Sunday, 5 February 2017

An Immortal Memory

Last night I attended my first ever formal Burns supper event, hosted by the Cunninghame North constituency of the SNP, where I was asked to give the Immortal Memory to Robert Burns. A couple of folk have asked me to publish what I recited, as a bewildered Ulsterman taking it all in for the first time, so here goes!

Hello everyone,

For those of you who don't know me, my name is Chris Paton, I'm a member of the Largs branch of the SNP, and as you can probably hear I am not originally from this parish. I come from a wee island just off Scotland – it's called Ireland, which at its closest is about 12 miles off the coast. In fact, I'm delighted to say that I come from the same town that God comes from in Northern Ireland, a wee place called Carrickfergus, although I might have to have a word with him about the rugby result earlier today! Just for good measure, this is the first time I have ever attended a formal Burns Supper, so I'm honoured to be asked to speak to the immortal memory of Robert Burns – this is definitely one to tick off my bucket list later!

So, after Googling “immortal memory” and after watching a few speeches on YouTube, what can I tell you about Robert Burns the man? As an Ulsterman, what possible interest could I have in Robert Burns? Well I have to tell you that until a few years ago, I had none whatsoever. In fact, I would go so far as to say I was deeply suspicious about the man, but for all the wrong reasons. So let me tell you where I once was on that, how I have now come to admire and respect the world's greatest poet, and why I as a Johnny Foreigner think he should be remembered and celebrated.

As I mentioned, I was born in, and for most of my childhood was raised in, Northern Ireland. Now the province of Ulster, as you may be aware, was colonised by thousands of Presbyterian Scots some four hundred years ago, in an event known as the Plantations. As a child though, I didn't know any of this. In a period when we lived through the Troubles, you were either a Catholic or a Protestant, or Irish or British, with people often defining themselves not by who they were, but by who they weren't. As a consequence, I had no idea that I had a deep Scottish ancestry, despite the fact that when growing up many of the words I used were good auld fashioned Ulster Scots words

When I misbehaved as a wean and a bad word came from my bake I was scolded for being a cheeky wee hallion, when the pokey van came to our estate I'd buy a 99 poke, it was a place where my wee brother used to be a clipe for squealing on me, where I could go for a walk up the Red Brae, and where I could point to this table, that wall and thon hill thonder. But I didn't know that these were Scots words, I just thought that was how we spoke English. We also had some Scottish traditions, but again, I didn't know that they were Scottish. One New Years Eve, my dad asked me to take a lump of coal up to my Granny Graham's house in our estate and to wish her a happy new year. Terrified that my granny was somehow freezing to death on her own, I ended up filling a carrier bag with coal and took that up instead! I got a clout around the ear for that one! I had no idea about my Scottishness – my Ulster Scottishness – because we were never allowed to define ourselves in that way.

Even today I get wound up by what has happened to Ulster's Scottish culture. I gave a talk in Largs a few years ago about how to research Irish ancestry, and a wee man approached me and told me he was setting up a local non-sectarian Ulster Scots heritage group – would I be interested in going along? He handed me a leaflet, at which point I had to ask him – if this is a non-sectarian group, why have you printed your leaflet on orange paper? I wanted nothing to do with them. My notions of Ulster Scottishness tie into my Presbyterian ancestors from Islandmagee and Antrim, who fought with the radical United Irishmen in 1798. Now I'm not saying all my lot were successful. Never mind the fact that the rebellion failed – as a fifteen year old lad my four times great grandfather John Montgomery accidentally shot his hand off with one of the rebels' rifles in the midst of it. My family's been regularly winning the Darwin award on occasion ever since.

So then there's Robert Burns himself. As a child in Northern Ireland, all I knew about Robert Burns was he was Scottish, and had written that Hogmanay song. Even as an adult, I still had no idea about what half of Auld Lang Syne meant - “we'll tak a right guid willie waught”, for example. I used to work in television, and as a one time researcher on a BBC2 series of short films on men's health, I could never quite understand what a right good willy wart was – that certainly wasn't what my research was telling me, I filmed many a grown man with tears in his eyes complaining about how sore they were – until the time when I twigged that it wasn't quite what it sounded like! It's actually a hearty swig of ale or some other alcoholic drink, and I'll happily tak one of those. Especially if it is Laphroaig, which is God's official whisky.

And everywhere I came across Burns as a child, it was the same image of the man on a tea towel, or a shortbread tin, the portrait that became an icon, a bit like Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now I was raised as a Presbyterian, and the one thing we were taught in Ulster's Presbyterian churches was that idolatry was a bad thing. In fact, on another TV series I once made about the history of the Church in Scotland, I had to visit the Free Church College on The Mound in Edinburgh, where the Scottish Parliament first met after it was reconvened. When I got there, it amused me no end, because when you go through the arch into its main courtyard, the first thing you come across is a statue of John Knox on a plinth – the very man who tore down the statues at the Reformation. I still don't get why the Kirk doesn't see the irony of this! But the point is I was raised not to believe in the idea of celebrity – I can make my own mind up about whether someone should be celebrated.

So how did I first begin to develop an understanding of Burns? Well, when I left the BBC in 2006, I started to work professionally as a family historian. Now as a genealogical researcher, I get a lot of folk contacting me, especially from the States, who tell me that they are descended from William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, the Stewarts – you name it, I've heard it, they're usually always wrong, and they've usually bought the wrong tartan! However, about four years ago, I had a client who claimed she thought there was a family story of some possible connection to Burns, could I take a look?

In fact, it transpired that she was spot on. I discovered that her five times great grandfather was a merchant from Kilmarnock called John AIRD, who, with his wife Anna CAMPBELL, had a granddaughter called Jean BRECKENRIDGE, who in 1791 married a young man by the name of Gilbert BURNS – the poet's brother. It was through this connection that I first looked into the story of the Burns lads, and I learned that Robert and Gilbert had together taken on the lease of Mossgiel Farm, near Mauchline, in 1784. Three years later, Robert withdrew from the farm, and from the sale of his second edition of poems he granted Gilbert a loan of £180 to pay off his debts and to invest in his business. So this was the first time I had ever come across Robert Burns in a guise other than as this foreign icon, not as a poet, but as a big brother looking out for his wee brother. Fair play to you Rabbie, I thought, and all due respect – as the eldest in my family I've helped my own siblings out from time to time in the past, this was something I could relate to.

And then we had the referendum. At this point there was an argument in the sainted Scottish press about whether Burns was a unionist or a nationalist. Well as we say back in Northern Ireland, you can't kid a kidder, and give my head peace! To Johnny Foreigner here this was an absolute nonsense. By now I knew that Burns was a bit of a complex man, and that in rebellious times such as the 1790s he had to be careful how he expressed his loyalties. But it was obvious that he had been disgusted by the Treaty of Union in 1707, for which he condemned the Scottish nobility:

What force or guile could not subdue
Thro' many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor's wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station:
But English gold has been our bane
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

His contempt for the upper class, and his belief that all people are in fact equal very much reflected the thinkers of the Enlightenment at that time, as expressed through works such as The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. Burns expressed his belief in, and solidarity with, the common man when he penned A Man's a Man for a' That:

Ye see yon birkie ca’d ‘a lord’,
Wha struts an’ stares, an’ a’ that?
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a cuif for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His riband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that. 

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Now you're talking! This is definitely a man I can respect. And he wasn't just drawing inspiration from the nonsense he was encountering in Scotland, or in Britain, he knew that education and the revolution of the mind could unlock a strength that no imperial power could ever thwart. In his Ode to General Washington's Birthday he stated:

Here's freedom to them that would read.
Here's freedom to them that would write!
There's nane ever fear'd that the truth should be heard
But they wham the truth would indite!

A short and sweet quote there. Robert Burns would have been great on Twitter!

So I began to pick up on a lot of this throughout the Referendum, and in its aftermath. Now I struggle with poetry, and am not a great one for songs and lyrics. When I sing, it sounds like a chicken farting, and I don't do romance awfully well – I proposed to my wife by waking up one morning and saying “should we get married then?!” Romantic songs, and love poems – was Burns really someone I should be trying to come to grips with? But last year, having by now grasped that there really was something to engage with when it came to Robert Burns, I decided to challenge my final prejudices about him. I visited the Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, thinking I was a going to be accosted by people dressed in 18th century outfits looking for wee sleekit mousies and hunting haggis. In fact, I was – but I don't think I've ever been to better museum in my life. It wasn't about Burns the industry, it was about Burns the man. The excise man, the farmer, the nationalist, the poet. The interpretative panels were all written in Scots, written as a real living language.

So it turned out from this exhibition that Burns was a great poet, but rather endearingly, he wasn't a perfect man – who amongst us is? He loved his words, and he also loved his women. My God, did Burns love his women! My wee brother, who was actually born in Scotland and now lives in Dubai, is now with his third wife, but I haven't the heart to tell him about Burns' tally with women, in case he gets competitive. As a genealogist, one of the things I regularly come across in old kirk session records are cases of what was referred to as 'antenuptial fornication', basically doing the dirty deed before a wedding ring was put on – well I think in the 18th century the Kirk must have had an entire department working on Robert Burns. I can imagine all these ministers of the cloth having minor heart palpitations every time he walked into a room which had a woman someone near within a five mile radius! One article I read noted that Burns was a 'philanderer, fornicator and a father of bastart bairns'. Actually, it could be argued that if he wasn't, he might not have written so many of his great love songs. But Burns also believed in the equality of women, and in 1792 wrote:

While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

Even with the things he didn't agree with, he did try to see the opposing view and to understand why others held their views, for example, with religion. Now again, being Irish and being raised on an island that makes religion still seem like a growth industry, the one thing I can tell you for a fact that is that I am not in anyway religious, because whilst Northern Ireland tried to knock religion into me, it also knocked it right back out of me. But I will absolutely to my dying breath defend the right of folk to have religious beliefs, and to continue to argue that we need to keep fighting against the likes of Donald Trump and his disgusting Muslim ban. Well Burns held very similar views. In a letter to a Mrs Dunlop in December 1794, just eighteen months before he died, he commented on the delight that he gained from seeing people gain comfort from something he himself could not be reconciled to. This is what he wrote:

What a transient business is life! Very lately I was a boy; but t'other day I was a young man; and I already begin to feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of Old Age coming fast o'er my frame. With all my follies of youth, and I fear, a few vices of manhood, still I congratulate myself on having had in early days religion strongly impressed on my mind. I have nothing to say to any body, as, to which Sect they belong, or what Creed they believe; but I look on the Man who is firmly persuaded of Infinite Wisdom and Goodness superintending and directing every circumstance that can happen in his lot - I felicitate such a man as having a solid foundation for his mental enjoyment; a firm prop and sure stay, in the hour of difficulty, trouble and distress: and a never-failing anchor of hope, when he looks beyond the grave.

Unlike most of you in this room, Robert Burns to me has become an acquired taste worth acquiring. I was not raised to revere the man, I did not take to him because I was taught about him at school, I wasn't raised to eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns nights, I instead took the scenic route to come to terms with the Bard. When I read Burns now – and believe me, I am reading Burns now – I see a reflection in many of the things that he writes that I believe in, and that I have believed in my whole life. His words on equality, on national identity, on internationalism, on all the things he has celebrated and railed against, these are words that are easily understood - whether written in Scots or in English - because at their heart lies a truth about who we are and what we aspire to be. They are the same things that Burns believed over two hundred years ago, they are the wisdom of ages immortalised in verse. When we gather and quote his thoughts and share his stories, we celebrate the fact that we remain wed to those words and that ideology. On a personal level, whilst I have spent years trying to uncover and reclaim my Ulster Scottishness, through the words of one man here in Scotland I have been able to find the words that help to define my values as a civic Scot. They are the values I share with each and every one of you here tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, you'll be delighted to know that I have come to the end, but that also, when it comes to appreciating Robert Burns, I finally got there in the end! So I'd like you all, if you would be so good, to stand now as I raise a glass - a right guid willie waught - to the immortal memory of the one and only Robert Burns.

COMMENT: I should add that it was a great event, at which the guest speaker was Joanna Cherry QC MP who gave the toast to Scotland, and with many other great speakers and entertainment. I'll definitely be going to another Burns supper at some point!


Monday, 7 November 2016

Save the Ardrossan ferry route

As an Ulsterman I regularly take the ferry back 'home' across the Irish Sea, although to do so I need to drive an hour and half south from Largs to Cairnryan. Not too long ago there was in fact a closer option to my North Ayrshire home, a ferry service from the town of Troon, just forty minutes away. Despite the fact that it sailed to my birth town of Larne in County Antrim, it was a route that I never used. The reason was simple - it was far too expensive. As a ferry port, Troon just didn't work economically, either for me as a customer or anyone else, and eventually the Northern Irish ferry service ceased to be. Today the port in Troon remains all dressed up, but with nowhere to go.

Troon has raised its head again, however, in its desire to become an active ferry port once more. ABP Ports, the owner of the town's port is bidding to take the ferry route from Ardrossan which currently serves Brodick on the Isle of Arran. It's an astonishing bid, one that has raised a lot of controversy locally with accusations that the company is trying to bribe the island's inhabitants through a community fund of £50,000 (see Whatever it might be trying to dish out from its corporate candy jar to sweeten its attempted take over, however, there are some key facts that just make the whole idea of Troon a useful port for Arran a complete non-starter.

The current sailing time from Brodick to Ardrossan is 55 minutes. The route to Troon would be one and a half times longer by way of distance and time, and almost certainly in the cost of each trip as a consequence. And if you have longer sailing times, you will therefore need to have fewer services each day. Then take for instance the fact that in Troon, the railway station is a mile away from the port. Is it realistic that in the busy summer season, when many folk are trying to visit the island that the ferry operators will have anything like enough buses to run a shuttle service to take folk across the town? By contrast, in Ardrossan there is a train stop at the harbour itself - should an islander need to travel to the mainland, perhaps to have a hospital appointment, it is a very straightforward onward journey from the port. As public transport solutions go, you could not ask for better.

Don't get me wrong. Troon is a wonderful town - a place I have visited several times in the past with my kids, and also to give various talks to the local family history society. But Troon is not a convenient place to go to as a transport hub. It never worked for the Northern Ireland trade, it will work equally as ineffectually for the Arran trade. The Scottish Government's Transport Minister Humza Yousaf has announced that he will be considering the case for both Ardrossan and Troon, and that may well be the right and proper thing to do. But can anyone be in any doubt that once both options have been examined, that Ardrossan does not win the business case hands down?

Well, to help make the case, a Save Our Ferry campaign has been launched today in Ardrossan by North Ayrshire Council. Along with local councillors from across the political divide, local businesses, members of the local community, and our parliamentary representatives Kenneth Gibson MSP and Patricia Gibson MP, I attended a gathering at Ardrossan ferry terminal to show support to those in Arran who rely on the service, and to those in Ardrossan whose livelihoods depend on the retention of the service.


We are as surprised as anyone that we have to make the case to retain the service in Ardrossan, but despite it being such an obvious case, we are only too happy to restate it. Whilst in Ardrossan I took the opportunity to ask my local MSP Kenneth Gibson to summarise why he believes the ferry service should be retained:

An online petition is available at, which will be presented to both North Ayrshire Council and the Scottish Government. Please take the time to sign - let's save the Ardrossan ferry, let's Keep it A to B!

UPDATE 23 NOV: I was out last Saturday 19th November gathering signatures for the petition at both Saltcoats and Ardrossan, as part of the SNP. Whilst there I recorded my own take on the possible move, which you can view below:

(Also available at

A new campaign site from North Ayrshire Council with another petition is at - please take time to sign this also. There is also a Save Our Ferry event at Ardrossan Civic Centre on Thurs 24th November at 7pm - further details at



Monday, 17 October 2016

Say No to xenophobic Tory rhetoric

A letter I've had published in this week's Largs and Millport Weekly...

Dear Editor,

I don't think I have ever been as shocked by a newspaper headline as that presented in The Times on the morning of October 5th : “Firms must list foreign workers".

Now we're getting an idea of what Brexit really means. Theresa May is planning to impose some of the most right-wing policies on the UK that a Conservative government has ever sought to implement. It does not matter that businesses and organisations such as the NHS rely on immigrant workers to help provide the services we need, because it would seem that now we apparently intend to demonise them, make them register as migrants, and attack the NHS for hiring them in the first place, along with anyone else offering jobs to those not from Britain. Theresa May also stated elsewhere to the BBC that she will 'allow' foreign doctors to stay until indigenous doctors can be trained up – I am sure they are truly grateful for her magnanimous offer.

I have been ideologically opposed to the Conservatives my whole life, ever since the days of Thatcher. Despite our political differences, I always thought at least we had some core ambitions in common – a desire to achieve the best for our respective communities and our families, no matter how we differed utterly in our attempts to realise those ambitions. But now I am reading headlines advocating registration schemes for those deemed to be the 'other'. What next? No blacks? No Irish? Yellow stars on our sleeves? Are we really heading towards all of this as British national policy?

Do the Scottish Conservatives really support this new xenophobic right-wing direction that Theresa May is taking us down? Instead of asking them to check their rhetoric, Ruth Davidson, a former EU Remain campaigner, spent the conference in England cosying up to this new regime, even belittling Scots in one of her speeches to gain a cheap laugh: “Usually they put the Scots in a place where nothing can be broken. Or stolen for that matter”. Really Ruth? Really?

On October 4th our local MSP Kenneth Gibson led a debate in Holyrood condemning hate attacks against Poles. It received cross-party support, with the exception of the Tories. They abdicated their responsibility at a time when the national rhetoric their London bosses are sewing needs firmly to be challenged. So are the Scottish Conservatives truly Conservative any more? Or like their southern colleagues, have they simply abandoned their principles for the darker, inward looking, backward facing, narrow-minded, Brexit-ready British nationalism of UKIP? Increasingly by the day, it would seem to be the case.

Chris Paton, Largs

UPDATE: A Tory councillor down south has just been suspended for starting a petition calling for opposition to Brexit to be made a treasonable offence. You can't write this stuff - see

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Last chance to Save the Gretas

I've just submitted a personal response to the Forestry Commission Scotland consultation over the Halkshill and Blair Park forestry proposal for the hills behind and facing onto Largs. Whilst I am generally supportive of the idea of a forest, I have a few issues with the proposals as they currently stand in terms of its intrusion onto the Largs landscape, its affect on our community, and the lack of meaningful consulation with local stakeholders, including the community at large. On this basis I have objected to the project in its current form. The objections are summarised as follows:

1) The visual impact of the project on the landscape directly facing onto the tourist town of Largs - including the intrusion of commerical conifer based woodland (Sitka Spruce and Scots Pine) onto the hill facing the town, and the galvanised steel fence to keep deer out. When the forest is initially sown the view from my house, and from the town, Cumbrae, and boats at sea, will look onto a scarred and ploughed landscape; and when harvested the commercial part will just look a mess. They need to push the project back over the ridge of the hill, and remove the conifer plantation from sight.

2) The devastating transformation of the much loved Gogo Glen leading up to the Greeto Bridge area (see my previous post at, including the inherent dangers of accessing the new Core Path 'forest capable' road (i.e. the old track to the Gretas) from the town as a forestry route, with safety concerns for Bellesdale Avenue and Flatt Road (especially in light of the new super-school being built), not to mention wear and tear on Largs roads.

The environmental statement also shows that the west end of the proposed planting area, which includes the Gogo Glen, is not optimally suitable, with threats from windthrow and even pests. If the project fails, who clears up the mess?

3) A serious lack of information on any proposed community benefit to help mitigate for what will be a substantial change in the use of the landscape behind the town. Two pages as an afterthought in a 800 page statement, comprised of nothing but vague promises, does not instil any confidence for community support - particularly when no community benefit has as yet been identified from the hydro projects already being built in the glen by Stakis. Public money will be involved - it is not enough to just make vague promises. This is our environment, our landscape, and it will be fundamentally affected.

4) A lack of consultation with businesses in the town about the potential impact of the whole endeavour. Pretending that a previous consultation a few years back for a windfarm a few miles up the road can provide relevant data for the impact of a commercial forestry project on local businesses in Largs is thoroughly misleading.

5) A blatant conflict of interest between FCS, which will grant permission, and Tilhill Forestry, the developer - in that the Forestry Commissioner is also the Managing Director of Tilhill.

If you have any comments to make to the FCS you have until August 14th. See for the Environmental Impact Statement containg details of what is proposed.

Let's keep trying to Save the Gretas...


Saturday, 9 July 2016

A Little Britain now in free fall

On June 23rd Scotland voted to remain within the European Union, in contrast to the result from the rest of the United Kingdom (with the notable exceptions of London and Northern Ireland). Despite our vote, we now find ourselves potentially on the point of being dragged out of the EU against our will. In the last two weeks, I have watched with horror as the value of the pound has plummeted to its lowest level in almost half a century, and as billions have been wiped off the value of stocks. In England the two major political parties are now in the midst of civil war, providing no leadership whatsoever in what can arguably be described as the greatest crisis faced by the UK since the Second World War. Elsewhere, in the aftermath of their lies and deceit to the nation, the arch-villains of the piece, Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage have simply run away to hide, rather than accept responsibility, whilst racist attacks have escalated dramatically towards many immigrant residents.

By contrast in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has stood up to the task at hand, reassuring our European citizens of their value and continued welcome in our land, whilst at the same time taking our case to Brussels, to preserve our position within the EU. The First Minister, with the backing of Parliament has a mandate to try to preserve our relationship with Europe. What forms this might involve have yet to be worked through, but independence is now once again another serious prospect as a means to achieve this. When asked if another referendum was on the cards, the First Minister replied that it was 'highly likely'.

Incredibly, much of the former Better Together side from the previous independence campaign have also now agreed that this is a serious and desirable possibility in the current circumstances. Sir Nicholas MacPherson, who only last year Alex Salmond was demanding resign from the Treasury, has written in the Financial Times of the very serious potential that independence now offers Scotland, a dramatic change to his stance in 2014. Author J. K. Rowling, who raised the ire of many in the Yes campaign two years ago, has also now conceded that independence is now likely, adding that her previous support for the union was never unconditional. Even within the Scottish Labour party, many MSPs are now seriously giving support to the consideration of independence as the likeliest means forward. Was I the only one stunned on the recent BBC debate to see Jackie Baillie so warmly supportive to the SNP's Fiona Hyslop in discussing the way forward?

Despite having voted Yes in 2014, I've never seen the point in blaming No voters for the result back then. However people might have voted then is actually irrelevant in the context of today's current political situation. The United Kingdom that existed in 2014, the one which we were told was a safer bet to remain within to keep us in the EU also, simply no longer exists. With Ian Paisley's son in Northern Ireland, of all people, now telling folk to obtain an Irish passport if they can, you know that something truly seismic has happened in the history of the UK.

If Nicola is unable to find another means to preserve our EU status – whether through some form of 'reverse Greenland' scenario, or whether through some form of federal UK structure as proposed by Kezia Dugdale (albeit, something that was actually promised and never delivered through Gordon Brown's infamous 'Vow') – and an independence referendum proves to be our final recourse, the good folk of Scotland will need to seriously consider the question in light of the increasingly worrying circumstances we now find ourselves, namely a Little Britain now seemingly in free fall.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

This sorry EU referendum

For the last ten years I have worked on a daily basis as a family historian, working out who my clients are descended from and how they connect to past events. But whilst I work in the past, surrounding myself with old documents and even older stories, the one thing I absolutely don't do is live in the past.

In 2014 I became heavily involved in the YES campaign for Scottish independence. As an Ulsterman I found the whole notion of 'civic nationalism', embraced by the YES cause, to be a Godsend, a key to finally resolving a crisis of identity that I had endured for decades. For years I had not felt comfortable being labelled as British, Irish or Northern Irish, and was furious at those who kept trying to put me into one category or the other for their own convenience - to make me conform to a particular cultural baggage as a consequence of a pre-determined identity that I did not have a hand in determining. But in 2014 I could finally claim my identity as a 'civic Scot' - a person who irrespective of where he or she came from could claim and feel an equality in this country. This was not as a consequence of who we were born to, or where, but as the result of the society to which we wished to contribute, and for the betterment of all. I campaigned for YES alongside people born in Scotland, from England, from Ireland, from Africa, and from all religions and persuasions, who like me, were enthused by the energy and sheer potential of what lay before us, and in a campaign that we almost won.

One of the greatest moments for me personally was to attend a debate attended by Northern Irish born surgeon Philippa Whitford in Largs. To this day I give major credit to Philippa, who I personally think was a game changer when she declared for the YES campaign, warning us about the consequences of privatisation of the English NHS which would affect us subsequently with a cut to Barnett consequentials for the Scottish NHS. It opened up a completely new front that the No campaign could not defend against. But more than that, here was someone with my accent, as passionate about Scottish independence as I had become. But it wasn't just Philippa - there was Tommy Shephard, equally versatile with his Derry brogue, and even Lesley Riddoch, a journalist born in England to Scottish parents and raised in Ulster and equally fluent with my lingo. This all confirmed to me that this form of nationalism was not based on 'Scotland for the Scots', but a new and dynamic force that sent William Wallace and the Bruce back to the history books, to be replaced with something even more inspiring. Independence was sadly not to be in 2014, but in the aftermath of that campaign, I remain proud, damned proud, of what we achieved in such a short time through peaceful campaigning and with an unrelentingly positive message. We had creativity, energy and inspiration unlocked around us through the referendum campaign on a daily basis, and both this nation and I were changed forever, and for much the better.

Two years on, a few days away from another referendum, and my feelings could not be more different.

I have watched for months with horror as both sides of the EU referendum debate have argued to either remain in the EU or to leave. Every single aspect of this campaign, from the Project Fear tactics being employed by both sides in a relentless Groundhog Day style campaign, replaying all the greatest hits from the 2014 Better Together school of dirty tricks, to the horrendous execution of an English MP by a far right supporter from Scotland who shouted 'Britain first' as he murdered her in cold blood on a Yorkshire street, have shocked me and filled me both with contempt and fear. In 2014 I campaigned for Scotland not to become some 'little Scotland' that wanted to retreat from the world, but to become a newly energised and vibrant nation that wanted a seat at the EU alongside our good friends in England and rUK. But whilst the Remain campaign for the EU in its many forms has made a pig's ear of a lot of its efforts over the last few weeks, the rhetoric from the Leave campaign has become increasingly truly terrifying. "Take back control" they say, as they demonise migrants, refugees, 'unelected EU officials', and more - perverting what Europe actually is, how it is run, and why it is so important for us to stay in.

I desperately value my EU membership - my wife is from the Republic of Ireland, whilst my sons and I currently hold British passports. Whenever we travel to the continent for holidays we all go down the same aisle at passport control. My youngest son asked me the other night if the UK left the EU would we have to go through separate aisles at border controls? At that point it really hit me just how unnecessary all of this campaign has been, for a referendum that was only called to keep the right wing of the Conservative party at bay during a UKIP advance. I've now obtained application forms for Irish passports for myself and my sons, so that we can obtain dual citizenship, irrespective of the result, and in particular retain our European status. I have no desire to be solely subject to a xenophobic United Kingdom of Little Britain and Northern Ireland, should the Brexit vote win the day.

But my greatest fear just now is not actually for Scotland, but for England itself. Whatever the UK media tried to paint us as in 2014, it was certainly not anti-English, an allegation that deeply offended many of us during the YES campaign, not least some of my English friends campaigning alongside me. Our campaign in 2014 railed against Westminster's treatment of Scotland, not the English nation, in a post-imperial world. I spent four years as a child in England, and attended my first primary school there. I have a brother who was born there, I went to university there, I met my wife there, and I had my first real job there. England is a fine nation, with a proud history and much to celebrate. But just as I don't live in the past, neither should a nation - yet that is what is what is being offered as a mirage by the Leave campaign. Let's 'take back control' they say, and let's put the 'great' back into 'Great Britain'. But the xenophobia behind much of the Leave campaign's rhetoric, which has been fuelled mercilessly by much of the London based press, is about creating a new political reality. One where right wing Etonians rule the day, as bankers sit in their counting houses, counting all their money, while the Queen sits in her parlour, eating bread and cake and honey, in perhaps the longest birthday celebrations known to man. England has many serious problems not being addressed by this right wing agenda, and to paraphrase actor Brian Cox, 'the issues will not be resolved' by a Brexit. London is not England. England is not Britain.

So I emplore folk... Much of what makes the EU work is a complete basket case, I could not agree more. But it's our basket case, one we need to work to get a seat at in Scotland, and one we need to try to improve when there. Just as we will need England to be a good friend and neighbour when we become independent, we also need England to remain at the table of the EU, alongside the rest of the UK. So on June 23rd please vote to remain in the EU, not just to save Scotland's future prospects, but to help save much of England from itself. Scottish independence will come - it is inevitable - but it will be a much uglier and darker journey getting there with a xenophobic, right wing Tory government in control in London, if the UK votes to leave the EU.

Let's work towards becoming equal partners and friends with England and rUK in the European Union, the largest trading block in the world - not a nation that makes a tactical error at this stage and in so doing becomes subjugated to the will of Johnston, Farage, Gove, and all the other Little Englanders who haven't yet twigged that the empire has gone. Johnny Foreigner is not the problem here - Tory boy Johnny Westminster is. Let's keep our eye on the ball.

But let's first get this horrid, sorry, unwanted referendum out of the way - which has inspired no-one and just about disgusted everyone - and then concentrate on reshaping this island into nations of equals that want to play together on the European and world stage.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The election count in North Ayrshire

On Thursday evening, May 5th, I had the privilege to attend the count at Saint Matthew's Academy in Saltcoats for the 2016 Scottish election, as one of three representatives from the Largs branch of the Scottish National Party ( and, with my colleagues Linda Nicholson and Davina McTiernan. This was my third election count (my previous visits being to the 2014 independence referendum count, and last year's General Election count, both at the same venue). The following is a brief overview of what happened on that night, but more generally, I hope it provides a glimpse of what actually happens at such counts in general.

Although the count starts at 10pm, it usually takes a while for things to pick up, with one of the first duties being to bring in the votes from the polling stations (as well as those already cast by post) to the centre, and so I arrived at 11pm. After receiving a security band for my wrist at the main entrance, I made my way into the hall to find that the votes were still being verified, before the main count and allocation of votes to each party began.

Scottish Parliament (Wikimedia Commons)
In the Scottish Holyrood elections, there are two votes - the 'constituency vote', and the 'list vote'. The first sees 73 candidates elected to become MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) through a simple 'first past the post' system, as with the Westminster elections (for the UK wide parliament based in the south of England). The remaining 56 seats for the parliament are decided by the 'list' vote, with 7 seats allocated in each of 8 separate regions across the country. The way that these seats are decided is much more complicated, but essentially uses proportional representation, employing what is known as the D'Hondt system to work out who should get what and where. It is very complicated, but in essence the list vote compensates parties who have lost out in the constituency vote, by rebalancing the make up of the parliament closer to the lines of how people have caste their votes proportionately on a national basis.

In this venue, two constituency votes in Ayrshire were up for grabs - Cunninghame South and Cunninghame North, the latter being the one I was particularly interested in, hoping to see our candidate Kenneth Gibson returned for another term. To cater for the two votes, the main sports hall was essentially divided into two halves, with the Cunninghame North count taking place at the end where the declarations would eventually be made, and Cunninghame South at the other end. In each half there were several tables with groups of counters seated on both sides. As attendees we were allowed to walk around both ends of the hall, and in between the two constituency halves, as the process took place in full transparency. The first part of the process doesn't allow you to see who is winning quite yet, although several members of each party in attendance were standing by various counting stations trying to gain a glimpse of votes cast, which they recorded on rough notes in statistical tallies - the odd glimpse of an X beside SNP on a ballot here, another beside the Conservatives there, another for Labour, etc. It is a crude way to gain a rough statistical sample, but from our perspective gave us an early confidence boost as it looked as if we were doing quite well.

SNP group in the hospitality room

The process takes some time, and so a separate room was available for all attending to grab a coffee or a bite to eat, and to watch the results coming in nationwide across Scotland on three large televisions. Although TV coverage had started at 10.30pm, there was not a lot that could be said by the commentators until the declarations were made, and the first of these was not expected until 1am. In this room members of the parties talk to one another in their own core groups, mingle with the press, and even chat with their opponents - whilst the daily barrage of campaigning can be quite brutal, with the polls closed conversations between parties can be quite light-hearted (at this point we were all there for one purpose). In here I managed to speak to Dr Philippa Whitford of the SNP for the first time, to whom I joked that there weren't enough Northern Irish folk in the party (I'm also from NI!), and managed to catch up with a few councillors, including a quick chat with several from the SNP, and the sole North Ayrshire Conservative councillor Tom Marshall. There were very few Labour folk there, but it was notable that a few folk from the Green Party were present. I also spoke to Calum Corral from the local Largs newspaper, who had set up a live blog feed for his readers ( Calum had recently returned from a great trip to Chicago, and I had also just been away for a couple of weeks to Canada on a lecture tour - the conversation ended up with us both lamenting the fact we missed the appearance of a whale in the waters between Largs and Cumbrae in recent days (he showed me the video clip on his phone!)!

With the verification completed (Cunninghame South ahead of Cunninghame North), the tables for the counters were rejigged with the addition of boxes designed to place the votes for each party into dedicated slots, in preparation for the main count. This kicked off at about 1am, at which point some of the national results were beginning to come in. It is initially frustrating to get a sense of how each party is doing, as it takes a time before the bundles in each slot are large enough to see who might be ahead, but it soon became clear that our man Kenny looked to be doing well, as did our colleague Ruth Maguire, standing for the SNP in Cunninghame South.

After observing the process for half an hour or so, I returned to the waiting area, and bumped into Jamie Greene, our Conservative opponent in Cunninghame North, with whom I had a quick chat. Jamie had just learned that his Conservative colleague Jackson Carlaw had taken a constituency seat in Eastwood. This had a major impact on his own situation, in that with Carlaw having previously been number one on the Tory list, he was now off it - meaning that Jamie was now pushed up to first place on the list, having previously been second. This dramatically improved his chances of being elected to Holyrood as a list MSP - even if he lost the constituency vote - which was beginning to look likely from the count. The complexities of our electoral system!

Our own candidate Kenny Gibson was of course present, as was his wife, our local MP Patricia Gibson, and we all chatted in the waiting area as we watched what was turning out to be another great night for the SNP, albeit one with a few surprises. As we were watching the TV, our party leader Nicola Sturgeon was shown making her way to the Glasgow count, of particular interest to her mother Joan, who was watching with us, she being a local councillor in North Ayrshire, as well as our current Provost.

Joan Sturgeon watches as Nicola arrives in Glasgow

Just after 3am, Kenny gave us the heads up that the declaration was likely to be in about half an hour. I went into the hall just as we were invited to view the decisions as to the validity of some of the ballots which had been spoiled. Although you must put an X in the box of choice, there are some exceptions as to what can and cannot be allowed. If an X is not completely within a box, for example, and overlaps the boundaries, it can still be valid if the two intersecting lines of the X are located within the box. Ballots with nothing marked on them are rejected, whilst others that are deliberately spoiled (occasionally humorously, occasionally obscenely) are usually rejected. However, the decision on each is done in full public gaze of observers from all parties, and objections can be noted to the decisions made by the election officers, although I didn't see anyone do so.

The declarations were finally made just prior to 4am, by Elma Murray, the returning officer and chief executive of North Ayrshire Council. First up was Ruth Maguire, who was well-deservedly voted in as the SNP MSP for Cunninghame South, to great cheers from the party. (The full result is at

Ruth Maguire making her acceptance speech

After hearing Ruth's acceptance speech, and that of her defeated opponents, it was time for the Cunninghame North declaration. Once again, our man Kenny Gibson was returned as the SNP MSP for the region, and gave a short acceptance speech, thanking his electoral agent Linda Nicholson, his campaign co-ordinator Alan Dickson, his wife Patricia, and all the constituency volunteers who had helped to get him re-elected. Job done! (The full result is at

Following the defeated opponent's speeches, we then all posed for press photographs with our victor, and of course, I grabbed a couple of pics for the moment also! By now it was passed 4am - but the night was young! We said our goodbyes to each other, then made our way to our respective homes to watch the unfurling drama.

Kenny with his electoral agent Linda Nicholson

Kenny with his wife Patricia Gibson MP

The constituency votes sorted, the ballots for the list vote, which had to include results from several regions in the west of Scotland, were subsequently worked on at a counting centre in Braehead to decide the remaining 'list MSPs'. Our Conservative opponent Jamie Greene was duly elected at this stage, but not our Labour or LibDem candidates, who did not garner anything like enough support. Overall, the SNP was returned for a historic third successive term as the government, and became the first party since devolution to amass more than one million votes for a Holyrood election - not bad for a night's work! The Tories also historically overtook Labour to become the official opposition. The next five years will be fascinating to watch - as will the local council elections next year!