Culture of the periphery

A week into my tour of the Highlands & Islands, as my all too brief stay on Orkney draws to a close, I find myself with some time to reflect on the the impressions, insights and inspirations of my travels so far.

The first thing to say is that the people I’ve met have been, without exception, wonderful. From the staff of Northlink Ferries to the wummin fae Fife driving the Scrabster bus to the chef at The Shore Hotel here in Kirkwall who stayed back after his shift to prepare a meal for me when I came in late from the meeting, they’re all a bit special.

Most special of all, however, are the folk who have organised the events and the people who have come along to those gatherings. Almost exclusively Yes people, it must be said. Those in the No camp seem as unwilling to engage now as they did throughout the first referendum campaign. Which is unfortunate. Not least because they have most to gain from hearing something other than the voice of the British state. But what can you do? There’s no way to oblige them to attend. They can’t be forced to participate. If they are determined to remain on the outside of Scotland’s constitutional debate, it’s hard to know what might draw them in.

The people I’ve been speaking to and talking with could hardly be more different. They are totally engaged and constantly thoughtful. The gathering last night in Kirkwall was typical. Twenty or thirty people crammed into a room, each with their own ideas and opinions, but all united in a shared commitment to Scotland. Each prepared to offer their considered thoughts on how best or nation’s interests are served. Each ready to have their views questioned. Each equipped to sensibly and reasonable challenge the views of others.

This is democratic politics at its best. This is how politics should be.

Some choose to put themselves outside this sphere of popular, participative politics. They opt to exclude themselves. By choice, they retreat to the periphery.

But, of course, that is not how it seems to the hard-line Unionist. From the British Nationalists’ perspective, they are the centre. By aligning themselves with the British state, they associate and affiliate themselves with what they think of as the ‘natural’ centre. For them, Scotland is the periphery. Scotland’s concerns are peripheral concerns. It is those who occupy themselves with Scotland’s concerns who are occupying the periphery.

And it doesn’t matter where they are. Politically, the centre/periphery distinction is not a matter of place. It is a state of mind.

It was, however, a geographical reference which brought this to mind. I was being taken on a tour of Skarra Brae when made some remark about Orkney being remote. This provoked an instant and indignant rejection of the suggestion. To the people who live there, Orkney is not remote. That’s not how they think of themselves. And maybe it shouldn’t be how the rest of Scotland thinks of its furthest reaches.

In an earlier article I wrote about how the Yes movement needs to be more connected. We must be careful not to squander the enthusiasm and intellect that I have encountered on my travels by being too focused on the central belt.

Perhaps more crucially, as Scotland departs the Union, we should be wary of falling into anything like the British Nationalist centre/periphery mindset.

Scotland is one nation. But it is one nation on account of a connection, not to a central structure of power, privilege and patronage, but among all of our diverse communities. A connection among people with a shared commitment to the community of communities which is our nation.

Next stop, Shetland!


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A mighty force

I’m suffering from blogger’s guilt. A blog is a hungry and a demanding beast. It wants to be fed all the time. Fail to feed it, and it whines and nags and nips and nibbles at your conscience until you’re forced to bash out something just to appease the monster.

Not that I don’t have lots to say. But I feel a certain responsibility to consider whether people want to hear it. Or read it. I know, for example, that more than a few people are uncomfortable with some of the things I say about the way the Yes movement behaved in the first referendum campaign. Others are disinclined to listen to the arguments for #Referendum2018; having already made up their minds that delay – undefined if not indefinite – until some ‘optimum’ moment – undefined if not indefinable – is the smart strategy.

My views on how the new referendum campaign should be conducted by no means find favour with everybody. And I often get an adverse reaction to some of the things I say when talk turns, as it invariably does, to the economic arguments which are imposed on the constitutional debate.

It is a token of how open-minded people in the Yes movement are that they are prepared to turn out, even in the most atrocious weather, to take part in events.where I’m speaking. I have the utmost respect and affection for these people. These are good people. These are the people who make democracy work.

There are things that people don’t really want to hear. But the people I’m meeting still want these things to be said. If that sounds contradictory then all I can offer is the truism that people are complicated. Let’s leave it at that.

I think it is generally accepted that the first referendum campaign transformed Scottish politics. The media and the British establishment are desperate to drag us back to the arid rhetoric, monochromatic simplicity and faux rivalries of the old two-party politics. But the Yes movement is not for abandoning the rich vein of political discourse uncovered during the two-year period leading up to the vote in September 2014. I am forcefully reminded of this every time I attend an event such as the one in Tain last night (Monday 5 March).

A couple of dozen people defied the rain and the cold and the snow still piled deep everywhere to gather together in a room in the Duthac Centre (see picture above) to give me a fair hearing and then point out where I’d got it wrong. The discussion went on for almost three hours, and we still weren’t done. As ever, the business of the evening was conducted in a spirit of goodwill, high spirits and great comradeship. It was productive. But it was also good fun.

I have always thought that the Yes movement is something special. The more I meet with the people who are part of this great popular phenomenon, the more I am convinced that we are witnessing a powerful wave of democratic dissent such as has rarely been seen. The Yes movement is a mighty force made up of people who are simultaneously ordinary and remarkable.

I always come away from these occasions having learned something. I also come away thinking this Yes movement of ours can achieve anything. If that mighty force is tapped and deployed and channelled in the right way, nothing that the imperious British state can do will prevent the restoration of Scotland’s independence.

Now that I’ve tossed a few morsels to the blog monster, I can start preparing for the next event on my wee Highlands & Islands tour, which is at the Pentland Hotel in Thurso this evening. Maybe I’ll see you there.


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The ties that bind

solas_viewBest laid schemes of mice and men, eh? Good intentions, road to hell and all that. As I set out on my wee speaking tour of the Highlands & Islands I also set myself the task of writing regular updates. Due to various technical and human factors, that hasn’t been happening. Technical factors such as the lack of internet access. Human factors such as me being a lazy so-and-so who is all too easily distracted by stuff.

So it is that I find myself sitting in my room in Melbost, near Stornoway writing this instead of getting out and about. Having said that, it is a very nice room with a lovely view (see above). Which is unfortunate when someone is as easily distracted as myself.

The crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway was very restful. The driver managed to hit every bump and pothole on the water and, while I don’t suffer mal de mer, I found myself quite unable to walk around the good ship Pitchy McYawface. My old legs aren’t that good on terra firma, these days. As I quickly discovered, they’re worse than useless in the Greim bidhe on the MV Loch Siphort in even moderately choppy seas.

No internet, of course. And l soon wearied of the sights out the window. When you’ve seen one wave, you’ve pretty much seen them all. And if there were to be one awesome enough to be worthy of my attention, to be honest, I would rather not see it coming. Other than the waves, there was just grey. There was greenish grey and bluish grey and some grey that was almost black and some grey that was almost white. But mostly, it was grey. I tried playing a game of ‘Name The Grey’ – there are supposed to be fifty, I believe. But after slate, dove, battleship and a couple of others that I may have made up, the entertainment value of the exercise just couldn’t justify the effort involved.

So I spent the time reading and dozing and writing a few notes. And congratulating myself on getting bits off French and Latin and Gaelic into one paragraph.

A couple of hours in, the sun did break through the blue-grey sky to shine on the green-grey sea. So there was some excitement as the sky took on the glint of steel and the water the sheen of gunmetal. But, really, they’re just other names for grey. I only wish I’d thought of them when I was playing that game.

Then, suddenly, like the adverts intruding when you’re watching a black and white film, there was colour. We were approaching Stornoway. There were no more ruts and ridges for the boat driver to aim at, I was able to walk again, the green of Lewis’s low rolling hills hove into view and there was phone service.

Let me stress here that I’m not complaining. As a child, I used to go regularly on the ferry to the Isle of Arran. (I also have vague memories of the Queensferry Crossing when it was on, rather than over, the Firth of Forth.) The boat trip was always a big part of the holiday. It was exciting. It still is. I really enjoy it.

Part of that enjoyment is the thrill of being in a different, almost alien environment. Part of the pleasure – for those not distracted by serious nausea – lies in the fact that there is no longer solid ground beneath you. Everything feels different. Everything looks different. It may not be ‘other-worldly’, but it’s certainly ‘other-placely’.

Part of the pleasure, too, is the sense of being disconnected. Cut-off. Isolated. For someone accustomed to easy access to every form of communication, that sense of isolation can feel a bit scary. But scary in the same way that a roller-coaster is scary. It’s controlled danger. Just enough danger to be thrilling without actual fear for life.

Islands are a bit like that. Not that they’re scary places. But that they’re disconnected. Like boats. No matter how effectively technology builds links to the other world of the mainland, an island is always a place apart. Island people are, to a degree, people apart. If just visiting an island can make you feel some of the same sensations of being on a boat at sea, it stands to reason that living on an island must have some lasting effect.

Although I’m only here briefly, my excursion to Lewis has served as a useful and timely reminder that Scotland is neither wee nor homogeneous. By many measures, ours is actually a middling-size nation. Somehow, a two and three-quarter hour ferry journey is a more powerful reminder of how large Scotland is than a six hour road trip.

Experiencing the ‘empty’ spaces of Scotland, such as on the bus journey from Inverness to Ullapool and the crossing to Stornoway, also brings home the fact that Scotland is a land of dispersed and diverse communities. It must surely be a special force which binds those communities together into the nation we know Scotland to be.

Which, not at all coincidentally, is precisely what I was speaking about in Inverness on the first stop of my tour. And what I shall be speaking about in Tain tomorrow evening. If only somebody would remind me of the venue.

I always say, after these events, how stimulating, invigorating and inspiring they are. That’s because it’s invariably true. The gathering at Inverness Caledonian Thistle Social Club last Friday evening (2 March) was certainly no exception. I didn’t do a head count, but there must have been forty or fifty people there. Men, women of all ages, and even a few children. A mixture of Yes campaign activists from various parties and organisations as well as individuals who came along just . All engaged, informed and enthusiastic.

It was a crowd which, in its way, was as diverse as Scotland’s communities. Just as those communities come together around the idea of Scotland the nation, so the Yes movement comes together around a shared commitment to the cause of protecting and improving that nation.


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Highlands & Islands Tour

As some of my readers may be aware I do occasional personal appearances speaking to  Yes groups, SNP branches, public meetings or empty rooms about the independence campaign and issues pertaining thereto. Mostly, I’ll be making the case for a new independence referendum in September 2018. But I’ll be eager to hear the views of others.

At present, I’m working on putting together a wee tour taking in as much of the Highlands & Islands as possible in the space of a couple of weeks in March and on a budget of three shillings and eleven pence.

This post is intended to provide updates on my itinerary. Partly because one or two people may be interested. Mainly because writing it all down helps me keep track of whatever it is I have instead of a plan.

It all kicks off in Inverness on Friday 2 March. The intention is to travel north to Scrabster – with a couple of stops on the way – from where I’ll take the ferry to Orkney on Wednesday 7 March for a couple of days before heading to Shetland from Friday 9 – Sunday 11 March.

If any one has suggestions for places to visit, please let me know – peterabell@gmail.com.

#Referendum2018 – This time it’s urgent!

Friday 2 March
Inverness
Inverness Caledonian Thistle Social Club – 18:30

Saturday 3 March
Stornoway
tbc

Sunday 4 March
Stornoway
tbc

Monday 5 March
Tain
tbc

Tuesday 6 March
Thurso
Pentland Hotel – 19:00

Wednesday 7 March
Kirkwall
The Garden Room, King Street Halls – 19:00

Thursday 8 March
Kirkwall
?

Friday 9 March
Lerwick
Lerwick Hotel (tbc)

Saturday 10 March
Lerwick
Islesburgh Community Centre – 11:00 (SNP Branch Meeting)
Islesburgh Community Centre – 19:00 (hosted by INDY2 and supported by Shetland WFI)

Sunday 11 March
Lerwick
Lerwick Hotel, Lighthouse Suite – 15:00

Monday 12 March
Aberdeen
tbc

Tuesday 13 March
Elgin
The Inkwell – 19:00

Thursday 15 March
Portree
Tigh an Sgire – 19:30

Watch this space.


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