Born in Inverness, he was educated at Lochaber High School and went on to study for a Masters in Politics and Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. While at university he was elected president of the student union and won the British Observer Mace university debating award. It was also at university that he became politically active, originally joining Glasgow University Labour Club before deciding to join the Social Democrats (SDP).
While studying in America he also received the SDP nomination for the Scottish seat of Ross, Cromarty & Skye which he went on to win in 1983, becoming the youngest sitting member of parliament. He has retained the seat and its successor Ross, Skye & Inverness West at four subsequent general elections.
In July 2002 Charles Kennedy married Sarah Gurling.
Although Kennedy has been dismissed as light weight by some observers as a result of his appearances on the satirical current-events panel game Have I Got News For You, opinion polls have shown him to be positively regarded as a party leader and potential Prime Minister by a significant fraction of the British electorate. Kennedy maintains the long standing aspiration for his party to break through to the status of official opposition. In this objective he has enjoyed mixed success. In terms of share of the popular vote in the 2001 General Election, the Liberal Democrats fell short of the Conservative Party by a margin of ten percentage points, contrasting with the deficit of just two percentage points the SDP/Liberal Alliance achieved relative to the opposition Labour Party in 1983. However, Kennedy has focussed the Party's regional campaigning in such a way as to turn a lower level of national support into a greater number of Parliamentary seats. He has proposed to extend this strategy at the next general election to target the seats held by the most senior and/or highly regarded Conservative MPs in the hope of supplanting the Conservatives as official opposition by the decapitation of their party in Parliament.