Political chattering classes may obsess about their differences but let us remember an older and wiser Scotland, writes Alf Young
WE HAVE been in Argyll for the past week. In the kind of unaccustomed heat I last experienced in May last year when my older son Ewan and I traversed Scotland in temperatures of 30 degree-plus researching the wee book we were about to write, The New Road, about how Scotland’s inspirational communities, from Dunbar to Knoydart, are taking more control of their own lives.
We have come, Carol and I, to revisit favoured old haunts in the company of the new addition to our family, our ten-month-old whippet. For no particular reason, perhaps the unintended pun in his name, I wanted to call him Claude. We’ve all been having a ball, literally. I’ve just about managed to teach him how to drop one tennis ball, so I can throw a second in the hope he will, as he sometimes now does, catch it before it hits the ground.
Earlier he had a whale of a time with two lurchers on a local estate. Afterwards, walking along the shore, the other dogs joined us. Much racing through the yellow flag and competitive twists and turns ensued. Only exhaustion brought their raw canine pleasure to a close. But, in terms of human activity, the burning sun in Argyll has seemed, throughout our stay, quite unmatched by the scale of human engagement.
Many hotels and boarding houses in Oban still host vacancy signs. Eating places, despite the superb sea food on offer, seem far from overwhelmed. The vital small inter-island ferries are quiet too. The day we arrived we ate at the pub by the Clachan Bridge to Seil. It was so busy it had run out of glasses and ice. But that was because of a wake for a local fisherman, lost alone at sea, his body never recovered, his boat lying in eighty metres of water. Later I asked a barman elsewhere what kind of season he was experiencing. “What do you think,” he replied. “Look around you. It’s the recession isn’t it.”
We spent part of Tuesday re-exploring Kilmartin, the wide, gentle strath north of the Crinan Canal that can justly lay claim to being one of the key seats of civilisation in what we now call Scotland. Together we explored again the five chambered cairns and the related stone circles that stretch over a couple miles or more, in a line down Kilmartin Glen. We journeyed, in sun-kissed late July, as we did later at that garden, virtually alone.
By well into the afternoon we had met a French family, some Germans and a lone Scotsman, from Forfar, visiting the area for the very first time. We were more than happy to have the magical Temple Wood stone circles to ourselves. But shouldn’t more Scots, particularly now that what it means to be Scottish is the prescribed topic of political debate, be intrigued by the kind of people who won such status in early bronze age Scotland, some 2,000 years before Christianity, that they were buried with such extravagant ceremony?
The Kilmartin Trust is an exemplary community initiative. Its new guide to walks in and around Kilmartin Glen, In the Footsteps of Kings, published last year, is a superb introduction to the numerous neolithic treasures of Mid-Argyll. Its museum and cafe, in the former manse of the local church, offer sustenance for the brain and the stomach and bring enormous credit to all who work there.
However bus parties who never quite make it beyond the fine display of medieval stones in the church graveyard don’t quite match the significance of what is on offer here. An intriguing glimpse of what human forces helped shape these lands. How, way back then, Irish-style food beakers and jet jewellery – nearest source, Whitby on the Yorkshire coast - found their way into these funeral chambers. So much for drawing lines on maps to define nascent identity.
There’s been some talk among those with whom I share these pages, and in the comment that follows, about which political traditions – socialist or nationalist or whatever– define us as a people. A day spent exploring the treasures of Kilmartin Glen should be enough to convince any rational observer that the schisms of 20th- and 21st-century party politics are but a scratch on the rump of our shared history. A few paragraphs in a much, much longer narrative.
Perhaps that helps explain why, more than half way through our historic three-year national conversation, Scotland’s independence debate feels so desperately flat. One thing about having a dog is that lots of people want to talk to you. No-one, this past week, has even raised the independence question with us. We expected to see lots of saltires flying around Argyll. In truth there seem to be fewer fluttering than there used to be.
Despite all attempts to characterise the Yes campaign as one of hope and aspiration over relentless negativity elsewhere, opinion is broadly stuck where it was at the start. In response, the form of independence on offer has narrowed significantly. In his recent Nigg speech, Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, revealed himself as five-sixths a unionist. In favour of five continuing unions. Against just one. The Yes campaign better watch out or, before we all get to vote, it will have become the almost better together campaign.
Meanwhile if, despite those long sunny days we’ve all been soaking up, Argyll fails to attract the visitor numbers it needs to thrive and prosper, the economic fragility of much of Scotland’s western seaboard will become even more pronounced than it already is. And the trend of decades past, the steady drip, drip, drip of people – particularly young people – leaving, will simply accelerate.
More and more of the resident populations in villages in Argyll look and feel like retirement communities. And as these people age, servicing the health and care needs they generate over such an extensive, sparsely-populated terrain, will become another increasingly daunting challenge. Such challenges have prompted local authorities in the western and northern isles to intervene in Scotland’s constitutional debate, seeking a more productive dialogue with national politicians about greater devolution of power and responsibility to those who choose to live and work around Scotland’s peripheries.
There are other challenges too. Where we are in Argyll, mobile signals have proved elusive. The nearest mast is on Mull. Hills get in the way between it and us. Finding access to the internet when you need it can be challenging too. Glasgow is less than three hours away by car. Edinburgh four and a bit. But the distance from the political and commercial heart of Scotland can feel very much further than that.
The recent challenge from Stornoway, Kirkwall and Lerwick will find strong, resonant echoes the length and breadth of Scotland’s fragile western periphery. When is the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future going to address the hopes and fears of those Scots who live in its beautiful, furthest flung edges?