Nearby, the front of a metal trailer is pulled up from the inside to reveal a tableau of domesticity. For a moment, it is reminiscent of the nativity: a figure asleep in a lowly shed, animals scattered here and there. But then, as blankets are peeled off, the scene comes into focus and a middle-aged man – weather-beaten and yawning – rubs his eyes, strokes his three dogs and gets ready to greet another day in IndyCamp Live.
This makeshift settlement dedicated to campaigning for a second referendum first appeared on a piece of land outside the Scottish Parliament at the tail end of November. For more than a week now, Garry – a pressure washer and painter, who eschews a surname – has been sleeping in his metal box, working during the day and returning at night when he and his fellow campers gather round a brazier fashioned from the drum of a washing machine. “The wind comes rushing through here,” he says, as he hammers a collapsed windbreak back into the ground with a mallet. “One night last week, I thought I was in a Rib Tickler because the trailer was rocking backwards and forwards on its wheels.”
In a caravan next to the trailer, Moira Williams is burning incense and boiling water on a small stove. Her own dogs – a pregnant Jack Russell called Ruby and a Parson Jack Russell called Flash – jump over the seats, brushing up against the beige velvet curtains as she hands round hot drinks. Williams recently gave up her job in a shopping centre to care for her agoraphobic son. Now she and her daughter Zoey are taking turns to spend the night in the caravan. They have no toilet facilities or running water, but they do have a generator, and last night Williams rustled up a red pepper omelette. “I can’t believe how quickly it’s all come together,” she says. “We’ve had people coming in to chat, people offering to take our dishes away and wash them, people inviting us to use their showers. A baker comes round every night and brings us cinnamon buns and bread and the local chip shop brings chips. There’s already a real sense of community.” Visitors so far have included a pensioner from Glasgow who has promised to bring chairs from his loft so they can all sit outside and a 90-year-old woman who insisted she was quite capable of making her own tea.
IndyCamp Live, which has no political affiliations or hierarchy, takes its inspiration from the five-year vigil carried out by the group Democracy for Scotland on Calton Hill from 1992 to the Yes-Yes vote in the devolution referendum in 1997. Like their predecessors, the organisers, who call themselves the People’s Voice, hope their camp will be a centre of creativity as well as a means of keeping independence on the radar. And like their predecessors, they have pledged to stay on the site until they achieve their goal.
Already the settlement is a-flutter with flags – the Saltire, the Lion Rampant and the Estelada (the flag flown by Catalonian separatists) – and there are Yes signs dotted here and there. Soon they will be joined by anti-Trident, anti-fracking, anti-the-bombing-of-Syria placards and a painter is coming to daub the Declaration of Arbroath on the side of the caravan. When a second caravan arrives, it will be used to host art and crafts classes. At night, strings of fairy lights give the camp the air of a Santa’s Grotto.
The catalyst for the Calton Hill vigil was the unexpected Conservative victory in the 1992 general election, which seemed designed to rub Scotland’s face in its perceived “democratic deficit”. IndyCamp Live, on the other hand, is something that has been bubbling away ever since last year’s No Vote, with every fresh political development – the Tory majority, the welfare cuts, Evel and the decision to launch air strikes on Syria – bringing it closer to fruition. If, like me, your hands turn into blocks of ice while visiting, you might question the sanity of embarking on such an adventure in the middle of winter, but those involved take a perverse pride in being “hardcore”, point out that wild winter camping is now considered a sport, and say the severe conditions are a test of people’s commitment. And they don’t really want hangers-on. Conscious of what’s at stake for the Yes movement, they have banned alcohol, put down pallets to protect the grass and made it clear that this is not somewhere folk can pitch up for a bevy and the craic. Not that it’s grim, they hasten to add. “Not watching television, not being bombarded with messages telling you to buy, buy, buy – just engaging in debate with interesting people. It’s great, “ Williams says.
IndyCamp Live is modelling itself on the Calton Hill vigil which itself was inspired by the camp set up by Poland’s Solidarity in the shipyards in Gdansk. The modern concept of staking a claim on land and creating a community as a form of activism has been going on since the late 60s and has taken on many forms. There have been the motorway protest camps, which saw eco-warriors climb trees to prevent them from being chopped down and anti-apartheid camps, which replicated the black/white divide to force people in the west to confront the inequity of the policy. The anti-nuclear movement brought us Greenham Common and our own Faslane peace camp – a splash of hippy-dippy psychedelia juxtaposed with the grey metal sprawl of the naval base. More recently, the anti-capitalist movement Occupy, with its sinister masks, focused attention on the global economic crisis.
There is also a history of using camps to campaign for self-determination, most notably the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – a cluster of tents first erected on the lawns of old Parliament House in Canberra in 1972 to protest against the government’s refusal to recognise indigenous land rights.
“Certainly that strategy of camping in front of the main government building is shared throughout the world,” says Dr Anna Feigenbaum, co-author of the book Protest Camps. “You can see Occupy Hong Kong in a similar vein because it was about democracy, voting rights, the right to have Hong Kong recognised.”
Democracy for Scotland’s vigil took place at the foot of Calton Hill opposite the Scottish Office, where politicians, such as Scottish secretaries Michael Forsyth or Donald Dewar, were often to be found milling around. Born out of a demonstration by the anti-Dounreay group Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace (SCRAM) against the lack of Scottish representation at Westminster, it initially consisted of people in sleeping bags. But a few weeks after it began, musician Pat Kane and others stumped up the money for a Portakabin which became a fixture on Regent Road. The day was divided into two-hour shifts, with campers also taking turns to sleep over.
Democracy for Scotland became known for the diversity of its support, which took in everyone from office workers to travellers. One of the most colourful characters was Lewis “the book” Livingston, who obsessively chronicled the comings and goings of the vigil in a notepad.
“It was very much what you’d cry a people’s organisation,” says writer and musician Stuart McHardy, who was one of the founding members. “If something had to be decided it was decided by whoever was round the fire at that particular time.”
McHardy recalls the goodwill the vigil engendered even from those who were not natural allies. “Quite early on, I was sitting on my own and this rather posh car – a Merc, I think – drew up and a lady of a certain age in a Jaeger suit with a blue rinse got out. She said: ‘I am a lifelong Tory voter, but I think what you people are doing is exemplary’ and stuck a £20 in the tin.”
People came from all over Scotland. “There was a core of us who bide close and who put in a phenomenal amount of time, but then others were travelling a long way to put in a few shifts so their commitment was just as deep.” To keep themselves entertained musicians would play and McHardy would give impromptu classes on Thomas Muir and John Maclean around the fire. A couple of times, they held a Not the Royal Garden Party.
Often, when they start out, camps like the one at Calton Hill are dismissed as fringe movements peopled by hippies, punks or dropouts, with mainstream campaigners faintly embarrassed by their presence even if they support the cause.
Alex Salmond was the only politician of any significance to do a stint in the Portakabin. “The only time we saw Donald Dewar was when he was walking in and out of the Scottish Office, drawing us dirty looks,” McHardy says. Sometimes the authorities will go so far as to try to force tents off their land as they did with the Occupy camp in St Andrew Square. Yet, according to Feigenbaum, senior lecturer at Bournemouth University, camps can bring about change. “The motorway protests in the 1990s did make a huge impact on reducing the amount of roads built. And studies have shown how Occupy changed the public discourse, with more people blaming bankers for the financial crisis,” she says.
Whether or not the Calton Hill vigil helped bring about the devolution referendum is a moot point, but it made it impossible for politicians to bury the issue as many would have liked. “When the [Yes-Yes] vote eventually came I felt relief – nae mair having to wash smelly claes,” McHardy says. “If you were up there for hours, you came home stinking and it ate into your life, but it was marvellous. We felt like we had achieved something.”
One of the most intriguing things about protest camps is how movements once seen as marginal worm their way into public affection and become woven into a country’s history. The Faslane peace camp used to be dismissed as a haven for bearded beatniks. Today it is difficult to imagine driving along the shores of Gare Loch without encountering the multicoloured railings.
After Scotland got its own parliament, the Democracy for Scotland vigil ended, but a cairn on Calton Hill commemorates its fidelity to the cause and documents and memorabilia related to its existence are now in the National Museum of Scotland.
“Camps show us what kinds of alternative worlds are possible. They are creative spaces where people are constantly making things, so new symbols and slogans come out of them,” says Feigenbaum. “That’s true of camps relating to Scottish independence too because people there are talking about why they want independence and what form it should take; they are exploring a shared vision and collective identity.”
At IndyCamp Live, the campaigners are just starting out on their journey. Whether they go the distance depends on lots of things, not least the attitude of the authorities. There have already been murmurs of dissent: they’re camping without permission, they’re preventing other people from using the space. The chief executive of the Scottish Parliament, Paul Grice, has said he is taking legal advice and is communicating with protesters through police liaison officers. But would Holyrood really want to get heavy with a bunch of tea-drinking independence supporters?
Later on, Calton Hill veteran McHardy pays a visit. “This is luxury compared to what we had – a 21st century vigil,” he says of the cosy caravan which provides a refuge as Storm Desmond rages. McHardy believes his successors have the right attitude. “They are responsible. They know they have to be in this together and they want it to be fun. Protest doesn’t have to be soor-faced.”
Clasping their mugs, the campaigners talk about everything: the monarchy, Syria, refugees and the need to take power away from the establishment and place it back in the hands of the people. Sometimes their conversation hovers on the edge of conspiracy theories, but they seem happy, liberated even, and you get the sense the camp is as much about escaping what they see as the aggressive soullessness of modern life as it is about self-determination. When I ask charity worker Barbara-Anne Haig if she’ll be having her Christmas dinner here, she says, no, her partner has put his foot down, but in a way that suggests she wants to and still might.
Certainly, members of The People’s Voice believe they’re in it for the long haul, Garry is talking about his friend, who can loan them a giant marquee. Williams says someone is bringing solar panels so they can stop burning fuel. Perhaps the movement will just peter out after the first burst of enthusiasm. But listening to their plans, it’s not unthinkable that there would come a time when IndyCamp Live had its own cairn marking its part in Scotland’s journey towards independence.