In Annan museum, children are huddled over a cabinet containing flotsam and jetsam thrown up by the high tide on the beaches of the Solway Firth. There are razor shells, cuckoo ray egg cases and the skull of a grey seal along with bottle tops and other testaments to man’s carelessness. But there have been other, more unexpected finds too: a letter in a bottle and a paddling of rubber ducks which crossed the Irish Sea after being released into the Liffey.
The Strandlines exhibition is an effective metaphor for the country at large; outside, it is a dazzlingly bright day, but shifting political tides are transforming the landscape. In Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, where Annan is situated, Conservatives are trying to stabilise support for their only Scottish MP – David Mundell, whose 4,000-plus majority is being eroded and may be swept away by the SNP surge. Elsewhere, rising nationalist waters have tossed a strange new species on to the shoreline: the tactical voter who is prepared to sacrifice long-held political affiliations for the wider cause of the Union. As polls forecast an SNP rout, previously unthinkable alliances are being forged. Lifelong Conservative voters have committed themselves to campaigning for and putting their cross beside their Labour or Lib Dem candidate and vice versa in the hopes their own party will benefit from a reciprocal sacrifice in another constituency.
Take Gordon Bond. The 32-year-old wants another Tory government, but will grit his teeth and vote for Tom Harris, the only unionist MP with any prospect of winning Glasgow South, on 7 May. “I’m not going to lie to you, there will probably be a moment of doubt when I go into the booth,” he says. “But I will do it because I don’t believe having SNP MPs elected to Westminster is in the best interests of the country.”
Bond, an amateur comedian who sends up his fogeyish dress sense and turn-coat status at open mic sessions, is imbued with conservative sensibilities; he believes the Tories have rescued the economy (the call centre where he works as a compliance manager has just taken on 100 new staff) and says the SNP paints itself as a progressive party while backing reactionary policies such as a national database. Like many others, he salves his conscience by canvassing for Conservative candidates in other constituencies and looks to the recent YouGov poll which showed the strategy could save up to a dozen unionist MPs to reassure himself he is doing the right thing.
Still, he must be envious of people like Hannah Macgregor who – as a young Tory living in Mundell’s constituency – can vote with her head and her heart. At 18, Macgregor is a first-time general election voter, yet, as the daughter of a Tory councillor, she has been campaigning for the party for half her life. She has already notched up two selfies with David Cameron – “he was chatty, easy to get on with” – and manned a campaign stall in Lockerbie town centre.
At a coffee shop in Annan, where Robert Burns was once an exciseman, the law student credits the government with having lifted the economy out of recession. “I agree with its stance on taxes – I feel the middle classes were taxed too highly under Labour,” she says. “Cameron has brought up the minimum wage, though not so much that it hurt small businesses, and has helped reduce unemployment. It’s good to know, if we continue down the same path, there will be a job for me when I finish my degree.”
Many of her former Lockerbie Academy classmates are voting SNP or Green, but Macgregor, who works in Ralph Lauren, also has Conservative-voting friends. “I know the SNP will make gains, but David Mundell is hard-working and deserves to be re-elected. I hope enough people will keep supporting him.”
Mundell has been the country’s only Conservative MP since 2005 – a fact that has heightened the perception that the Tories are irredeemably toxic in Scotland. In fact they were the most popular party in the 1950s – and, though they haemorrhaged support during the 1990s and 2000s – 413,000 Scots still voted for them in 2010. In parts of the Central Belt it is social suicide to admit to Tory leanings, but Ruth Davidson has boosted the party’s credibility even there. In rural Scotland, there are still Conservative heartlands, and those who have voted Tory all their life are finding their convictions strengthened by the threat of the SNP.
Originally from England, horse breeder Willie Morgan married into the Brooks family, who own the 9,500-acre Hoddom and Kinmount estate near Lockerbie, and now farms 560 acres of it with his wife Nicola. Dressed in pink slacks and a sweater, he gives me a guided tour, taking me to the byre where recently delivered Aberdeen Angus calves and their mothers are being housed, and allowing me to stroke hand-reared black Welsh Mountain lambs. On a bridge over the River Annan, where sunbeams dance on the fast-flowing water, he says visitors pay £35 for a day’s fishing, and points out the caravan park which the family also owns.
Back indoors, his large living room is a hotch-potch of nick-nacks and trinkets, so crammed with lamps and figurines and bottles of alcohol, it is impossible to take it all in. On a table, old photographs are displayed less as mementoes of family life than as proof of heritage, and a cushion bearing the image of a fox and the message “Bollocks to Blair” – a reference to the hunting ban – is one of many strewn on his sofa.
Morgan, who counts Whig MPs amongst his forebears, describes himself as a Tory wet, a pro-European Conservative, who believes Scotland is at its best when it looks outwards rather than inwards on itself. “The referendum seems to have polarised opinion so much it’s almost a mass hysteria for the nationalists and there doesn’t seem to be an examination of policies,” he says. “It’s the same phenomenon that’s happening with Ukip in England, which I equally dislike, in that they’re just being seen as the anti-party.”
Morgan says that while Scots have always gone out into the world and achieved things, the SNP has a narrow “we want what we own and nobody else can have it” attitude. As an estate owner, he is particularly concerned about its stance on land reform. He feels threatened by suggestions that long-standing tenants, who farm half of the Hoddom and Kinmount estate, could be given the absolute right to buy.
“They are doing this from a position of ideology. They are fighting the Clearances of 200 years ago – this vision of the landlords throwing the poor widow out of her house – even though most tenants [those with pre-2003 tenancies] have absolute security of tenure.”
Morgan says the spectre of a forced sale somewhere down the line means he is reluctant to take on new tenants, which limits opportunities for young farmers. “Imagine you are a 25-year-old straight out of agricultural college: you can’t afford to buy your own farm so you start off renting. The left – quite rightly – says it wants more social mobility, but if there are no tenancies, it will be impossible to become a farmer unless you are born into a farming family.”
Beyond his personal concerns, Morgan echoes a more general sense of abandonment experienced by people in rural areas who have poor infrastructure, transport services and broadband, and says many people feel Holyrood is as distant as Westminster.
In the market towns of Dumfriesshire, no-one sees any need to lower their voice while admitting Tory affiliations. As people talk of their desire for a Conservative government, some themes recur: a belief in the importance of balancing the books, a resistance to state interference and a visceral fear that too much support for the SNP will lead to another referendum.
In Moffat, locals and holidaymakers are licking ice creams, their peace interrupted only by the roar of low-flying Tornados. At a table outside Cafe Ariete, Katrina Robb is no great fan of David Cameron, but feels more in tune with the Conservatives than any other party. “[Cameron] keeps telling us he’s one of the people and we all know he’s not,” she says. “But then Ed Miliband – he stabbed his brother in the back and, if he can do that, what else can he do? And I have no time for Nicola Sturgeon. I read an article where she said the only thing that drove her in politics was her hatred for Margaret Thatcher, and yet her parents bought their own council house.” If the Conservative government gets back in, she wants to see more done to crack down on global tax avoiders and more support for ex-soldiers.
Peter Downham, proprietor of the Fairy Croft, a shop full of incense, dream-catchers and hand-crafted pixies, is an Army veteran who served in the first Gulf War. Today, he is sporting a rainbow cheesecloth smock and a plaited goatee, and is gearing up to take his goods to the summer festivals. He has always been a Tory voter, but is going to sit this one out on the grounds of political disaffection; he recently had a dispute with the local council over the brightness of his emporium and is annoyed that nothing has been done about an adjacent eyesore.
“Mundell might lose his seat; it might go to Labour or Green or whoever. To me it doesn’t make a difference who gets in because they’re not doing anything. Once they get in they’re not interested in us little people, just in their pot of gold.”
At the Singing Potter, at the other end of the main street, a cynic might suspect Gerry Lyons has been waiting to pounce on unsuspecting vox-poppers so he can save their souls in his kiln room. In a succession of former lives, the bearded artist has been a trainee priest, opera singer, the owner of a large pottery business and a married father of four. He broke most of the ten commandments, he says, before finding God and opening the Moffat shop, where he lives with his second wife.
Though he rejects materialism in favour of spirituality, Lyons says he will be voting Conservative. “It’s pretty obvious Labour borrows a lot of money, it gets us into a lot of debt and then the Conservatives come in and start paying it back and make people more responsible,” he says, “though the Labour government did a great deal for me because it gave me my education free, so there’s something to be said for both parties.”
In between evangelising, he finds time to vent his spleen at the SNP. Much taken with Biblical smitings, he opposes the party’s policy on Trident. “This is just sheer folly. Elsewhere governments have the power to control things with nuclear weapons. We need a deterrent.”
There is a pattern emerging: so many Conservatives – Macgregor, Morgan, Lyons – voice admiration for Scottish labour leader Jim Murphy and/or some Labour values, while railing against the SNP; it seems coming together to campaign for the Union has led to a mutual respect in the face of a common enemy.
“It’s got to the stage that if you see a Labour poster in a window you almost cheer because at least they are sticking to their principles and not [getting caught up] in this nationalist surge,” says Morgan.
This is most true of the tactical voters. Bond, a member of United Against Separation, talks of the pleasure of campaigning with people from different backgrounds.
Jamie Donaldson, a structural engineer in the oil industry who lost his job when the oil price fell, is so opposed to the SNP he is not only campaigning for Melanie Ward, the Labour candidate for Glenrothes and Central Fife, but would rather Miliband became prime minister as he believes another Tory government would play into nationalist hands. Asked if they are cynical, the tactical voters say they are voting according to their conscience, it’s just their conscience tells them to put their country before their party.
Still, it must be demoralising for Conservatives, knowing that in most of Scotland they stand little chance of ever seeing a candidate they actually support gain power. The latest Ashcroft poll suggests Mundell will lose his seat, although the Tories could take Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk from the Lib Dems.
But Morgan believes even if they suffer a wipeout, it will still be worth promulgating Tory values.
“I guess when the Conservatives were hugely popular and the SNP was a tiny force, it still thought its cause was worth fighting for. It will be the same for us.”