independents, plus a Lib Dem. However only one of those Independents, Alasdair Rhind, was the same across elections. Later on in 2007 the Lib Dem councillor Richard Durham shifted to sit as an Independent whilst the other elected Independent, Alan Torrance, joined the SNP. Torrance sadly passed in 2011, prompting a by-election that brought Independent Fiona Robertson into the ward for the first time. In 2012, Rhind and Robertson were both re-elected, and former MSP Jamie Stone took up the Lib Dem seat, defeating his former party colleague running as an Independent.

Despite their national strength it took until the 2017 election for the SNP to get a look-in with a seat in the ward, which they did by knocking Rhind out. His absence was very short lived however as Jamie Stone was elected to the UK Parliament the following month, triggering a by-election that Rhind easily won. Although 2022 replicated the partisan pattern of 2017, this time it was Robertson who was the loser between the two local Independents.

This particular chart of vote shares across time can be rather difficult to follow given the fact both the 2007 and 2017 term councils had by-elections in the ward, which obviously take any sitting Independents out of play. Rhind was easily the most popular candidate in the first election, far ahead of the Lib Dems and especially the SNP. He’s not broken out individually given the circumstances, but note Torrance’s 11.2% placed him fourth, but he was able to leverage Rhind’s surplus and the votes of eliminated other Independents to claim a seat. When Torrance passed, the SNP shot up into first place with their best result yet, but only narrowly ahead of Robertson and easily overcome by transfers.

2017 is remarkable for the general turn from Independents to party-affiliated councillors, marking the first time party candidates collectively won more votes than Independents. Both the SNP and Lib Dems registered strong growth, but it was the Conservatives surging from a piddling 1.4% to 16%, nearly beating Rhind, that really stands out. He re-asserted himself by completely crushing all competition in the by-election later that year, but the full vote in 2022 continued the trend of decline as both Rhind and Robertson lost votes to further SNP and Lib Dem growth, the latter with their best share yet in the ward.

Councillors and Key Stats

3 Councillors, in order elected:
🟡SNP: Derek Louden
🟠Lib Dem: Sarah Rawlings
Independent: Alasdair Rhind
Change vs 2017: No partisan change (Alasdair Rhind elected in 2017 by-election, defeats Fiona Robertson)
Turnout: 48.0%
Electorate: 7234
Valid: 3434 (98.9%)
Spoiled: 37 (1.1%)
Quota: 859


🟡SNP: Derek Louden
🔵Conservative: Veronica Morrison
🟠Lib Dem: Sarah Rawlings
Independent: Alasdair Rhind
Independent: Fiona Robertson

First Preferences
Transfers (single winner recalculation)
Two-Party Preferred



It’s a medium-sized ballot for this by-election, with significantly more options than folk had at the full election, being able to choose between all of the Holyrood 5, the Libertarians and an Independent. Of the candidates, the Conservative is the same as they stood last year, whilst the Libertarian (East Sutherland and Edderton) and Labour (Aird and Loch Ness) candidates contested other wards in Highland. The Green candidate may be the same Andrew Barnett who stood as an Independent in Inverness Central, but I can’t say for certain at the moment. That leaves the SNP, Lib Dem and Independent candidates as entirely fresh faces.

🟡SNP: Gordon Allison
🟢Green: Andrew Barnett
🟤Libertarian: Harry Christian
🔵Conservative: Veronica Morrison
🔴Labour: Michael Perera
Independent: Maureen Ross
🟠Lib Dem: Charles Stephen


In typical Highland fashion, the presence of (and voters’ predilection for) an Independent candidate muddies the predictive waters, and all the more so as Maureen Ross is a new face. Had former councillor Fiona Robertson made a Rhind-ian bid for her old seat, I’d have pegged her as clear favourite, beating the SNP by 9.5% or Lib Dems by 10.7% when re-calculating 2022 for head to heads.

Instead then, eliminating all Independents from 2022’s figures and the Lib Dems would have squeezed a minuscule 0.3% lead over the SNP to take a single seat. Since the election, I think there are two factors that will help tilt the balance further towards the Lib Dems. Firstly, there’s the obvious fact of the SNP’s ongoing decline in the polls. Secondly, I can only assume the Lib Dems are continuing to work this area as part of a key target constituency for them in both parliaments. I’m therefore inclined to say this favours the Lib Dems, but with the caveat that we have no idea what Maureen Ross’ support will amount to.


Lean Lib Dem, but never write off a Highland Independent.

2022 Results (Detailed Data)

Transfers (full election)
Results by Polling District
Second Preferences
Two-Candidate Preferred

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