Tucked away in woodland four miles from Selkirk, the 16th century fortress of Aikwood Tower looks out towards Ettrick Water. For almost 20 years, it was the family home of Sir David Steel, and a hub of political debate. In those days, this part of the Borders, with its crafts and common ridings, was a Liberal/Liberal Democrat stronghold; a settled patch of orange on Scotland’s shifting electoral map. Today, though, Aikwood Tower has been converted into five-star accommodation; and once-loyal Lib Dem voters are transferring their allegiance elsewhere.
As constituency boundaries and the political landscape altered, the Lib Dem figures who once held sway – MPs Steel and Michael Moore, and MSPs Jeremy Purvis and Euan Robson – were displaced by the Conservatives and the SNP. In 2011, the newly formed Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale was won by SNP candidate Christine Grahame, while the newly formed Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire was won by Conservative candidate John Lamont. Having been narrowly defeated by SNP candidate Calum Kerr in last year’s general election, however, Lamont faces tough opposition from former SNP Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, on 5 May. Meanwhile, the current odds on a Lib Dem victory are the same as Labour’s: 100/1.
On a nose-numbingly cold day, Selkirk doesn’t appear to be in the grip of a political revolution. With its statues of Walter Scott, a one-time sheriff-depute of these parts, and of Fletcher, a hero from the Battle of Flodden, it’s a town that cleaves to the past. Two shop fronts have photomontages of the Queen’s life complete with Happy 90th Birthday banners. Charity shop Scott’s Selkirk also boasts a four-tier cake topped with a crown. Behind its counter, Liz Lothian, a Tory, can sense the winds of change. “I live in a street where I am one of the few non-SNP voters,” she says. “Most of my friends are voting SNP. And my husband.”
At the Court House Coffee Shop, Graeme Huggan is drinking tea. With his hat and cane, he looks every inch the country gent; until you spot the SNP badge on his fleece. A self-described maverick, Huggan was born into a Tory-leaning, Daily Telegraph-reading household, but his political sensibilities were changed by the years he spent in London and Wales.
“While working for a printing firm in Mayfair. I used to walk into Curzon Street and see beautiful ladies coming out of afternoon clubs. They were beautiful because they didn’t have to work for a living,” he says.
“Then I married a lady from coal mining stock and spent time in the Welsh valleys. And I saw what people went through there.
“I have been around. If things are socially wrong you vote the party that wants to do something about it. That has been the Labour Party; it’s now the SNP.”
Despite being a Souter (the name given to people from Selkirk) by birth, Huggan is ambivalent about the town, which he describes as cliquey and run by craftsmen, businessmen, landowners and Freemasons. “The people here were always Tories at heart even when they were voting Liberal or Lib Dem. There was a loyalty vote for David Steel, though it is questionable whether he did anything for the Borders, apart from saying: ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for tea’,” he says riffing on Steel’s famous speech to the Liberal Assembly in 1981.
A few feet along the High Street, I meet Bill Herd. He’s wearing a red tie with blue horses on it. “Alex Salmond has the same one,” he says, beaming.
Herd was a Liberal/Liberal Democrat for 34 years, and represented the party on Borders Council from 1993 to 1999. Now he is an SNP councillor. So why the change of heart? “I’ve no idea why I was a Liberal Democrat,” he chuckles. “When Jo Grimmond was in charge, there was a profit-sharing element which I liked. They approximated the kind of socialist principles I believe in. They were a progressive party, but they aren’t now.”
As you would expect, Herd believes the SNP has been good for the Borders; he says more schools and public sector houses have been built since 2007 and that the Borders Railway has boosted tourism. When I suggest the railway came courtesy of the Lib Dems, he snorts and says: “The only railway Jeremy Purvis ever built is the Hornby set in his attic.”
Of course, all this is in the town; the Borders countryside is dotted with farms whose owners may be more Conservative or Lib Dem-minded.
“My in-laws are farmers,” says Kieran Cooney, who works in sports development. “They are Tories and I will vote that way too, purely to support their interests.”
Nevertheless, most people concede the momentum is with the SNP. In his garden on a slope overlooking work on the town’s flood prevention scheme, Morris Manson has put up a large Liberal Democrat sign. He used to be a member of the party, standing twice, unsuccessfully, as a councillor. “One of the times, I was caned. Every circus needs its clown,” he says.
Manson hasn’t been a member for years, but still relates to the party’s policies. “They stand for fairness, openness, tolerance. They would have to do something pretty drastic for me to stop supporting them now.”
Manson – a former potter, actor, nurse and artist – is painting when I knock on his door; sadly, there’s little demand for his bright geometric works in the drawing rooms of Selkirk. “Please reassure me I’m not the only Lib Dem you’ve met,” he says. “Or I’ll feel like the only gay in the village.”
Manson is suspicious of the SNP. He doesn’t like its centralising tendencies nor the way “we seem to be becoming a one-party state”. With typical Lib Dem magnanimity, however, he doesn’t begrudge the SNP its moment in the sun. “I look at the rallies and they are all good, ordinary folk. Have they been taken in? I don’t know: who am I to judge?
“The Lib Dems had a good run here, maybe this is just the SNP’s day. If so, God bless ’em. Let’s see what they do with it.”
The candidates for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire are: Labour, Barrie Cunning; Liberal Democrats, Jim Hume; Conservatives, John Lamont; SNP, Paul Wheelhouse