The ‘Indies for Indy’ tour finished Saturday 13th September lunch-time with a great wee meeting in the Ormlie Community Centre, Thurso.
At the outset, Jean and I planned to try and do a lunch-time and evening meeting each day. We sent the meeting dates and locations to Better Together. We told them that, in our experience, people preferred a debate to listening to one side and we invited them to send speakers along. Within 11 minutes of sending that invitation, we received a reply from ‘speakers@BetterTogether’ thanking us but advising that ‘since the event has been organised by Yes we won’t attend’. We were genuinely disappointed but made clear in our posters that ‘Yes, No, Undecided’ were all welcome.’
Both Jean and I had been doing separate meetings before and in between from Jean doing the BBC debate in Shetland to me doing a debate in Kilchoan.
The first night was Kirkhill on September 1st. BetterTogether had put up two MSPs to speak then withdrew claiming the community run event was a ‘Yes’ event. I understand they were invited to bring their own chairperson but still declined. A welcome 11th hour intervention by Gary Coutts meant a somewhat lop-sided debate did go ahead with Jean and I getting 5 minutes each and Gary given 10. A poll was taken on entry and exit at Kirkhill and the movement in the 90 strong crowd was clearly from No to ‘Yes’, perhaps the very reason why BetterTogether don’t wish to take part in public debates. Kirkhill was not the only one they withdrew from that week.
The following night we spoke as guests of Professor Alan Riach, Scotland’s only chair of Scottish Literature and Sandy Moffat an artist on ‘Arts and Independence’. There is no doubt that Scotland’s cultural community is one again at the forefront of our Nation’s quest for constitutional change.
We held our first lunchtime meeting in Dornoch the following lunch-time. This was the first time we tried the technology of showing two short film clips, ‘The News where you are’ by James Robertson and Dr Philippa Whitford speaking on the NHS. Despite my late night training course in the Phipps Hall Beauly the previous day, the technical side posed some challenges.
Onwards to a meeting in the very far north that night in Tongue attended by 10% of the population many armed with home-baking. The return journey on endless miles of single track saw us meet a shaken motorist who had just hit a deer. Evening and night time travel can be very dangerous at this time of year.
The next afternoon I debated with Dave Stewart MSP in front of retired Members of the UNITE trade union in Inverness and then on to Cromarty where we were joined by the first guest speaker of our tour, the excellent Heather Urquhart of the Scottish Green Party.
Friday saw another debate with Mary Scanlon MSP with a great Q & A with adults with learning disability supported by People First, again in Inverness.
That Friday night we travelled to Glenelg and were joined by Jen Stout. Jen is from Shetland and spoke on behalf of Women for Indy and Radical Indy. This event was filmed by a German documentary maker who is following Jen around the country. What marked this meeting out was the fact that it was perhaps the only one which didn’t have an obvious ‘Yes’ dominated audience, however, that was a great opportunity to change views.
The next day, through torrential rain, to a lunchtime meeting in Gairloch and evening meeting in Achiltibuie.
Sunday was a day off from the tour but still very busy. On Monday (8th September) Jean and I had separate engagements, the previously mentioned debate in Kilchoan for me – 3 and a half hours driving through wonderful scenery. Dinner was a white pudding supper and a twenty minute debate in a chip shop in Fort-William with the Kurdish owners and a local man who’d just finished working in a bar. There’s no doubt that wearing a badge is a great way of prompting discussions and people are genuinely interested in talking about the referendum.
Tuesday night in Mallaig with an eager UKIP fan in the audience was another good meeting with an early start to drive to Oban the next morning. Remarkably for Jean and I were early and took the opportunity to have a coffee outdoors, quite by chance beside the BT office. I sat incredulous listing to a woman handing out BT papers saying ‘See it’s all about oil. If the price drops 10% then 10% less people can be treated by the NHS.’ When she finished speaking to the nodding tourist she caught my eye and I took the opportunity to quietly suggest that the public deserve facts and not inaccurate lies. Raising her voice, she replied ‘That’s typical of the SNP wanting to shout at folk’. Oh dear, time to get back to the coffee and empire biscuit. Perhaps on reflection it was a bad choice of cake.
I greeted everyone coming into our Oban meeting. The only one who didn’t reciprocate stated ‘I’m a No voter you said you’d welcome us, so I’m here’. During the Q & A the gentleman made a brief speech and this prompted some lively and courteous debate, just as we had hoped for throughout.
Our evening meeting was in Lochgilphead and we were disappointed that illness meant our guest speaker, Elaine Morrison of the Green Party, was unable to join us for what was a great evening of debate.
The next day we were at Garve village hall and appreciated the searching questions of the ‘Don’t knows’ that attended.
Our evening meeting was in the Tollbooth in Forres, a magnificent setting, formerly the home of Forres Town Council. Our guest speaker that night was James MacKessack-Leitch of Highlands and Islands Green Party and the well-attended meeting proved one of the most engaging we held.
As Jean and I had oragnsied a coffee morning for the Children’s Hospice in the morning which we wanted to be strictly apolitical, we were restricted only having an evening meeting that Friday night in Wick, held in the wonderful Pipe Band Hall. The following day we spent some time on the YES Wick street stall before our final lunchtime meeting in Thurso.
During the tour we travelled over 1600 miles from the far north coast to Mid Argyll. That we only managed a portion of the Highlands and Islands constituency perhaps illustrates the challenge Jen and I have representing the region
Jean and I are very grateful to the local folk who helped by putting up posters and arranging the venues and to our excellent speakers each of whom you will certainly hear much more from in the future.
Was it worthwhile? I certainly think so. Whilst our average attendance was a couple of dozen we spoke to countless others at our many coffee stops.
We’re in the final week. Jean has headed north to Shetland and I will be assisting in Inverness and Moray – there’s still lots of Undecideds out there!