Martyn McLaughlin climbs the Campsie Fells with The Hills Have Ayes group, a pro-independence band of strangers united by a desire to conquer geology and boost a Yes vote
If sheep could talk, or at least offer an encouraging bleat in the right direction, life on the southern foothills of the Campsie Fells would be immeasurably easier. Dense tangles of bracken and rabbit holes render every step treacherous, while the unforgiving slope cascading sharply towards the farmlands north of Kirkintilloch punish all but the surefooted. Chris, a former advertising man turned locksmith, has already tumbled three times and the sign is still one letter short. “The Y’s in four or five sections, so it’s not the easiest,” he shouts over, pulling and tugging at a long slither of white fabric. In the distance, a flock of six Scottish Blackface shoot their best impassive gaze. “It’s alright for them, eh?” puffs Chris, grabbing again at the material as it catches a clump of gorse.
He is one of a group of strangers united by a desire to conquer geology and the very worst elements summoned by a Scottish summer to erect a vast sign, visible from villages, towns and roads from miles around stretching all the way to the northernmost hinterlands of Glasgow where the monolithic superstructures of the remaining Red Road Flats jut out from the horizon like Lego bricks discarded by a giant toddler. Some 65 metres long by 30 metres high, the sign has three letters and spells out one word, its message as pure and elementary as the air on the Campsies itself: ‘YES’.
It is the magnum opus of The Hills Have Ayes, a coltish collective of activists who have spurned leaflets, placards and other traditional paraphernalia of political campaigning in favour of altogether grander intentions. Armed with swaths of white, permeable geotextile, mallets, tent pegs and boundless enthusiasm, they have conceived a Caledonian-infused Situationist response to the question we all face come a week on Thursday, diligently appropriating the very earth on which the referendum is being waged to transform hillsides and moorlands into sweeping canvases for their pro-independence communiqué.
Under slate grey skies and a rising brume that forms a wall of smirr as it hits the volcanic range, they have allowed me to witness their most onerous endeavour yet. Shortly after 10am on a Friday morning, I am waiting at the so-called car park in the sky, a slither of tarmac hugging a hairpin bend on the B822 as it snakes north from Lennoxtown to Fintry, when I hear the putter of an approaching engine. Moments later, a tumbledown vintage Volkswagen camper van appears over the brow and parks up alongside me. Were it not for foreknowledge, I’d expect Shaggy, Fred, Velma and a relieved Great Dane to come pouring out the side door.
As it turns out, there is no mystery. The Ayes want only to sway those voters in East Dunbartonshire who are as yet undecided and perhaps have a little merriment along the way. Inside the van, which houses a working oven, an old CB radio and a handbrake that groans uneasily on the slightest of gradients, one of the group’s most experienced members gathers the uninitiated for a quick briefing, dishing out bottles of water, packets of crisps and Penguin biscuits by the way of fuel.
“The ethos we go by is to get up there, put the sign up, and hang around for a while having fun and making an impact, but if there’s any complaints or confrontation, we take the sign down as we tend to ask for forgiveness rather than permission,” explains Dave, an affable twentysomething Glaswegian, the veteran of seven previous YES sign installations. “But the fog’s pretty bad out there and I don’t want to pressure anyone into anything they’re not comfortable with,” he adds. “There’s no point people getting cold, miserable and slipping around if no one can see it.” No one in the van raises an objection, not even Stuart, a thoughtful young filmmaker valiantly attired in cut off shorts and trainers. The Ayes, it seems, have it.
There are eight volunteers gathered at the Crow Road car park today, but cumulatively, the group can call on a membership more than one hundred strong with thousands of other supporters on social media, remarkable figures considering it was founded in inauspicious circumstances just last month. The inaugural sign - measuring just 24 metres by 12 metres - was sited on the Kilpatrick Hills, but when its creator left to take photographs from the vantage point of the Erskine Bridge, a group of locals sympathetic to the continuation of the Union scurried up the hillside, trying in vain to turn it into a NO sign before tearing it up.
Since then, the efforts and locations have multiplied. In the Pentland Hills, a YES was erected at Hillend to the boastful claim that it measured twice the height of the famous Hollywood sign in the Santa Monica mountains. Above the village of Renton at Carman Hill, home to the ruins of a fort some believe once provided refuge to Robert the Bruce, the same three letters were sprawled out and pegged in to the terra firma, a sight repeated in Durness, Johnstone, Kilbarchan, Neilston and the Ochils.
One of the most high profile emblems to date was sited on the well-known pyramids running alongside the M8 at Bathgate where, Dave recalls, the response was overwhelming: “We thought the traffic might slow down a little but we didn’t expect people to come to a stop and get out of their cars to take photographs.” As well as the YES signs, the group was also responsible for perpetuating the time-honoured Glaswegian tradition of embellishing Carlo Marochetti’s equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington in Royal Exchange Square. Used to ordinary traffic cones, the two-time Tory prime minister found himself wearing a Yes cone, brandishing a flag to boot.
As time has gone on, other innovative approaches have taken root. In Largs, the Ayes enlisted the help of an electrical engineer to ensure not even nightfall could veil their message, thanks to a neon blue illuminated sign on a prominent hummock overlooking the North Ayrshire town. A few miles south, in the cold of the Firth of Clyde, one enterprising adherent swam out to affix the word to a rocky outcrop off Arran’s east coast. As word spreads and local Yes groups take it upon themselves to erect their own letters, the hills of Scotland are becoming increasingly alive with the sound of etymology.
For Dave, the momentum is validation for all those unforgiving slogs to summits around the central belt in the hope of making an incremental difference to the 18 September vote. “Our original aim was to try and reach undecideds but also potential Yes voters who are surrounded by No voters,” he reasons as we begin our tramp up the Campsies. “It’s a way of showing people the grassroots campaign is happening and that’s important. I’ve been out speaking to people as well as doing the Ayes stuff, and a lot of time, you’re the first other Yes person they’ve met.”
An unexpected and welcome offshoot of the group’s work, he says, has been the way it has geed on even the most active independence advocates as they near the conclusion of the longest political campaign in Scottish history. In turn, every email and message of support the Ayes receive via social media emboldens their belief that in some small, incongruous way, theirs is an influential and inspiring role. “It just takes off,” chips in Dave, another seasoned signwriter. “You can be halfway through putting a YES up and people are already sharing images on Twitter and talking about it.”
Laying the foundations for this discourse requires considerable graft. The sign at the Campsies, previously used in the Ochils, consists of around a dozen separate strips of Terram geosynthetic, each given a spray painted identifier - Y1 or E3, for example - and bound by blue polypropylene rope. A bulwark ordinarily used in construction and civil engineering projects, the Ayes procured their haul from a solicitous shop assistant in a branch of builders’ merchants, Jewsons. “The guy wouldn’t tell us which way he was voting but he gave us a good discount,” grins Dave through a bushy beard.
“Would it not be easier if you were on the side of the No campaign?” I ask Dave as he grabs an empty Highland Park box rattling with tent pegs.
“What do you mean?,” he asks.
“Well, they only have two letters compared to your three.”
“You’d think it would be easier,” he laughs. “But it’s much harder to do circles than straight lines.”
On the Campsies, an area has been chosen and mapped out several hundred feet above ground level. After humphing the textiles and tools up the terrain, the Ayes take a short breather, looking out through the clearing fog to Kirkintilloch, Lenzie, Bishopbriggs and beyond. It is an arresting vista and one which provides relief and invigoration in equal measure to the drookit party. Shortly after 11.20am, fortified by more biscuits, they dividing into two teams to begin the job proper. Chris, by virtue of working on the ‘E’ on his last deployment, is on vowel duties, aided by Helen, a native of Shettleston who proudly wears a ‘Cybernat’ badge and has taken Mac, her sheepdog, along for the ride. “I like your nail polish,” Chris tells her. “Aye, well it’s not going to last long up here,” she replies.
Stretching out the stem of the letter as Mac, his tail wagging, scampers underneath the fabric, Chris tells me the work of the Ayes symbolises the mood of the Yes campaign. “It accentuates the positives and there’s not been enough of that in the debate as a whole, especially with the negativity of the No camp.”
Helen agrees: “I was a member of the Socialist Labour Party when I was 15, but this is the most feelgood grassroots political campaign I’ve ever been involved in.” She pauses and smiles. “It beats being stuck in the hoose fixing my man’s cereal.”
Among the Ayes in attendance today is Allan, manfully working on the lower arc of the ‘S’. Unique among the group given that only a fortnight ago, he described himself as a “staunch” No supporter, his Damascene conversion was sparked by that much maligned Better Together campaign video featuring a housewife holding fort in her kitchen. Where he had hope for politics of empowerment, the film spread a message warning that politics was “scary and confusing.” Fortuitously, the Ayes chose the following day for their Duke of Wellington installation, encouraging Allan to switch allegiances.
“It was just one gesture but it showed that the Yes camp was more in touch with the electorate and was having more fun than the doom and gloom of No,” he says. “The visibility of the campaign changed my mind, it’s not tied to any one party and it feels like more of a movement than a political cause.” The realisation that his political ideology was misplaced was, adds Allan chastening but ultimately rewarding. “When nothing is for certain I think the possibility of better is better than the fear of worse,” he reflects.
With the ‘E’ and ‘S’ in place, the two teams reconvene to pool their efforts into the ‘Y’. It is the trickiest letter of the three, courtesy of some miscalculations that left its upper right branch three metres short. Some careful positioning, however, masks the shortfall and by 12.45pm, after nearly an hour and a half’s toil, the sign is complete. “YES!” the group cheer, standing on a crest admiring their handwork as a south-bound Easyjet flight passes over above, en route to Glasgow Airport. Later, a returning holidaymaker will post on their Facebook page revealing how she saw the sign from the skies.
Just a quarter of an hour later, news reaches of them of the first tweet, an image taken by a Lennoxtown resident that is spreading across social media. After what Dave describes as “by far the toughest” sign they’ve put up so far, the sense of accomplishment is keenly felt. In line with their environmentally conscious approach, the Ayes leave the landscape as they found it, and after an hour or so of taking photographs, they disassemble the sign before heading back down the hill to the van.
The Ayes, environmentally conscious, try to leave the landscape as they found it, and for the most part stay with a sign for a few hours before rolling it up and heading back to the VW camper van for a change of clothing and a trip to their ‘Yes factory’ in Glasgow’s west end to plan for their next expedition. Jewsons, it seems, can expect a windfall; with less than two weeks to go, their plans are ambitious and Dave hints at a “few wee special things” in store over the coming days.
There is a gleeful innocence to the work of the group that may well be viewed as agitprop naivety by some. But in a campaign that has too often been weighed down by a convoluted and irreconcilable web of claims and counter claims over issues such as currency and EU membership, how many of us could claim to have been genuinely inspired by the debate so far? The Ayes may have just the one word to say, yet they pronounce it with sincerity, enterprise and purpose.