Friday, 22 September 2017

Referendum news in full...

Good morning, here is this week’s referendum news.

Vince Cable wants a second referendum, but not one like the first one.

Willie Rennie is appealing to the SNP to join the campaign for another referendum, but not the second referendum they want.

However, now that second referendum is off the agenda the SNP might back the idea.

But not while members are outraged about Catalonia being refused a referendum by Madrid, which is exactly what Theresa May did earlier this year when faced with demands for a second referendum.

The SNP didn’t make much noise about the Catalan referendum beforehand, because they needed Madrid’s silence during the campaign for a second referendum, which didn’t happen because of Theresa May, which was a relief because they didn’t want one.

Now the second referendum is shelved, for now at least, the SNP can be angry about the Catalan referendum, which might or might not happen.

On the other second referendum, not the one the SNP want, the jury is still out, but it is unlikely to happen.

When Nicola Sturgeon was asked if there will be a second referendum, she is reported to have said: “The honest answer to that is - I don’t know”.

Just time for some late news, Nicola Sturgeon has clarified that when she said “I don’t know”, she was talking about when a second referendum might be. She still wants one.

On the other referendum, the second referendum, the not the one she wants and not one like the first one, the First Minister said it is becoming “more and more difficult to resist”. So, that might be on, after all.

I hope that’s cleared things up. That is all the referendum news this week. 

Friday, 1 September 2017

Five lessons from Dugdale's leadership

From my Daily Record column
To borrow a phrase, I come to bury Kez, not to praise her. Kezia Dugdale was a far better leader than the Scottish Labour party deserved in 2015 but she made mistakes, as we all do.
Here are some lessons the next leader whoever he, and it looks like it might be a man, should learn from her.
Five things Kez got wrong:
1. Flirted with independence.
Dugdale undermined herself and beleaguered Labour loyalists when she said she might consider voting for separation. Nicola Sturgeon stooped to conquer (and damaged herself) by throwing fresh doubt on Dugdale with the accusation she had privately backed a second referendum as a post-Brexit option.
2. Attacked the leader but failed to topple him.
When Dugdale joined calls for Corbyn to resign and backed Owen Smith, she was speaking for Scottish members. But hers was neither a full-blooded mutiny nor a resignation. It was a battle a more astute politician would have avoided and it overshadowed her tenure.
3. Struggled to turn Scotland into a three-cornered fight.
In a political duel it is difficult to be hard from the wings. Dugdale did not master the impossible art of being the third party leader. Admittedly few politicians can.
4. She lacked a killer instinct.
It comes from being a genuinely nice person in a ruthless game. In life it sometimes happens but in politics the nice guys don’t win.
5. Didn’t get the timing right 
Was there ever a good time to be Scottish Labour leader? She came to office too young with the party at their lowest ebb. She leaves too early, granting Corbyn the opportunity to seize the balance of power on Labour’s ruling body, the National Executive Council.
And five things the next Scottish Labour leader must get right
1. Surf the Corbyn wave but don’t kid yourself.
Corbyn’s speeches in Scotland were the debating equivalent of reading a Cal Mac ferry timetable out loud but the crowds loved him. That bewildering phenomenon might be a clue to him just being this summer’s flavour. Don’t count on Corbyn being this popular with the youth vote for long and he will be just shy of 73 at the next general election. Build your own brand.
2. Kill off Indyref 2.
The gas could be turned up on independence very quickly if Tory Brexiteers wreck the UK’s economic future. Let the Tories make the case for Unionism, Labour have to make the case for Britain. The socialist principles for being better together have been neglected for too long.
3. Set the agenda.
In the latter part of her leadership, Dugdale developed a bread and butter platform focusing on health, education and social justice. Built on those foundations, the national debate is listing back from the fixation with the constitution. Labour can lead the way.
4. Fight the real Tories.
Ruth Davidson and her crew are bad news for working class communities. The small state, tax-cutting Tories are not where instinctive Labour voters should be going with their votes.
5. Take a long walk, preferably from Eastwood to Easterhouse.
It’s only 13 miles and a pilgrimage from one of the richest communities in Scotland to one of the poorest would symbolise Labour who are for everyone in the country. It might be tempting to veer off the path to the left but the walk is only the beginning of a journey to Bute House. Don’t leave the middle path is still the best advice for anyone who really aspires to be Labour’s next First Minister.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Dear Jeremy, welcome to Scotland...

From my Daily Record column

Dear Jeremy,

Welcome to Stornoway where you start your tour of Scottish marginal seats next week.

Regretfully, I can’t accompany you to the Western Isles, though having just returned from the place I call home I can report your arrival is eagerly anticipated.

However, a word of caution. When you fly in next Wednesday don’t fall for the illusion of being on the periphery of British politics. The Isle of Lewis is at the very nexus of western politics.

Let me remind you how the dreaded DUP, which props up your nemesis in office, owe much of their philosophical roots to these islands.

When the late Rev Ian Paisley was setting up his fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster it was to the churches of Lewis he came for ideas. The DUP is no more than the political wing of the Paisleyite church. 

Then remember, as we do daily, how Donald Trump’s mother hails from the village of Tong, just across the bay from the airport you’ll set down at. Do you begin to see how the Hebrides could be at the root of some of an Islington MP’s waking nightmares?

So, tread carefully, though not with any fear because you can learn as much from the islanders as they can from you.

That sense of a community pulling together, which you saw in your own constituency after the dreadful June terror attack on Finsbury Park mosque, is, in the Western Isles, pretty much as constant as the wind.

Tapping into that energy of belonging, of caring and sharing so evident in these small communities is as important and elusive an element in changing lives across the UK as capturing the wind is for renewable energy.

Oh, a word on renewables. The Tories in their manifesto pledged a special islands renewables tariff crucial to a big interconnecter cable project to feed wind power to the mainland.   

You’ll have to go one further and explain how the project would be paid for by the £250 billion National Transformation Fund Labour promised in that excellent election manifesto.

The manifesto made a difference, as you undoubtedly did in Scotland. The island seat, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, is now within 1,000 votes of going Labour as are many of the other marginals you’ll visit.

To win them you have to persuade SNP voters to switch, just as you must convince Tory voters in parts of England to back Labour. 

It’s no small task, but the issues that really matter to people - low wages, a proper health service, a future for their kids - are the same across the UK. There’s nothing there that division - in Labour, in Britain or from Europe - would solve.

Despite a good result you lost the general election to a disastrous Tory campaign. Talking to the faithful is not going to get Labour over the line. You’ll have to reach out.      

Persuasion, of course, takes leadership. On the question of the age you are going to have to show some.
For a generation the EU transformed Scotland’s islands with funding to match the challenges of living on the edge.

You have to provide a solid alternative to the Tory cabinet’s “cunning plans” of Brexit policymaking by Blackadder script.

You’re going to have to make a call on Brexit, places like Lewis need you to make it the right one.

So, far from being on the edge these islands are central your mission to transform Britain and to your own personal journey.

The Lewis beaches are as good a place as any to reflect on this. Persuade the islands that Labour is a better way, and you are on the road to power.

Change things here Jeremy, and you will have changed the world. 

Yours, comrade Crichton.
  
PS - Don’t wait until you get there to buy a Harris Tweed jacket. Arrive in one, and take your sunglasses. Like politics, the islands can be cold one minute and hot the next. Siuthad a bhalaich, show ‘em you’ve got the island style.

A walk down Fleet Street


Hot on the heels of my guide to Lewis and Harris, a colleague has reminded me of a journey down Fleet Street we undertook several years ago. It just about stands the test of time, is a handy aide for journalism lecturers, and anyone else interested in a potted history of the Street of Shame.

Sunday Herald - 3rd July 2005
FLEETING HISTORY
When a service was held to mark the departure of the last major news organisation to leave Fleet Street last month, the industry overlooked the fact that 40 Scottish journalists still remain there with Scottish publisher DC Thomsons. By Torcuil Crichton


THERE was a piquant irony in having the media baron Rupert Murdoch, the man who taught Fleet Street a lesson, reading one from the lectern of St Bride’s Church. But as Murdoch read the last rites for Fleet Street earlier this month the assembled media worshippers, if they had strained to listen, might have heard a tapping sound coming from the coffin.

That would have been the Sunday Post journalist James Millar and his colleagues knocking gently to remind the rest of the press world that journalism has not expired yet in the heart of London.

With the departure of Reuters news agency from its imposing home at 85 Fleet Street to that battery farm of journalism, Canary Wharf, the Street of Shame has been declared dead. Murdoch began the exodus of the national titles when he moved the Sun and the News of the World to Wapping in 1986 in the midst of an acrimonious and bloody industrial dispute that broke the power of the print unions. His empire and the rest of the national newspapers may be dearly departed, but they have definitely not gone to a better place.

DC Thomsons don’t make a big deal of it, but the Dundee publishers has been a presence on Fleet Street for more than 100 years. AFP, the French news agency, also maintains a staff on the Street of Shame but as far as Her Majesty’s Press is concerned, Millar, a clean-cut and healthy twentysomething, is the last representative of the British print media left standing at the bar.

Millar, still dawdling in his twenties, is probably one of the last recruits to the trade of journalism in Fleet Street. He rejoined the Sunday Post in its London offices a few years ago after a short sojourn into the world of magazines. He’s hardly the archetype wine-soaked hack in a trenchcoat.

Nursing a small glass of wine he’s dismissive of the hoo-hah that the London press made of the Reuters closure. “I don’t think we would have minded so much except that we weren’t invited to the service, “ he says.

Fleet Street has echoed to the sound of thundering presses, editors’ curses and clinking glasses since the first of Caxton’s printing presses across the city boundary.

In it’s heydey - considered to be any time after lunch and before the first editions rolled between 1920 to 1980 - every newspaper in the land was represented on Fleet Street.

According to Michael Frayn, the Guardian journalist who bottled the spirit of the street in his classic Sixties novel, Towards The End Of Morning, there is nothing left there now except “the dull, busy thoroughfare that connects the City and the West End”.

Millar may be one of the last journalists in Fleet Street, but the Sunday Post has no intention of turning out the lights just yet.

TOWARDS the end of the morning Jim McKillop, the Herald’s former London editor, leads a walk down the Ludgate Hill, in the direction of Fleet Street. We are in search of ghosts and if anyone can raise the spirit of the Street it’s McKillop, a journalist of the old school who has just laid down his notebook after 38 years with our sister newspaper, the Herald.

Before we cross the river Fleet, now covered by Farringdon Road, McKillop takes an almost habitual turn up towards the Old Bailey. The beauty of Fleet Street was its proximity to the courts, the City, the Parliament and the West End. Politics, scandal, crime and celebrity were a mere taxi ride away. The world revolved around Fleet Street, a global by-word for the fourth estate. And, like the song about Glasgow on a Saturday night, the world often whirled round and round Fleet Street.

“It wasn’t printers’ ink that flowed through Fleet Street, it was alcohol, “ says McKillop striding through the morning heat under the dapper shade of a straw panama hat, the current edition of Private Eye rolled up in his hand.

To prove the point we stop directly across from the Old Bailey, outside the site of the Magpie and Stump, the resident boozer for the court reporters. “Court reporting was different in these days, “ explains McKillop. “If there was a long, boring legal argument going on we’d all retire to the Stump and one of the policemen or court officials would give us a signal if things were livening up again or if the jury was due back.”

McKillop’s London career covered the late Seventies and Eighties, decades punctuated by reporting IRA atrocities in the capital, including the mortar attack on Downing Street and the bombing of Canary Wharf.

As a reporter he’s seen a lot of the inside of the Old Bailey, once taking the witness stand himself for one of the most notorious cases of recent years. The last time McKillop led me on a walk it was around the streets of Soham after the disappearance of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

A reporter to his boots, McKillop had already re-traced the missing girls’ steps but wanted to do it one more time. Maybe something didn’t add up. Then, as now, he provided a dramatic narrative as he walked the rambling route.

“They went towards the sports centre . . . this is where they were seen on CCTV camera . . . then they crossed in front of the school . . . and they met the janitor who was washing his dog outside his house. Then they disappeared . . . I spoke to the janitor last night, strange chap . . .”

I ended up with a ready-made reconstruction of that fateful last journey and Jim, having covered every big trial at the Old Bailey since the Jeremy Thorpe affair, ended up in the witness box giving evidence at the trial of Ian Huntley.

McKillop didn’t come to journalism from a media studies course. He started as a copy boy on the Evening Times in Glasgow, aged 16, and finished his career, 45 years later in the Herald’s current offices on Cannon Street. His departure marked the real passing of the Fleet Street era, one of the legendary stories, larger than life characters, even larger expense accounts and booze-soaked afternoons.

“They did drink but some of the best columns ever written were by people who were well on, “ says McKillop. “One of the most famous journalists was Vincent Mulcrone of the Daily Mail. In 1966, on the day that England won the World Cup, he wrote a column for the Daily mail with an intro that began: ‘If Germany today beat us at our national sport we at least have the satisfaction of knowing that we have beat them twice at theirs. . .’. Remember, this was only 21 years after the war.”

The Mail’s pub was the Harrow, just across the road from the gargantuan print halls of Carmelite House just off Fleet Street. There’s a room there, a back snug, dedicated to Mulcrone. “He would begin his day by going into the Harrow, “ says Jim. “Waiting for him would be a fernibranker - a kind of cure-all - a glass of water and a half a bottle of champagne.

Yet he was one of the best.”

We walk on along the Holborn Viaduct, over what was once the stinking river Fleet, an open sewer that ran from Hampstead Heath to the Thames. The river is now piped under Farringdon Street and we’re looking for the liquid source of a different type. So we turn our back on the home of the Guardian and the Morning Star, whose staff drank up that way in the Hoop and Grapes, now called its old name once again. We turn into Fetter Lane, in the hope of sniffing out one of Fleet Street’s most notorious watering holes.

On the corner of Holborn Circus the old Daily Mirror building has been replaced with the steel and glass of Sainsbury’s headquarters. That should have been a warning. Down the side lane that leads to Fleet Street, the Stab in the Back is gone too. “Oh dear, this is very sad, “ says Jim, looking at the Pizza Express that has taken over the site. “I haven’t been here in years but this is the Stab. It was called that for obvious reasons - if you weren’t here you would get stabbed in the back and everyone got their comeuppance in there at one time or another.”

It was here that Keith Waterhouse, then columnist then of the Mirror, picked up the pet chihuahua belonging to the landlord’s wife and ordered two slices of bread for a dog sandwich. It was that kind of place.

When the Fleet Street journalists did go venture beyond the city limits to the provinces (the metrocentric navel gaze is nothing new to the national media) the whole thing resembled a travelling circus of mad hatters and fire eaters with monkeys and photographers in tow.

The ringmasters now are the television cameras, several of which were camped outside the Old Bailey this morning. The power to break news, that genuinely exclusive journalistic sensation, has been largely purloined by the hamster wheel of 24-hour television. The days of racing to file copy from phoneboxes - and then unscrewing the mouthpiece so that rivals were rendered mute - have been long overtaken by new technologies.

We bypass Dr Johnson’s house and come down on to the middle of Fleet Street.”This is it,” says Mckillop, brightening again, coining another quote.

“The first time I came down here from Glasgow as a trainee I really thought I’d made it. This was the beating heart of the newspaper industry but newspapers don’t have a heart any more.”

Fleet Street stretches from Temple Bar to Ludgate Circus and was for two centuries home to dozens of national newspapers and the London offices of most provincial titles. By the end of WWII most had moved to the alleys and streets around, but the title became the byword for the journalist community and a whole section of British national life.

Across the road is one of the Street of Shame’s venerable institutions, El Vino’s, immortalised in the Private Eye itself and still doing a roaring trade in strong port, fine wine and, having tasted it, some good coffee. It was a misogynistic institution and an exclusive gentleman’s drinking club until the walls of Jerico fell.

“Only people on really high expenses drank in there and they didn’t allow women in, “ says McKillop. “The law eventually caught up with them and on that day I went down with Anne Donaldson, who was then the London editor of the Herald. So she was one of the first women to drink in El Vino’s. Just to test them I took my tie off and I was nearly thrown out - but she was able to go in.”

Male-dominated as it was, some very able female journalists were able to elbow their way to the top of Fleet Street. We recall Jean Rook, for her journalism and because taxi drivers claimed she always inserted the number one in front of the total on any receipt they handed her.

Anne Leslie is another Fleet Street legend and bold international writer whom we remember, mainly for once trying to chat me up in the back of a Land Rover in Ghana, but that’s another story.

Back on the street the Sunday Post offices are on our right, shoe-horned into a narrow space in beautiful brown tiled bricks. DC Thompson’s titles will never leave Fleet Street, their names are wrapped in delicate mosaic around each floor of the building - the Dundee Courier, Peoples Journal, Weekly News and Sunday Post - all inscribed in a leitmotif around the elegant corner building.

The former Herald offices, in contrast, are unrecognisable and without McKillop to hand it would be missed. Purpose-built with columns of Portland Stone, the seven-story building at 56-57 Fleet Street, occupied the site of what was once the Green Dragon tavern, appropriately the haunt of generations of scribes.

Being so close to St Paul’s, Fleet Street was in the frontline in the Battle of Britain and in October 1940 the sandbagged Herald offices had a near-miss. But Fleet St took the war, like every other cataclysmic event, in its stride. When Cassandra, the Daily Mirror columnist, returned from the Second World War he began his column: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted...”

The saltire and the lion rampart are carved into the upper stories of the Herald building which now flies the flag of the Nigerian High Commission. In Jim’s day the Herald had 12 reporters in London as well as collection of sub-editors.

The Herald in Fleet Street used to drink off Fleet Street in the Clachan, a pub which no longer bears that name. The paper left the street in 1973 to Spitalfields, a move which coincided with Sir Hugh Fraser’s ownership of the company when the proprietor was donating generously to Ladbroke’s casinos each night.

Across the road we examine the most iconic of Fleet Street buildings, the Art Deco masterpiece in black glass that was the home of Express Newspapers. The Herald’s old Albion Street office in Glasgow was a copy of the Black Lubyanka and, before it closed, the smell of ink still rising from the hot presses in the morning, the rolls of newsprint arriving and the delivery vans speeding over the cobbles in the evening, provided a whiff of what Fleet Street must have been. The Express building still looks sleek and alluring, but McKillop reassures me it was a slum inside. The exterior is just a facade, part of the myth of journalism that makes up Fleet Street.

We go off-track down Bouverie Street, where the News of the World plied its trade. Down there is another of those endless alleys that connects to parallel streets. Somewhere round here, on Whitefriars Street, there was an old inn where that irascible Scot, James Boswell, later Dr Johnson’s biographer, managed to bed the actress Louisa Lewis after laying siege to her for the whole month of January 1763. Boswell’s London Journal in which all this, and much more is documented, puts lie to the myth that celebrity bonk-and-tells were a tabloid invention.

One of these passageways has been fantastically tiled with the entire history of Fleet Street from Caxton to the long goodbye. It makes for a diverting read on our way to Carmelite House, the old Mail building and the Harrow, a fine traditional pub with small, tiered drinking rooms that eventually lead to an upstairs restaurant.

It’s a delight to wander through and serves refreshing shandies away from the heat of the day.

After that we go to church, St Bride’s, the journalist’s church which has the inscriptions of some of the people McKillop worked with on the backs of the pews. We linger for a few moments at the Iraq War memorial in the east corner and then solemnly retire to the Old Bell, the traditional meeting point before and after funeral services in St Bride’s. The last time McKillop was here was for Arnold Kemp’s memorial service, the kindest of men and editor of the Herald during my stint at the paper.

In the churchyard he points out the City Golf Club, an entrance in a lane where journalists who’d never swung a four iron in their lives carried on drinking after the pubs closed for the afternoon. There were numerous private clubs with distinguished sounding names that provided after-hours drinking and a telephone number where errant journalists could be found.

Back across the road we have a quick shuffle around Peterborough Court, the former home of the Telegraph which lends its name still to the newspaper’s diary. It’s well after lunch by the time we finish our circular walk which takes us back to the eastern end of the street looking up at the polished clean facade of St Paul’s cathedral. There’s a plaque on the corner in the memory of Edgar Wallace, a reporter and founder of the company of newspaper owners. He was a famous writer, but he began as a reporter, a profession McKillop feels should still entail going outside the office to meet people who had experiences of what had happened. If that means going to the pub, then all the better, I say.

“It is the most honourable profession of all, “ he muses, reading the inscription on the Wallace plaque. “Look, it says here that he gave his heart to Fleet Street, “ chuckles McKillop. “Well, some gave their livers too.”























Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Lewis and Harris - the A to U for first time visitors


A couple of friends are heading to Lewis for the first time and have asked for some travel tips. Rather than write a list of do’s and don’ts I’ve compiled an A to U of Lewis and Harris (there are only 18 letters in the Gaelic alphabet). It isn’t comprehensive, it is selective and it is exclusive. It’s not too late for you to go.


A s for Atlantic - 40 miles out into it is where you're going to be, so find a mid-Atlantic holiday mindset.
Bring a Mediterranean wardrobe in hope, bring layers of wool in expectation. Waterproofs and walking boots for wild days when the weather is so dreadful it's funny.
Sunglasses for every day though, because at some point a blast of sunshine will illuminate the moor and turn the sea into a glittering crown. As a HebMed rule, evenings are better than the mornings, with pale blue layers of hills against a rose sea.
As for swimming in it, the coast is brushed by the Gulf Stream, the warm water Atlantic current. In truth it’s bloody freezing but must be done. More on swimming under B for the brave.

B is for beaches. Truly world-beating beaches on the west coast in Uig and on Harris with some perfectly acceptable ones within striking distance of Stornoway at the Braighe, Coll and particularly Tolsta. Walk one every day to feel alive.
Behind a windbreak it is possible to sunbathe and with a degree of mental preparation to go swimming in that turquoise water.
The secret trick is to breath out as you plunge in and trash until you reach Nova Scotia. That warm feeling you get after a while is your core body heat on the way out, so don’t stay in too long. A wetsuit makes life more tolerable, but ask yourself: are you a seal or a mermaid?  
If you are alone on a beach and other people impinge on your mile-long stretch of sand the form is to approach and ask in proprietorial tones if they have permission to be there. Then smile broadly.

B for booking - tourism is on the up so book ferries, hire car, accommodation and evening meals in plenty time.
If you book just one place make it the Scalpay Bistro, in the community shop on the small island linked to Harris by a bridge. Modest surroundings, incredible seafood - 01859 540218. Bring your own bottle. Car hire from Sy airport at Car Hire Hebrides - 01851 706500 

C is for Calvinism. The Reformation arrived late in the Hebrides and still clings to the edge of Europe. Presbyterianism no longer dominates society but bonds communities, suffuses everyday life and is part of the Hebridean experience. As a visitor what you’ll notice most is how on Sundays the supermarkets don’t open. But the swings are not chained. You can get a coffee, petrol, buy a Sunday paper, just like anywhere else. Last generation you couldn’t look behind you while walking to Sunday school lest, like Lot’s wife, you be turned into a pillar of salt. This generation you can walk at ease on the Sabbath, but don’t offend neighbours by hanging out your washing.
C is also for The Criterion bar, the most powerful known antidote to Calvinism. “The Crit” on Point Street is rough at the edges (shoot me if they upholster the vinyl seats with trendy Harris Tweed) and an authentic Stornoway bar experience. Night outs in the Bermuda Triangle - The Crit, Star Inn, the Lewis - used to be legendary but things kick off later now and all start and end in MacNeil’s bar, a late licence lifeboat when all else seems lost.     

D - Dalmore and Dalbeg, the Big and Little Sur of Lewis beaches. There’s a surf scene, watch out for the undertow and the stray oilrig having broken its tow. 

E - is for economy. “What do people do here in the winter?” is a common question. I suspect you know the answer, but for work public sector jobs account for a third of the working population. Offshore oil work, well paid but dangerous, keeps men away from home for long periods, as the merchant navy did a generation ago. Underpinning the place are fishing and crofting, though like rural France small-scale crofter farming is as much part of the economic heritage as the actual economy. Fish farming, tweed weaving and now the tourism boom play their part too.    

F is for Fraoch, heather in other words. Eilean An Fhraoich is the other name for Lewis. Now going purple and knee deep. Don’t wear shorts on Falklands-style yomps through the moor, check for tics when you come back. F is also for Fir Chlis, the Dancing Men, or Northern Lights, common enough in winter.  

G is for Gin. The Harris Gin distillery in Tarbert has become a symbol of regeneration and island sophistication. Visit to buy a stylish bottle, but drink and eat in the walled garden at the nearby Harris Hotel where JM Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, etched his name into the window glass.    

H is for Harris Tweed. Buy it, wear it, love it, repeat. Get the full story from any weaver, mill or tweed shop. 

I - is for incomer. Touchy subject. Many of the accents you hear are from further south than Harris. An increasing number come as retirees but many arrivals are the dynamos of local communities. Harris would hardly creak along were it not for the enterprising incomers and on the rocky east coast, a colony of some brilliant artists. 

I is also for internet. It does exist. High speed wifi in most places, mobile phone signal patchy though. But why did you come here? Switch it off 

L - Lews Castle, across the bay from Stornoway is a shooting lodge turned into a Baronial pile by James Matheson, 19th century Hong Kong merchant and opium trader, “one McDrug fresh from Canton”. Derelict for years, now looking every inch of its £14 million restoration. Luxury bar and apartments, a Starbucks (fer gawd’s sake) and the northern branch of the British Museum housing some of the ivory Lewis chessmen. The wooded acres of Castle grounds are good for a run or a plod on a wet day.   

L is for language - Gaelic (like the ga in garlic, not the gay of Gaylic, that’s Irish) is spoken by about two-thirds of the 23,000-odd population of Lewis and Harris. Fragile, but still in everyday use and robust enough to have survived every assault from Culloden to the world wide web. You’ll find it, and the mid-sentence switch between Gaelic and English that pepper conversations, bewildering and mystifying. Hopefully you’ll like it.     

The Three Ms -midges, MacLeods and Moor.
Like childbirth, nobody warns you of the pain of midges. The near constant breeze helps but the best answer comes from the Avon Lady and their “Skin so Soft” moisturiser which the SAS swear by. Stock up at any petrol station.
The MacLeod clan ran the show under the Lordship of the Isles until they were usurped by the MacKenzies in about 1610. It’s all been downhill since, but plenty MacLeods still around and patronymic naming too, so many Donalds, Donald Johns, John Donalds etc. Roll with it.
Moor, there’s a lot of it. The Big Empty used to be busy with sheep and peatcutting, traditional crofting activities which have fallen victim to 21st century lifestyles. Now the preserve of windfarms and a huge variety of wildlife. Golden eagles - check, sea eagles - check, didn’t realise you were a twitcher - check. Barvas Moor is the big bit in the middle. Get lost on the single track roads of sparsely populated South Lochs to feel what it’s like to live on the edge. 

N is Northton -  the new Ibiza. Well, maybe not but this dead-end village on the south west tip of Harris is a model micro-economy that might see places like it across the Hebrides survive and flourish.
Four great businesses, all set up by women, provide a brilliant variety of services. At the entrance is Seallam, the genealogical exhibition centre and real life version of the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?” Good selection of books. 
Next is Croft 36, an honesty shop bakery and food shed, with great take-away dishes.
The Temple Cafe is the best and last coffee before Canada, smashing food too, and there’s Rebecca Hutton’s Harris Tweed hut at the very end before you turn onto a beach you swear you will never tell anyone else about. Beyond there’s a walk to another great beach, and another one after that and finally a mediaeval temple on the headland and, extra bonus, neolithic cup and ring marks close by.
The downside is many holiday homes but Northton has it all including, unfortunately, an amadan who has issues with people parking at “his” end of the beach. Best ignored, or spoken to in Gaelic as he doesn’t understand any.   

O is for old - Lewisian Gneiss, the rock you’re standing on is amongst the oldest in the world, try three billion years. Also old are the Callanish Stones, the neolithic stone circle near Carloway is dated around 3,000 BC, old as the pyramids. Lots of people visit at midsummer, but best to visit early or late to avoid the bus tours from cruise ships.
There are lots of other ignored archaeological sites littering the moor and coast. Grab a Cicerone walking guide and an OS map to find places people rarely visit.

O is also for Other. This is the most different place you can be and still be in Britain. Wide open landscape, big skies, rolling weather, ancient language and an incredible culture. Stop to consider how familiar yet slightly disorientating everything is. It’s an amazing place. 

P - is for politics. Far from being peripheral Lewis is at the nexus of global politics. 
When the Rev Ian Paisley was looking for a model for Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster it was to Lewis churches he travelled for inspiration and instruction.
His party, the DUP, which props up Theresa May’s government, is the political wing of the Paislyite church which imported it’s biblical politics from Lewis. 
And when you recall, as we do daily, that the village of Tong is the birthplace of US President Donald Trump’s mother you begin to see how the Isle of Lewis has fomented the Guardian-reading intelligentsia’s worst nightmares. You have been warned, do not mess with the politics here. 
The smallest constituency in the UK, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, is SNP-held since 2005, after two decades of Labour. That said, there was a big No vote in the Scottish referendum and a big Remain in the European referendum.

P is also for Peter May, author of Lewis detective fictions bolting penny dreadful plots to pound shop travel writing. But hey, people seem to like it and the books fuel a whole sub-genre of tourism.  

R - is for Rubha, the peninsula. Cross the narrow isthmus from Stornoway airport into Point. Densely populated, wealthy and highly intelligent, Point is the Hong Kong of Lewis looking down on a peasant mainland. It has a cafe and shop, hidden beaches and temples and high cliffs. Every other district, Back, Ness, the West Side share the same attributes but claim to be even more superior. Sample the fierce pride of each distinct area. 

R is also for Rosie as in “By Rosie”, the best of several tweed shops in town. Rosie knows colours. She’s not cheap, but neither are you.   

S - is for the sea, the bounteous and sometimes cruel sea. The sea and tragedy go hand in hand in song and history here. Check out the Iolaire story at the museum if you don’t already know it. Shellfish - cockles for vongole, mussels for moules mariniere - can be gathered on the tide (be careful in a month without an R in it). 

You don’t have to forage as S is also for Stornoway and supermarkets, the main reason to visit the town. A Tesco and a Co-op, both well-stocked, guard either entrance. Not open Sundays. Digby Chick, the best eats. Coffee is the new beer in Stornoway, try An Lanntair art gallery, Artizan cafe and the new Blue Lobster. Two good delis for fine and hard to find ingredients.
The big consumer choice is which of three quality butcher shops to buy famous Stornoway Black Pudding from. Scott’s fish shop in the inner harbour for good, reasonably priced fish. 

T - Transport. Believe it or not the Western Isles has the best bus services west of Helsinki, but no one uses it. You can travel from Ness to Barra in a day on buses and ferries. Most people are addicted to cars, cycling is hard work but low traffic, hitch-hiking still works. Taxis will take you home drunk from Stornoway, don’t think about drink-driving, the cops are hard on it.  

U is for Uig. Saved the best for last. The most westerly and wonderful part of Lewis. The magical combination of seascape and mountain backdrop mean you might not come back from these beaches. The weather’s always better too. Food options limited at present, Loch Croistean tearoom on the way, but this is one place where you can eat the scenery.

Finally U is for underwhelmed. I dare you to be. Enjoy the island, it’s all yours.  


These pesky extra letters:
J - is for chumper, preferably one your auntie knitted. Joke is choke, and just is chust. There, you’re half-way to having a Stornoway accent, quite distinct from that spoken by Maws, people from the countryside.   
K - is for St Kilda. Another 60 miles out, double World Heritage Status island on the edge of the world. If you can, go, just go, from Sea Trek in Uig or St Kilda Cruises in Leverburgh.
Q - Queen, she landed at Rodel once, make sure you do, to see St Clement's church and the closed down hotel.
V - is for Vikings. They ruled for over three centuries and you can really see their legacy here, in the people and the Norse place names. 
W gets wetsuit. Everything waterproof you’ve forgotten to bring is at the Stornoway Fisherman’s Co-op, an Alladin’s cave hidden at the bad end of the harbour. Didrickson is the brand of choice, great value.
W is for walking and...X marks the spot. Study a map, see what is immediately around. You don’t have to go far for an adventure.
Y - Youth, we don’t have enough but those we do have are pretty cool, as captured by Laetitia Vancon's portraits. The islands face a demographic timebomb, male and elderly, as do many less beautiful places. So, do consider moving here.
Z - Zonked, once the sea air hits you. Your first night’s sleep will be bliss and then the holiday begins all over again.


Friday, 14 July 2017

Can we talk about racism?

For my Daily Record column

Can we talk about racism? It’s awkward, I know, given that 96 per cent of the Scottish population, and so this readership, is white and doesn’t feel that affected. Also, I bring centuries of my own white, male privilege to the table.

But Tory backwoodswoman Anne Marie Morris has done us a favour and loaned the platform to talk about racism in 2017. 

The deplorable MP managed to perfectly combine the combustible elements of Brexit and casual racism by describing a “no deal” EU exit as “the nigger in the woodpile”.

All white liberals were offended, though I was more astonished that no one at the public meeting Morris spoke to called her out.

But black friends weren’t shocked. “That’s life,” a pal told me the next day.

Even if explicit racism is not in your face, and in the main it is not in cities like London, it is the low hum, lived experience of hundreds of thousands of Britons made to feel different, and judged differently, because of their skin colour.

In Scotland we try convincing ourselves we don’t have much of a problem with racism, perhaps because we’ve spent the energy of generations just facing up to our sectarianism.

But Scotland, like every other part of the UK, has a racist heritage.

The next time you walk up Buchanan Street to Glasgow’s Queen Street station take a good look at the Gallery of Modern Art.

Enormous as it is, the gallery didn’t go up as a civic building. It was the private town house of a Glasgow tobacco trader, our nice way of describing the people who built the city on the back of the triangular Atlantic slave trade.

That’s history, and this week people under 40 needed “n***er in the woodpile” explained to them.

It used to be commonplace and it stems from runaway slaves in the United States. Like “being sold down the river”, it is one of these outdated phrases with resonances of the past.

No one needs lessons in how unacceptable the n word is, though for some reason other terms still appear to be debatable.

Only last week I was lectured by a Scottish exile on how “Paki” is a perfectly acceptable description of anyone with Asian and Glaswegian roots.

“We always called them Pakis, they called themselves Pakis, it is the Paki shop and no one is offended,” insisted this cultural expert, repeating the word, I suspect, to bait me. Drink was involved, I wasn’t going to argue.

“Am I being very politically uncorrect?” asked my tormenter.  

“It’s worse than that,” I replied. “You’re showing your age.”

It is worse than that. While words are weapons, and offensive, they are only the surface of the problem.

Theresa May this week postponed the publication of an “explosive” report on race in Britain which records stark differences in the way people are treated by schools, hospitals, the police, courts councils and employers.

The data shows a middle-aged white person with cancer gets better treatment than someone who is black.  

Yet we persist in seeing race in terms of minority communities not fitting in, despite the fact that most of us will simply never feel what it is like to have to censor yourself to fit in.

In frustration, Reni Eddo-Lodge has written a book on this lack of understanding. It’s called: “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. 

She said: “Racism is about discussing white identity. It’s about white anxiety. It’s about asking why whiteness has this reflexive need to define itself against immigrant bogey monsters in order to feel comfortable safe and secure. Why am I saying one thing, and white people are hearing something completely different?” 

Racism isn’t a problem for black or asian Scots, they just deal with the effects. It’s the other 96 per cent of us who have a problem with it. Awkward, I know.