First, a word about Argyll. It’s unfashionable to link something as seemingly banal as landscape to issues of politics. Politics is supposed to be about the government, about process and rights and we separate it from sentiment because emotion has no place in our judgment about the way we want our society to work.
Well, as I’ve said before, I don’t agree with this cold reading of our affairs, firstly because it’s not the way I feel but mostly because it isn’t true. Almost every lesson of psychology when it is linked to decision-making betrays the truth – that we all follow our heart when asked to decide. We are more likely to support people we like and will seek ways of justifying our decision against logic if necessary. We want what makes us feel good, not necessarily what is good for us. (I may be bastardising David Hume a bit).
These sentimental reasons reinforce our opinions and explain why an optimistic campaign is trumping a negative one. It is a major element of my politics and was never stronger than in the weeks before the 1997 general election when I travelled around Scotland to produce a light-hearted on-air diary about the campaign going through our deprived inner-city areas, down to Berwick and the Border, over to Ayr, Aberdeen and up to Portree. It was in seeing Scotland as it really is, with its the breadth of physical landscape, watching towns come to life in the early morning and speaking to the shopkeepers and customers, office workers and cleaners that I got a rounded view of our country. We all have our own Scotland, our individual little bit, but it was in seeing it on a universal scale that my eyes were opened. From the high rise flats in Springburn to returning via the north of Skye with its rock towers I had a powerful sense of belonging and a conviction that no matter how varied the environment, we are one.
The A82 out of Glasgow always brings a shiver of excitement, up through Glencoe, and the Corran Ferry drops us in Ardnamurchan. When I first went there 25 years ago it was a revelation – single-track roads, sheep wandering in front, tree-topped rocks and miles of bogland. Much remains of course but every mile or so there is development…new houses, many wood-fronted, Scandinavian-style brightly painted with porticoes and balconies, an attractive new primary school, there is the distillery newly-built and a new store expected in Acharacle by the summer. There has been upgrading at the Salen Hotel, at the Community Centre in Kilchoan and the Post Office Team Room in Archaracle. There is a sense of activity and vibrancy.
As well as traditional voices, there are many English accents as people relocate for a different way of living. European money is funding some of this and EU rules affect business. When we met Fergie Macdonald, the Ceilidh King, at Mingarry, he showed us around the family venison business that looks like a hut by the side of the road but inside, as European rules demand, is as scrubbed and organised as an operating theatre. He’s a man of some character and could be the advertising front man for Ardnamurchan and Moidart. Anyway, I left with two steaks and a set of antlers.
If anything encapsulates the bleakly beautiful and unyielding nature of the West Coast it is, for me, Castle Tioram on Loch Moidart. It sits stubby on the rock promentary, totally exposed and defiant, broad-shouldered and built for defence without compromise except for the addition of two upper floor turrets from the 17th century, like earrings on a shaven-headed thug. This is an ancient keep, not a crenelated fairy tower – a no-nonsense, fuck off Scottish castle. It makes me proud just to look at it.
For some reason though it is being allowed to crumble into the sea having been judged bizarrely as too valuable a ruin. Couldn’t the work along the coast at Mingary Castle be used as a model. The Trust there has a 999 year lease and is returning it to its proper condition and will add tourist facilities, if the money can be raised.
By the way the distillery is the work of Better Together donor Donald Houston who owns the Ardnamurchan Estate. He seems to be very active in developing the business side of the estate from what I saw. I’m not sure myself how a man who can afford to put £500,000 into a political campaign needs £1.8m in taxpayers money for a business venture but HIE will know the answer to that. There’s no missing Donald’s proud British loyalties when you visit Glenborrodale Castle, his luxury lodge overlooking Loch Sunart – he has a giant Union Jack up the flagpole on the front lawn…how we laughed.
Donald’s doing his bit locally no doubt but I recall on my first foray to the far west, the same estate was owned by General Accident. Yes, a London insurance company, cash-rich from the Thatcher boom, owned tens of thousands of acres of our country as a wilderness hideaway for its busy executives and their clients. It’s only a question of money, not of entitlement or of rights, that’s what determines who owns Scotland. Today it’s Donald Houston and in ten years time? Let’s hope the next Scottish government gets serious about land reform and opens it up to more democratic approaches instead of leaving the lives and employment of so many in the hands of the laird. (Do you think this may be a reason Donald is so keen for Scotland to vote No?)
Our journey west was a reminder of what a magnificent country this is and why it is a ridiculous farce that we don’t run it for ourselves. With independence we can be even more enterprising and add fairness and equality to economic development.