If anything was going to drag me out of blog hiding, little did I know it was going to be the Scottish Independence Referendum. I remember when I first heard about it, a little over two years ago. I was unclear what it would achieve. I guess if I’m totally honest I still am. Regardless of which way the vote goes, neither route’s lit up like a Christmas tree or marvellously easy to envisage without a leap of faith. Would this referendum, I wondered, create a notion of whether or not the country might want independence or Devo Max? Or, would it actually decide something real, like staying in the Union or scrutinising the first past the post voting system so we’d get a better representation of bums on seats MPs and MSPs?
Bit by bit I untangled the gist of it. I’m not quick on the uptake, generally speaking, but I am thorough in getting to it. It used to be the other way round but I perused garden centres much less then and had no concept I could ever be wrong about anything. Ah, the wonderful arrogance of youth, fresh from the arms of a self-esteem guru mother and free of any direct responsibility for others. But, as is also now typical of me, I digress.
Back to the point. It gradually became clear to me that in this referendum malarkey there would be just one question and two possible answers; should Scotland be independent, yes or no (and absolutely no maybe or Devo Max me please, baby).
And it was Devo Max I wanted. It was Devo Max I wanted ever since my proper political awakening in 1997 when my Mum burst into my room at 6.30am on the second of May to blurt to my twenty-one-year-old self in my single bed that the Tories were finished in Scotland.
I got out of bed and we jumped around my monochrome, 90s bedroom singing ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ and pulling stupid smiley faces. Not because we particularly loved Labour or Tony Blair mind, but because we felt entirely muted by Thatcher, Major, Edwina Currie et al. We’d felt like the baddies stuck in the mirror prison Phantom Zone in Superman – banging away on that unbreakable glass rhombus along with everyone else in Scotland who didn’t have land or title, seen but not heard, vaguely detectable on far stretch radar, totally forgettable on an everyday basis.
At last, we felt, Scotland had a speaker attached to our hifi and we might actually get to hear the audio rather than just see it looking awesome on the graphic equaliser digital display. And, post 97, we kind of got that. Scotland gradually got some more power. Holyrood got built amidst controversy over millions upon millions being spent on bizarre sticky things stuck to windows and grey concrete. And, to my surprise, I saw a building emerging that I loved; it was everything the establishment and government I’d known to date had never been. It was exciting, surprising, fresh, daring and a bit like a Banksy next to a Rembrandt. The vast merits of the old were undeniable in their wonder. Yet… the new was a bit cheeky, hugely thought provoking and fit for purpose as well as art. The water pools outside projected calmness, absorbing and diffusing some of the surrounding white noise of change grumblers by throwing out new reflections.
Above all, the new thing was relevant in a way the old thing never could be.
Since then though, it feels like the output from Scotland’s 90s hifi has been patchy at best with intermittent bouts of the wire falling out completely, exposing radio silence. We’ve been back in the Phantom Zone fairly regularly, most noticeably when other people’s votes decide our government. It’s an odd state of affairs given that in principle we’re a democracy. It’s a bit like being brought a life affirming coffee and Danish pastry only to remember you have a cold and won’t be able to taste anything. You get some benefit but the experience isn’t immersive. You kinda also know that ultimately the caffeine, sugar and fat are bad for you even though you’ve been conditioned to want their transitory highs then struggle to ignore the following lows.
Something else happened in 1997. The Isle of Eigg over and off Scotland’s west coast removed itself from long years of shambolic patriarchal private ownership by staging a community buyout that irrevocably changed the possible answers to the question; who owns Scotland?
The whole thing on Eigg would doubtless have completely passed my Aberdeen life by had it not been for one fact – the man I fancied like no man I’d fancied before lived on Eigg and worked with me in Aberdeen. I’d been out to Eigg with him and other friends. We’d partied on Eigg and I got to know people who lived there. I’d come across a way of living I’d never even known still existed the year before. Some people had no electricity in their homes. Others had no TV or phone. Mobile phone coverage and the birth of texting was exploding on the mainland but out on Eigg many people were still keeping a larder cold all year round rather than owning a fridge. Above all, what I learned in that time was something I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t really appreciated at all til then; Scotland is heart achingly, tear jerkingly, soul stirringly beautiful. Getting to Eigg, driving on roads I’d never seen and through glens I’d only vaguely paid attention to in films, I had a hot jab with the branding iron that is the reality of growing up and realising the world’s bigger than you. Scotland’s beauty got me. I fell in love with Eigg as well as one of its gorgeous residents and there was no turning back from there – their combined influence changed not just my heart but also my psyche. Reversing that process would be impossible; so far reaching was the impact on my neurons, their stored Kodak moments and the aftershocks of self-awareness melding to more world aware epiphanies too.
In the year before the Eigg buyout in June 1997 I watched bits of the fight that a huge amount of people on and off the island said wouldn’t be won. People argued and never without passion. Voices were raised, doors were slammed and phones were clattered back onto receivers with a lot of cursing. The stakes were high. If things went wrong no-one’s place on Eigg was assured, everyone’s connection to the island had the sudden potential of being threatened, spoiled or cut abruptly off. In a community already living in a reduced fashion, the fragility of the potential for success often felt palpable – as though the island’s very soul might start a lamenting song for its people from a beach, a bluebell wood or a chunk of foreboding basalt rock.
The media reported little and large accounts sporadically about what was going on with Eigg. Politicians, activists, Eigg fans and reporters turned up and made their personal investments or withdrawals depending on their understanding of the islander’s plight. I stood back and said little; I felt I understood so little and was terrified of some of the huge and voluble characters in discussion on the island. The campaign to save Eigg from private ownership was well underway, those at its heart had no time or energy to stop and explain its evolution to me or anyone else. I knew that just being there, having an occasional third row seat and seeing it unfold, I knew that was history in the making, that was privilege in the extreme. As the campaign moved towards its climax, it became clear that whichever way it went, nothing on Eigg would ever be the same again. Right up until the very last minute, no one could call it. I remember wondering if future trips to the island would feature a community or a place made more still and wild by becoming a nature reserve.
Worse, I could see the imminent threat of Eigg once again becoming someone’s beautiful private playground, only observable from a boat or long lens, the kapow of distant shot in the air and the audacity of rich men’s moneyed aura at a drawbridge pier.
My view from the sidelines was often narrated by Lesley Riddoch, a journalist and political activist who was on Eigg a lot helping lead the buyout campaign. Lesley had (and still has) a strong voice in the national press, informing everyone then who didn’t know about Eigg’s trouble why it was important in terms of history, present and future. Lesley’s explanations on and off the island let me understand the issue but other commentators lit fires of doubt, too. Could a wee, tiny island really take on a legal system that favours the rich? Could they ever win? Could they raise enough money to buy it and sustain it? These Eigg folk were wonderful and colourful but some of them could talk a fair amount of shite as well, in my previous opinion; there were unmitigated amounts of dream-catchers around the place after all, at least 4 in every home, and I was prejudiced about dream-catchers and what they said about their owners. Could power and responsibility really come in this ramshackle uniform? Didn’t it have to be wearing a suit, carrying a laptop and knowing what the FTSE 100 was, like in Aberdeen?
I projected my own identity crisis and lack of cohesive vision onto Eigg. Eigg projected back to me and anyone else who stood looking perplexed that it would do things exactly as it did things and to hell with conforming.
Good on you, Eigg.
Years later, Eigg’s gone on to not only be successfully owned by the community in partnership with The Scottish Wildlife Trust and The Highland Council, but also to be incredibly well organised and resourced too. Dream-catchers all round and yet now an incredible sustainable energy grid for all, a growing community, prospects for work on the island, phenomenal entrepreneurship. Goods and services being sent to the mainland before now boomerang back as pay packets.
Eigg hasn’t just made a success of its land reform journey and battle; it’s become an emblem of how determination and hard work mean more than fear, convention and red tape.
Eigg has become the spearhead other communities crushed by feudal ownership have used to pierce a hole in their own suffocating atmospheres. Sixteen years later everyone can look to see that not only has Eigg done it, Eigg has done it against all the odds and surpassing even their own hopes and dreams for what they set out to achieve. In fact, Eigg’s done it with bells on and six cherries on top. Every single one of us who doubted them has had to put their hands up and say we were wrong.
The impossible was, after all, possible. A beautiful lesson learned.
You can see how all of this is relevant to what’ll happen in nine days time. Here I am again observing history – here we all are. Here’s Lesley Riddoch saying, again, that it’ll be fine to make the leap and we just need to work hard and dig in. Here are the people around me again – some Scots, some English, some French, German, Welsh, Danish, Irish and a little bit of everything. The majority of them full of passion and fight and emotion and desires – half saying yes, half screaming no, everyone aware the stakes are so very high. Some – few – are disinterested and disengaged. They feel the referendum has little to do with them so they anaesthetise themselves from it with silence and changing of the subject. Here I am this time not living in Aberdeen but in Edinburgh, the iconic castle visible from my street and Arthur’s Seat constantly sticking up somewhere in my peripheral vision, letting me know whether I’m east, west, north or south of that beautiful Holyrood parliament building lying at its feet.
Here I am, again not knowing what the future will be and here I also am with a voting slip in hand but this time I have an opportunity, a right (and many would say an obligation) to be involved and cast my vote.
The only thought that’s been consistent in my decision making process is that I am beyond frustrated I can’t choose Devo Max. My voice about that has been put in the Phantom Zone. George Osborne’s removal of a third option from the ballot paper means come the 18th of September those myriad thoughts of everyone choosing to use their vote will all be squashed and simplified down one of two funnels – the yes or the no. I believe that most of us who vote will take our opinion and fold it very small indeed to reduce it to one tiny little word to go off and be counted. After the counting, those little, weeny words representing what each of us wanted (or least opposed) will pop back out like Jack-in-the-boxes, opinions streaming forth and unfolding multi-dimensionally once more, a cacophony of thoughts, frustrations and hopes masquerading as a bold sentiment or belief. Ironically, this situation may force another one way or the other vote in the near future – the Tories or UKIP. The Deep Blue Conservative Sea or the Purple tinted Devil of Farage & co. Like the referendum, it is a hell of a concept to pull the head around and an even more difficult decision to call in terms of possible consequences and impact.
Each of our own unique backgrounds mean we come up with our own unique opinions. I’m not going to tell you what to vote. If there’s one thing I hate more than dream-catchers it’s evangelism about anything. Evangelism assumes the person it’s trying to convert is missing information, wisdom or insight. Evangelism wants the unconverted to be like the converted. Evangelism says ‘if you’d be more like me, you’d be better’. What’s to love there? It’s not respectful or particularly complimentary to anyones abundant intelligence. All I can tell you is this is my story and it’s largely formed by listening to other people and assessing experiences as objectively as possible.
We each have to find our comfort zone in an uncomfortable zone. I feel the time’s come for me to be a little quieter and to just be for a few days, like those pools outside Holyrood and the never absent tide on my favourite Eigg beach; seeing all the action but focusing on the constants, rather than fearful rhetoric about sharks and shallow waters. Finding my vote then letting it go, being ready to work hard in whatever outcome boomerangs back from us all.
Thanks for reading, I’d love to hear your comments. You can find me on Twitter @betamother too.
You can read more about Lesley Riddoch on her website at: http://www.lesleyriddoch.com/ and follow the Isle of Eigg Trust on Twitter @isleofeigg or learn more about the island at: http://www.isleofeigg.org/