Power & Influence: the top 10 most influential people in Scotland 5

Power & Influence: the top 10 most influential people in Scotland

Power & Influence: the top 10 most influential people in Scotland 6

So who runs Scotland? That’s been the central question of The Ferret and The Herald’s week-long investigation. Along the way we’ve examined the corridors of power and looked at who gets the most access to ministers – and who doesn’t.

We’ve pored through the lobbying register, ministerial diaries, First Minister-hosted dinner and event lists, advisory panel minutes, and examined what happened to the recommendations made. 

We’ve studied the ownership of our media, natural resources and iconic Scottish produce such as whisky, and exposed how arms firms wield unaccountable power at Westminster. We also looked at what happens to profits and links to tax havens, finding that multinationals and individuals mostly benefit while the Scottish people often don’t.

But it’s not just about political power and big business. The decision-making systems we rely on have also been our focus, including the power dynamics within public boards and services. We learned that power is an ever-shifting, nebulous force.

So, the individuals listed below are not the people running Scotland, but a selection of some of the most influential today – a top ten who caught our eye plus a round-up of other interesting people.

Of course, in a democracy our elected politicians front the show – but what power and influence lies beneath? Some names on our list you will not have seen on any ballot paper but nonetheless these people have more influence than most in our society. Some may be familiar – it’s notable that some stayed within the establishment when political power transferred from Scottish Labour to the SNP. Others will be newer faces.

The Ferret’s criteria was to look at a combination of wealth or salary, land and property, access to political power, professional influence, connections…and then to bear in mind any x factors we found along the way. You’ll notice they are white, and mostly male. Our findings suggest the old power bases are holding firm.

Power & Influence: the top 10 most influential people in Scotland 7
The full Illustration for Who Runs Scotland by David Peter Kerr.

Anders Povlsen

The Danish fashion mogul and Scotland’s richest man is reportedly worth £6bn, up £1.27bn on 2020. Thought to be Scotland’s biggest landowner, since buying the Glenfeshie Cairngorm estate in 2006, Povlsen, 48, has reportedly amassed 220,000 acres across 12 estates.

His ambitious 200-year plans will influence the course of Scotland’s rewilding future, and could drastically alter northern Scotland. But, as The Ferret revealed, they may be scrapped if the Sutherland space port goes ahead. Povlsen has previously tried to exert influence in a failed attempt to block wind farms.

His company, Wildlands, had pledged to regenerate native woodland, peatlands, wetlands, rivers, and endangered animal populations, promising to invest £50m by 2022.

The project would reduce deer and sheep numbers and, controversially, hopes lynx, bear and wolves ”may be able to return”. Wildlands says it has planted four million new trees and regenerated thousands of acres of natural woodland, promising to tackle climate change and depopulation.

Sir Ian Wood 

A giant in the worlds of energy, oil and fishing, billionaire Wood is worth £1.82bn, and his family are Scotland’s fourth richest according to the Sunday Times Rich List

Wood retired from energy company the Wood Group in 2012 but remains chairman and chief executive of JW Holdings which, along with its subsidiaries, owns one per cent of the UK’s fishing quotas. He also now chairs Opportunity North East (ONE), which aims to drive economic diversification in north east Scotland. 

Geoff Aberdein, Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff, served on the ONE board until December 2020 and is now consulting for the group, and providing counsel for Message Matters, one of Scotland’s biggest lobbying consultancies.

In 2013, Wood undertook a review for the UK Government on oil and gas recovery and this year he joined its ‘Build Back Better’ council. He has warned against Scottish independence and supports Brexit

The Wood Foundation supports youth projects in Scotland and Africa and has committed £62m to ONE over 10 years.  

Lord Smith of Kelvin

Smith is a crossbench peer who has influenced key financial, cultural, energy, media and governmental bodies. He currently chairs organisations including Scottish Enterprise, which has regular Scottish ministerial access, and the UK Government’s British Business Bank.

The trained accountant, 76, was ICAS Scotland president and the Financial Conduct Authority regulator’s non-executive director. Like a number of people featured in Who Runs Scotland, he worked at RBS. He also held senior roles at Bank of Scotland, in private equity and financial service firms.

Smith was appointed by Alex Salmond to lead the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games organising committee, and chaired the post-referendum Smith Commission on further devolution.

A former BBC governor, head of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland and member of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, he is now the University of Strathclyde’s chancellor.

Smith also chaired engineering giant Weir Group, National Museums Scotland, SSE, and the UK Green Investment Bank.

Sir Tom Hunter

Worth £729m, Hunter was named as Scotland’s 13th richest man this year, despite losing his billionaire status after the 2008 financial crisis. 

He started Sports Division by selling trainers from the back of a van. It was sold to JD Sports for £290m in 1998.

Perhaps best known for the Hunter Foundation, in 2005 he received a knighthood for “services to philanthropy and to entrepreneurship”. He also chairs and helps to fund children’s charity The Kiltwalk, along with Social Bite, a social enterprise employing homeless people.

Hunter still has business and political sway. Last year an Oxford Economics report, funded by his foundation, called for Scotland to lower taxes and increase borrowing. Signatories included Andrew Wilson, of the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission and co-founder of Charlotte Street Partners.

The Ferret has revealed Hunter’s regular access to government. He had 13 phone meetings with seven ministers last year. Projects in train include a £10m leadership centre at Loch Lomond, targeting teachers and head teachers.

Sir Angus Grossart

A co-founder of the Scottish merchant bank Noble Grossart in 1969, Grossart has long influenced many top financial, arts, business and media institutions. The veteran banker, 84, was vice chair of RBS and close friend to disgraced former CEO, Fred Goodwin.

Grossart chaired the Scottish Futures Trust, overseeing public infrastructure, and has sat on the boards of financial institutions and firms like BP, and publishing giant Reach.

He chairs influential lobbying firm, Charlotte Street Partners, which brought 50 of Scotland’s business leaders to wine and dine with Nicola Sturgeon in 2015. Co-founder Andrew Wilson is a former SNP MSP, and Goodwin-era RBS economist and PR man. 

Grossart has fronted the Scottish International think-tank and was pictured at a secretive 2017 Gleneagles event alongside Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, Steve Bannon.

Grossart chairs the Burrell Collection restoration, along with the boards of Glasgow Life and the Edinburgh International Culture Summit. His family wealth was estimated at £325m in 2020.

Dame Susan Rice

Dame Susan Rice is another veteran financier who combines banking and business interests with roles on public boards interest in the arts. She is chair of Scottish Water and the Scottish Fiscal Commission

As chief executive, and then chair of Lloyds TSB Scotland, she became the first woman to head a UK clearing bank in 2000. In 2012, she was also the first woman elected as president of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.

She has long been respected by government. In 2009 she chaired the 2020 Group, set up in response to the Climate Change Bill, which aimed to reduce carbon emissions by 42 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. In 2014 the Scottish Government announced it had reached the first target six years early.

She still has plenty of business interests and is a senior independent director of J. Sainsbury’s plc.

Benny Higgins

Banker Benny Higgins has a wide-ranging profile taking in finance, property, the arts and advisory roles for the Scottish Government.

He became chief executive of retail banking at RBS just a year before Fred Goodwin joined as deputy CEO. In 2005 he went to NatWest Retail Banking, then to Tesco Bank in 2008.

In 2017 he led a proposal for the Scottish National Investment Bank and last year he chaired the government’s Covid-19 advisory group on economic recovery. It has called for infrastructure, arts and care investment and reduced business rates.

Higgins also chairs the Duke of Buccleuch’s Buccleuch Estates, which has £250m in property investments in Scotland, London and overseas. He also chairs Forster Chase Corporate Finance.

Other roles include chairing the National Galleries of Scotland and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Along with Grossart, Higgins is a trustee for the Edinburgh International Culture Summit, and trustee of Burrell Renaissance.

Deirdre Michie 

CEO of Oil and Gas UK since May 2015, Michie worked for Shell for decades before moving to her current role. Her roles with the oil giant span exploration, communications and external affairs and business management. 

She is a board member of Scottish Water, and sits on the board of Sir Ian Wood’s Opportunity North East.

Michie has regular access to Scottish ministers, a key figure representing the oil and gas industry during the move from fossil fuels. In 2019, OGUK released ‘Roadmap 2035: A Blueprint for Net Zero.

Michie’s other spheres of influence include membership of MER, the UK Government and Industry forum and of the UK Treasury’s Oil Industry Fiscal Forum

Keith Anderson 

Anderson is Scottish Power’s CEO, having been the chief executive of ScottishPower’s  renewables arm since 1998. He also led the international offshore business for Iberdrola, ScottishPower’s Spanish multinational parent firm, and has held directorships for many energy producers.

An influential voice in how Scotland responds to the climate crisis, Anderson is a member of the Scottish Government’s Energy Advisory Board, the COP26 Business Leader Group and an honorary fellow of the Energy Institute global industry body.

He chairs CBI Scotland, one of the organisations that most frequently lobbies the Scottish Government.

A former vice chair of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s national task force, Anderson is a speaker at the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, was an audit manager for RBS and Standard Life, and a management consultant for accounting giant E&Y.

Mike Cantlay OBE

Cantlay is chair of NatureScot and the Scottish Funding Council which invests around £1.9bn of public money into Scotland’s colleges and universities. Members of SFC’s board are appointed by the First Minister.

Cantlay was previously chair of Forth Valley College. Additionally, he served as chair of VisitScotland and chair of Scottish Enterprise Forth Valley. He also advised VisitBritain based in London.

In 2006 he was elected convener of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority and more recently served as chair of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd which is responsible for 11 airports across Scotland. He was awarded Public Sector Leader of the Year at the Scottish Leadership Awards 2012 and was made an OBE in 2014 for services to tourism and hospitality.

The Media

Scotland’s media is dominated by firms outside Scotland, The Ferret has revealed, with three billionaires owning 10 national titles.

Only The Sunday Post is Scottish-owned, while as many as 25 are owned by firms in London, eight of which belong to parent companies in the US and Asia.

The influence of the media can be significant. The Vow, a Daily Record front page featuring the leaders of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems promising further devolution has been cited as a factor in Scotland’s rejection of independence in 2014.

Murray Foote – the newpaper’s then-editor – is now the SNP’s head of communications. 

In recent years, ventures such as The Ferret and Bella Caledonia have changed Scotland’s media landscape, while women have been appointed as editors of some of the biggest selling titles. Last year Lorna Hughes became the first female editor of a national newspaper for over 20 years. In March 2021 Gill Smith became Scottish Sun editor, while Catherine Salmond has edited Scotland On Sunday since June.

Justice and Public Bodies

Two of the top legal roles in Scotland are now held by women, with influence at the heart of government. Dorothy Bain QC is Lord Advocate and principal legal adviser to the Scottish Government, while Ruth Charteris QC was appointed Solicitor General in June 2021. It is the first time these roles have been held simultaneously by women.

Scotland’s most senior judge is Colin Sutherland, aka Lord Carloway, head of the judiciary. Iain Livingstone holds the top role at Police Scotland as Chief Constable.

Some of the most powerful people leading public bodies include those heading Scottish Enterprise, the government’s business agency. Linda Hanna, interim chief exc, was recently replaced by Scottish Enterprise with Adrian Gillespie, who joins from Strathclyde University and was previous on the Opportunity North East board. The chief executive of Glasgow City Council, Scotland’s largest local authority, is Annemarie O’Donnell, while Andrew Kerr holds the same position at Edinburgh City Council, the second biggest council.

Scottish Government

Special advisors, known as Spads, give government ministers advice on policy matters, exerting significant influence over which laws the First Minister and cabinet colleagues bring forward. They are usually appointed thanks to being perceived experts, or allies.

The current list, last updated in February 2020, includes former party advisor and head spin doctor Liz Lloyd as chief of staff, fellow former spin doctor Colin McAllister as policy chief, and former Daily Mail political editor Stuart Nicolson as communications chief.

UWS media lecturer and former BBC journalist Ewan Crawford consults on EU and constitutional issues. Most Spads are party insiders such as parliamentary officers and researchers. Others include former Aberdeen MP, Callum McCaig, who lost his seat in 2017.

Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans is a longtime government employee who leads more than 6,500 civil servants in supporting and developing government policy. She is due to exit following criticism over the handling of the accusations against Alex Salmond.

Local Government

Councillors can have notable access to power, with some speaking regularly to high-profile ministers about local and national issues, our analysis of 2020 ministerial engagements reveals. The Inverclyde Council leader, Labour’s Stephen McCabe, spoke with ministers 33 times, mostly with John Swinney about education and Covid-19.

COSLA president and Labour Aberdeenshire councillor Alison Evison was another with regular access to ministers. She spoke 29 times, mostly about local government and Covid-19 with then-communities secretary Aileen Campbell.

Argyll and Bute leader, Lib Dem Robin Currie met ministers 19 times, mostly talking health and social care with then-health secretary Jeane Freeman. 

Glasgow and Edinburgh receive the most public funding for their councils. Glasgow leader, the SNP’s Susan Aitken chairs the city region cabinet and convenes three committees, including those which delegate council functions and appoint senior officers.

Edinburgh leader Adam McVey convenes four, covering the Edinburgh Partnership, leadership advisory panel, policy and recruitment. His Labour coalition partner leader, Cammy Day vice convenes policy and sustainability.

UK Government 

The UK Government wields significant influence over Scotland more than 20 years after devolution and the forming of the Scottish Parliament. Many tax and welfare powers, as well as drug laws, immigration, foreign affairs and defence are still held at Westminster.

We revealed that five companies employing around three quarters of Scotland’s arms industry workers had thousands of closed door meetings with the UK Government between 2011 and 2020. The firms enjoyed special access to government meetings, many alongside representatives from the Prime Minister’s office.

The UK Government’s Scotland Office is headed by Dumfries and Galloway MP, Alister Jack. The millionaire landowner and businessman reportedly made £20m through his self-storage firm. The Herald reported in 2017 that he was criticised for owning £70,000 of shares in a firm registered in the tax haven, Bermuda.

The other Scotland Office ministers are former oil and gas worker, Banff and Buchan MP David Duguid and Hamilton-born Milton Keynes MP, Iain Stewart.


Scotland’s richest man, Anders Povlsen is also the country’s biggest landowner, but far from the only key player. The Duke of Buccleuch, Richard Scott, owns 189,000 acres though Buccleuch Estates, largely in southern Scotland.

Billionaire former Lego boss Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen owns the Strathconon Estate in central Ross-shire. The Ferret revealed the 82,800-acre estate’s deer forest claimed full business rates relief from the taxpayer for its 2019 bill.

The billionaire ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum owns the 63,000 acre Inverinate Estate in Wester Ross. Lisbet Rausing, daughter of Hans Rausing who was one the world’s wealthiest people, owns the 57,000-acre Corrour Estate near Rannoch Moor.

Donald Houston, the second largest donor to the Better Together campaign, owns the 30,000 acre Ardnamurchan Estate.

Other major landowners include government agencies and public bodies, as reported by the BBC. These include the National Trust for Scotland, Forestry and Land Scotland, the Crown Estate, NatureScot, and local authorities.

Civil society and academia 

Civil society might have less space at the table than big business but there are figures who have significant influence here too. Fiona Duncan, chief executive of funder Corra, which administers several Scottish Government funds, also chaired the Independent Care Review, which published its report The Promise last February.

Derek Feeley, a former chief executive of NHS Scotland, published his Independent Review of Social Care this February, which called for a National Care Service.

Figures such as Andrew Burns, convenor of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) and Dr Sally Witcher, former chief executive of Inclusion Scotland and chair of Scottish Commission on Social Security, are also noteworthy.

Meanwhile in academia, University principles hold plenty of sway. Economist and University of Glasgow principal Anton Muscatelli was a member of the Scottish Government’s advisory committee on economic recovery. Fellow university principles include Professor Peter Mathieson of Edinburgh University and Professor Sally Mapstone of St Andrews

The Unions

The power that the unions once had in the twentieth century may be diminished but many of Scotland’s key union reps, including Mary Senior of UCU and Rozanne Foy and Dave Moxham of STUC were well represented both on the lobbying register and at the table in discussion with Scottish ministers. Unions say their lobbying is more democratic – the STUC represents over half a million members. Notable influence helped save the BiFab yards after the Scottish Government stepped in.

Outside the corridors of power smaller unions have shown their might this year too, with campaigns by Better than Zero and Unite’s hospitality wing led by Bryan Simpson, bringing profile to the need for action on zero hours contracts, and living wages. The emergence of Living Rent, the tenants union, has also highlighted renters rights.

People powered campaigns

It’s not just unions that have found power and influence can be found through collective voice – from successful community land buy-outs to Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST)’s successful campaign for a Marine Protected Area around the islands, community voices can – and do – cut through. 

One-off recent examples include protests in Glasgow’s Kenmure Street when the local community and activists blocked a Home Office migration van on an enforcement raid. The two men – Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh – were later released after Police Scotland backed down. 

This investigation is part of our wider series Who Runs Scotland. We will be shedding a light on ownership and power in Scotland’s economy, environment and politics.

Help us hold power to account, for as little as £3/month.

Illustration by David Peter Kerr.

  1. Great read, thank you.
    Just a small suggestion: The National Trust for Scotland is not a public body/government agency but a charity.

  2. I would love to talk with you. Interesting read and well done to all that created this easy read document. I am surprised it has not been latched onto by all in order to understand not only the political structure of Scotland but also the devistating impact to the Law that has become Scotland that sees what the Liberal Democrat Government of 1906-1915 said anent “solicitors in a Scottish Parliment. All this lobying and funding has brought us a parliment that is bereft of any effective remedy redress and accountability. The Court reform Scotland Act 2014, The Poilice Fire Reform Scotland Act 2013, The Tribunals Scotland Act 2014, The Judiciary Courts Scotland Act 2008 must be repealed by way of legal challange. Understandably no solicitor in Scotland would raise such a case. But we could. Please get in touch. I would like to talk at length with all of the investigatory persons of this article. We have work to do and we have to move fast.

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