The head of security at St Andrews University took the step of advising Dr Gavin Bowd on his personal safety following the vitriolic online reaction to an article he wrote, in Scotland on Sunday, exploring Scotland’s relationship with fascism.
The revelation that the university had taken the precautionary measure came last night as the Yes Scotland chief strategist warned campaign supporters that those who “let poison drip through their keyboards” are one of the biggest barriers to referendum success.
Writing in his blog, Stephen Noon said voters would be “turned off by the slightest whiff of the sort of poisonous anger that can drip out of parliament or from a computer keyboard”.
Noon issued the warning at the end of a week that saw vicious cyber-attacks against the comedienne Susan Calman after she satirised the independence debate on BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz.
SNP and pro-Union politicians condemned the insults hurled at Calman by anonymous bloggers and posters, some of whom accused her of hating her country.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Bowd said he received “common sense” tips from the university security chief that included “looking out for people who are looking out for you”.
He said he was told to “look out for pinch points. You might be going to a lecture, leaving a lecture. There may be someone who’s waiting to get you. So there was all that very practical information on how to look after yourself.”
The head of security also asked Bowd if he wanted to get in touch with the police. The academic said he would in order to be “safe rather than sorry”. He was then contacted by an officer, who told him to alert the police if he experienced anything suspicious.
St Andrews University acted after an article that Bowd wrote previewing his new book, Fascist Scotland, was published in Scotland on Sunday last month. The article looked at little-known stories of aristocratic Scottish right-wingers and their fascist tendencies. It also referred to links between Scottish nationalism and Nazism during the Second World War.
But it was his bracketing of the SNP in a “nationalist family” which included the BNP – the extreme right-wing group that bears no relation to Alex Salmond’s party – that most infuriated some independence supporters.
“I am not Scotland’s Salman Rushdie, at least not yet. But it was considered serious enough that this had to be done [getting advice],” Bowd said.
“It didn’t come from me, but it was considered bad enough by our press officer at the university to get in touch with our head of security. When you are dealing with these hard men hiding behind a laptop then it starts to get quite sinister.”
Bowd said he was speaking out because he felt his cyber-critics ought to be challenged.
“The level of debate is pretty frightening and these people are behaving in exactly the same way as the people they are disassociating themselves with, which is very authoritarian, very intolerant, very xenophobic,” he said.
The SNP has pointed out that its opponents in the independence debate have also been guilty of peddling online abuse.
SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon has had death threats on Twitter, while Alex Salmond’s father has also been the subject of “appalling remarks”.