The Battle of Largs

While the storms are battering our windows and the sea is churning I’m reminded of another fury that emerged out of the west and hit our Ayrshire shores- the last great invasion of Scotland by the Norse.

In 13th century Scotland Ayrshire was divided between the rising Kingdom of Scotland, and the Viking descended and now Christian Kingdom of Norway. The Norse had had a presence in the West of Scotland since about the 800’s, first as raiders, then as settlers and lords, and Scotland for its own part was a relatively new idea. The kingdom emerged out of the uniting of the Kingdoms of Pictland and Alba, born out of murder, intrigue and even a few massacres. The Scots, a people formed out of this union, made up of Picts, Gaels, and immigrants from what would become Ireland and England began to form an identity and define what it meant to be Scottish, and that identity had begun to take shape as a people that were fiercely proud and proudly fierce.

At the turn of the millennium, the Welsh-speaking Kingdom of Strathclyde was overrun, and Ayrshire was for the first time considered part of Scotland. However, Scotland was still far from what it looks like today. Centuries of bloodshed and intrigue followed, with the Scots of the central belt, again and again, subduing Highland Clans and then going onto push the Anglosaxon kingdom of Northumbria further and further south. It was in this turbulent era that Alexander The Second took the throne.

The son of a king who had lost and then won independence from the English crown, Alexander the Second was keen on ending any dispute with the English and would go onto sign the Treaty of York, which would define the English border to this day. This is not to say that growing up under English overlordship had humbled the Scottish King. In fact, Alexander now saw everything north of that border as Scottish, and that included the Norse settlement on the mainland and the Western Isles. Alexander began a campaign to claim these lands for the Scots, first by pushing north into Caithness, leaving behind a trail of corpses, before forging west, where he attempted to buy over the lands with bribes and purchases. When gold failed he turned to steel and began preparing an invasion. He would never see this come to fruition as he died suddenly while trying to win over nobles to his cause, instead it would be his son, Alexander the Third that would take over his plans to unite Scotland. 

The Norse were not, however, a spent force. The age of Vikings had long passed but the converts to Christianity had managed to keep their pagan fury despite their newfound faith. Scotland represented something important to the Norse, as this was the first place in Britain they had settled, the island of Iona one of the first places they had raided. So long as the kingdom of the Isle stood the era of the Norsemen was not over, even if Harold Hardrader had failed in England, even if the Danelaw was now gone, and Cnut’s empire was now history the Norse still had a presence in Britain. When Alexander the Third took up his father’s mantle and started pushing into Norse controlled lands and raiding villages under Norse protection, King Haakon the Old brought together a great fleet and set sail for Scotland. Wintering in the Orkneys and then Arran the stage was now set, in the year 1263 for a confrontation between the ageing but still fierce Norse, refusing to let go the past and the upstart, brutal Scots, determined to take what they saw as rightfully theirs.

Haakon the Old, leading the invasion fleet himself, was met with tempestuous and stormy seas as he attempted to cross the sea from Arran to the mainland, battering his fleet and forcing some of his ships to shore earlier than intended just outside the town of Largs. These poor crews were harried and harassed by Scottish archers, and Haakon ordered the rest of the fleet to land, and support these men. After seeing this the Scots disappeared into the hills, while the Norwegians landed and set up camp for the night on the shores of Ayrshire. 

A few days later the main Scottish force arrived from Ayr, led by the Steward of Scotland, confusingly also called Alexander. His men in gleaming armour and supported by hundreds of knights, Alexander marched his troops north along the coast, coming across a small Norwegian Warband held upon a hill. When faced with the larger Scottish army, the Norwegians attempted to move back to join the main invasion force on Largs beach, but the Scots managed to reach them first, turning what was an orderly withdrawal into a panicked flight.

On the beach themselves, seeing their countrymen fleeing, fear set in and some men made for the boats, others used the ships that had come ashore in the storm as a makeshift battlement, and fought to the bitter end.  It was during the retreat that the Norwegians suffered the worst of it. Afterwards, on the next morning, the Norse would return to the beach to bury their dead and burn the ships that had run ashore. After this, they sailed back to Orkney, where the Old king would pass away after a sudden illness. 

In the coming years, the Scottish and Norwegian kingdom would sign a treaty, giving the Isle of Man and the Hebrides to Scotland, while leaving the Orkneys and Shetlands in Norse control. Alexander the Third would spend this time punishing the lords of the realm that hadn’t supported him or his father’s war effort. 

This battle, while not a massive confrontation with thousands and thousands of men, did one important thing in helping to solidify Scottish identity: it defined what Scotland was. After the battle the question was settled, the isles were Scottish, Ayrshire was Scottish, the borders were Scottish, the highlands were Scottish. In the coming years after Alexander the third’s death, Scotland would again fall under the overlordship of England, and this budding identity, the brewing nationhood no doubt seeded the zeitgeist that the Scottish resistance would crystallize around. I think it’s worth remembering that on a stormy day like today, on a beach here in Ayrshire, What Scotland meant was defined.

Chris and Colin Weir, Ayrshire’s Lotto Winners

What would you do if you won the lotto? Me? I would like to say I would be responsible but I’d more than likely buy my mum a nice wee house and then spend the next years of my life having Buckfast and steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s right, I do dream big. When Chris and Colin Weir from Largs won £161 million- at the time the largest payout for anyone in the UK-instead of living a life of hedonism and tonic wine, they decided to put their money to good use by providing funding for the Yes campaign during the run up to the independence vote. They ended up contributing around 4/5ths of the yes campaigns funding and played a significant role as some of the campaigns biggest financial backers.

The couple ended up in total donating nearly £3 million to the yes campaign, making them the top donors, followed up by Dan Macdonald, a developer involved with the Yes Scotland campaign and Mark Shaw, the director of the campaign, who each donated around £50 thousand. 

When this hit the press it wasn’t taken well by the better together campaign, with claims that the couple had been harassed for money and others who said that the small number of donors donating vast amounts showed that the campaign itself wasn’t that popular with the average person in Scotland. The Weirs themselves said that they had been lifelong supporters of Scottish Independence, there had been no bullying or pressure and that while the campaign did get its funding from a few large donations they believed that Scotland wanted to have a debate about independence- funding would give Scotland the opportunity to be well informed.  

The Better Together campaigns finances were a bit murkier, with Tory party financiers, bankers and even, according to the Guardian, individuals linked to the intelligence services being top donors. 

Sadly, for the Weirs and the rest of us, the No vote won and we have yet to see an independent Scotland. While they spent millions funding the campaign which ultimately lost the battle, they did contribute greatly towards making the debate more substantive than a one-sided shouting match. When up against long-standing institutions like the government, the Tory party and the media- including the BBC- there is no doubt that the funding given by the Weirs helped level the playing field and made the referendum far fairer than it otherwise might have been.

Outside of the referendum, the couple’s charitable ventures didn’t stop. They had been known to support their local football teams in Largs, as well as setting up a charitable commission called the Weir Charitable Trust in 2013. The trust is still active today and has put funding into Scottish sports and culture, as well as supporting things like the Gareloch Riding for the Disabled Association, which aims at making carriage driving more inclusive,  and the Kelso Heritage Society, a project that aims to promote local heritage in Kelso. 

Sadly In April 2019, the couple announced they were splitting up, however stating they were remaining amicable, and on December 27th Colin Weir, after a short illness, passed away. His funeral cortege passed by the Partick Thistle grounds one last time, a team he had become the largest stakeholder of earlier this year through his group Three Black Cats. Respects were paid at Partick Burgh Hall, which was open to all. At the service it was said that Colin would be remembered as “A Scottish patriot, philanthropist and Jags man to the end”. 

What would you do if you won the lottery? After reading through everything the Weirs have done, and Chris continues to do, I do hope I would be a little like them. Promoting culture and sports across Scotland, working to make political debate fairer and more equal, even if I couldn’t find myself supporting Partick Thistle.

Indy2 March

With the new year, things haven’t calmed down over the election results. With an overwhelming win for the Tory government and massive wins for the SNP in Scotland, the political differences in the United Kingdom have only become starker as we enter this new decade. The night after the election, the first of what is now appearing to be many marches happened in Glasgow; with what might have been the biggest independence march in Scottish history taking place this weekend, things are shaping up to be interesting in 2020 for Scotland.

This weekend’s march was organised by All Under One Banner, a group founded in 2014 to help raise the profile of Scottish independence by raising funds and supporting marches while also stressing inclusion. This message has apparently been very popular as the group has had vocal support from the First Minister and even drew in a fair share of SNP MPs and MSPs. The crowd also had supporters from other independence movements across Europe, with Catalan and Welsh flags waving alongside the Saltire. As well as a spirit of inclusion and solidarity, a clear opposition to the Tory party was a galvanising factor for vast swathes of marchers, with chants of “Tories Out” and “Fuck Boris” being heard throughout the day.

The march has been said to have drawn in nearly 80000 people from all over Scotland, despite issues with public transport and atrocious weather. While these figures aren’t one hundred percent accurate, with people joining and leaving the march at different points making it harder to get an accurate count, this still makes it well in excess of the 35000 figure from the last march in Glasgow. Scotland’s pro-independence voices are understandably becoming more and more insistent post-election, drawing in larger crowds and more support, as can be clearly seen by the increase, in turn, out at this weekend’s march compared to the one in 2018. Even if the 80000 figure is on the high end, which I don’t doubt, it’s impossible to deny there has been a groundswell of support for the cause.

Increasingly we are seeing political support not only from the SNP but also from Scottish Labour. Scottish Labour at one turn flirted with the idea of supporting a second referendum, but have since shelved a motion calling for a special conference to discuss the issue. It’s clear that while some party members support independence, the party structure is still hesitant to address it. I hope the party does get their finger out and take a long look at their own stances; down south having a Brexit policy that was more complicated than yes or no undoubtedly hit the party hard. Scottish Labour can’t afford to ignore its own party members when its already struggling for votes.

I myself have been cautious about the prospect of Scottish Independence in recent years. Sure, during the last referendum I voted yes, and door knocking for the Yes vote was the first time I’d been politically active but since then my political priorities have changed a lot; I don’t particularly care what flag I am under or which capital my taxes are going to. I care about the material conditions of me and mine- being a scheme wean, that means working class. It doesn’t mean British or Scottish. While I have come round to the idea that Westminster isn’t fit for function- a centuries-old institution steeped in traditions that don’t have any relevance and packed with more blue bloods than an Oxbridge rugby match – I’m not overly enthusiastic over the SNP’s lack of support for the working class. In the last election, they went as far as taking out opposition to Thatcherite anti-union legislation. A party happy to keep any part of Thatcherite policy is not going to get me to trust that they have working-class folk’s best intentions at heart.

The Election and Ayrshire.

The results from the general election are in, and I’d be lying if I said I was anything other than disappointed. England has turned almost completely blue, and while Scotland itself has turned away from its flirt with Toryism, its not turned to the left. We’re going to take a look at the results in Ayrshire, the UK as a whole and what this could mean for the future.

Unlike last time I won’t go through each of the four constituencies in Ayrshire as they all tell a similar story. The whole of Ayrshire is now represented in Westminster by the SNP, with the Tories coming in second and losing their seat in Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock. In every seat Labour lost a voting share of around 10 to 14 percent, and are no longer the second party in Kilmarnock and Loudoun. While this loss has largely been the SNP’s gain- their voting share went up by around 8 to 10 percent in each seat- we can’t know if this has been a shifting of party preference or tactical voting from Labour supporters hoping to keep the Tories out. It does at least look like Labour weren’t losing voters to the Tory party here. With former mining towns in Yorkshire and elsewhere in England turning blue, this might not be as absurd a fear as once thought. Indeed, Kensington- the constituency where the Grenfell tower fire happened- also voted Tory. At least we can take some solace in the fact that there’s no longer a Tory MP in Ayrshire.

 

Across Scotland the SNP made massive gains, even managing to unseat the standing Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson. A Lib Dem leader losing their seat is becoming something of a tradition now. The SNP are already pushing for these results as a mandate for a second referendum, and with protests in Glasgow the day after the election against Boris as PM there is clearly some visible groundswell behind this idea. My concern however, is two fold: firstly, that while the SNP have gained a sizeable share of the vote, some or even most of this could have been tactical voting by supporters of other, unionist parties that were worried about Brexit and Boris. Scotland voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, and now the SNP will have to position independence as a question of remaining in the UK or the EU. Will this be enough to convince the unionist remainers to still support the SNP? How many will go back to supporting the union when asked to put an X next to a Yes or No ballot?  My second concern for the SNP is that despite positioning themselves further to the right than in 2017, they didn’t manage to gain many Conservative voters, instead taking a big share of Labours voter base. The SNP may therefore see fit to move further to the left, as they could be able to secure these gains from the Labour electorate long term. However, my concern is that they might see this as a battle already won- the Labour party in Scotland is in the worst state it has been in living memory-and instead double down on trying to secure the sizable part of the Scottish vote that is to the right.

A protest in Glasgow against the election results.

As a whole the UK has been washed over with a tide of blue. As mentioned before, even mining towns in Yorkshire and Wales, once hit the hardest by Thatcher, are now Tory seats, and the language of the party’s supporters is already transforming into something resembling an English nationalist party, with figures like Tommy Robinson openly supporting the party and even joining its membership. The Tory party is taking on a more nationalistic, jingoist, Britain First rhetoric rather than the traditional and bland pro business and small c conserative slogans they tended to advocate for. With new found working class support the Tories find themselves in the unique position of competing with the Brexit Party for votes that were once securely Labour. What changes this might force the party through is uncertain, but with as big a personality as Boris in the PM chair the role of Prime Minister is increasingly taking on a more presidential shape and image.

While the mainland has had significant upsets Northern Ireland is not any less interesting, with the nation set to join Scotland as another country of the union in which separatist parties are gaining ground. For the first time in history Sinn Fein has won the seat of North Belfast, and in another first shock Unionist MPs are now outnumbered by Republicans. With the SNP in Scotland and the DUP losing in Northern Ireland, it seems the Tory victory in England and Wales might have come with the cost of a disunited United Kingdom.

 

Labours results have been nothing short of devastating. There are a myriad of factors contributing to this- I do not believe the blame lies solely at Corbyn’s feet, or with his socialist policies. He had been leader in 2017 with similar positions and saw an increase in voter share larger than Brown or Milliband, who were firmly to the right of Corbyn’s labour. Two factors were different this election, the first being Brexit. Labour conceded ground to the centrist, middle class part of their voter base to argue for a second referendum, and here we see their downfall. Corbyn himself had embraced the leave vote the day after the referendum but quickly took a party position of trying to reconcile the working class leaver and middle class remainers within the voter base and Labour found itself pulled apart by two opposing forces, resulting in hamstrung fence sitting about the biggest question of this election. Unable to reconcile these two diametrically opposed views Labour lost a big part of its voting share to the Tories. It’s clear that playing a middle ground, centrist position doesn’t work, evidenced doubly in how badly the Lib Dem’s fared, and that the centrist Labour defectors lost all of their seats.

Boris was mocked for constantly repeating “Get Brexit Done”, but this is what a large part of the electorate wanted to hear. Labour’s inability to provide a clear position was something the Tories could hammer into again and again.

The second major issue for Labour this elections was the media. Losing a lot of its subtlety the Murdock papers slammed Corbyn and McDonnel as if they were a red menace with Bolshivik loyalties and the BBC found itself ill equipped and unmotivated to counter these claims or give Labour a fair trial. We saw accusations of racism levelled at Corbyn, a man who had spent his life as an anti racist campaigner, at a time when the Tory government is supporting antisemetic governments like Hungary and Suadi Arabia, openly threatening traveler communities in its manifesto and has been caught deporting black citizens in the Windrush Scandal. This isn’t to say that The Labour Party doesn’t have a problem with antisemitism, or that Jeremy Corbyn has done enough to address the issue. But clearly the media have decided to hold Labour to a higher level of scrutiny, while the Conservative government have embraced racism and antisemitism as party policy.

Instead of holding to task the powers that be, various senior media figures were having daily meetings with the PM and trying to both sides issues on which the evidence clearly showed the Tories were in the wrong. It’s not a coincidence that Corbyn was the only leader this election whose approval rating went up the more people engaged with him or that Liverpool, a city that has banned Murdock propaganda, is the only city that remained firmly red. Boris meanwhile, found himself avoiding Andrew Neil and literally hiding from reporters in a fridge. You have to question the integrity of a media landscape where one man is acknowledged as the sole journalist that will hold leaders to task, and simply avoiding an interview with him means avoiding all significant scrutiny.

The years ahead for Labour will be difficult, and many within Scotland are already arguing that Scottish Labour should embrace independence, another issue which might split the party.

What does this mean for Ayrshire? The next few years are going to be difficult, Brexit looms over us all and Ayrshire stands to lose more than most. The SNP might have a mandate to pursue independence, or at least a second referendum, but there is no legal apparatus to push for this if the Prime Minister does not give his blessing – which Boris has repeatedly said he will not do. The rise of republicanism in Northern Ireland might not lead to separatism and a united Ireland, but could still lead to trouble in Ayrshire, as we have always been more involved in the politics of our Celtic brothers across the sea and have our own troubled history with sectarianism. Vital services might also be under threat soon, as the day after the election Damian Green, a Tory MP, openly said that the nation will need to move to an insurance based healthcare system. All the while climate change is creeping up on us, and the time we have left to do anything about it is slipping through our fingers. What stands before us is an era of uncertainty, unrest and austerity, one in which Ayrshire, while not at the centre of many of these issues stands to be one of the hardest hit regions in the UK, as it has been in the past by political and social turmoil.

In times like these communities need to come together and support one another. Join your union at work; if you don’t have one this is the time to make one. Talk to your neighbours, friends and family and be sure to support the vulnerable. If you are so inclined, go out and protest, make sure people know how you feel about what’s happening. Go to your local food bank to see what you can do to help out. With the Tories in power all we can expect for the most disenfranchised in our society is more of the same neglect and disdain. A better world is possible, but it’s up to us to make it happen, together.

The Last Joust

Kilwinning, in the heart of Ayrshire, is the site of an interesting historic event not spoken of often enough:
In the year 1839 Kilwinning played host to the last great joust in the United Kingdom, organised by Archibald Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton.

Archibald himself was an interesting man. Born on the 29th of September in Palmero, Sicily to a Major General he would go on to study at Eton and in later life join the Conservative Party. At the height of his political career, he would serve as a Conservative whip and in the House of Lords, eventually becoming Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, not once but twice. Unfortunately one of his most noteworthy political moments was organising the House of Lords in opposition to the Jewish Disabilities Bill of 1844, a bill that would let Jewish people stand in parliament as MPs. Not exactly progressive, even for his time, but what else would you expect from a 19th Century Tory lord?

Aristocratic and reactionary as only a Brit can be Archibald was a man born in the right era. In the late 18th and early 19th century, The Romantic cultural movement had gripped the nation and everyone was obsessed with chivalry, and knights and stories of medieval valour. Archibald himself was also very fond of the knightly blood that ran in his veins; a member of his family tree even managed to best Harry Hotspurs – a famous English knight – at the battle of Otterburn.

It was in this background of archaic obsession and his own personal fascination with feudal life that the Earl heard that the Whig government would not hold the traditional banquet in Westminster during the coronation of Queen Victoria. Now the Earl took this attempt to distance Britain from its past as a personal slight and set out to right this wrong.

The preparations began, with genuine medieval armour being sourced for genuine knights, which Britain still had at the time. Around a hundred and fifty were invited, though less than a third of that number actually attended. Great dress rehearsals happened in London, and invitations were sent out – in the Earl’s own words – “only to the most elite of the elite”. Stalls and markets were planned and memorabilia and artworks were commissioned en mass for the event. Some critics were even starting to begrudgingly admit the joust was going to be a good show, even if Queen Victoria herself privately admitted to thinking the tournament was “foolish”. The Whigs were not cowed, however. Many were critical that such vast expenses were being spent on a flight of fancy when the economy was in shambles and people in cities across the UK were starving. Nonetheless, the event was set to go on. As the anticipation for the event began to gather steam the general public were invited, with free tickets available to be applied for, though the Earl did ask for people to wear medie val dress where possible. This caused a groundswell and soon thousands had applied to attend.

People started pouring into Ayrshire, by trains, boats and carriages, overwhelming Kilwinning and Irvine, which only had one hotel at the time.  The roads between Ayr and Glasgow were said to be full to the brim and the newly opened train line from Glasgow to Irvine packed, with people literally fighting for tickets.

The tournament drew in massive crowds – nearly one hundred thousand people – as well as notable foreign dignitaries including nobility from Hungary and Poland, as well as Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Boneparte.

The Joust itself began on the 28th of August at noon, with a procession of knights on horseback. Forty knights lead the parade, with their retinues in tow, banners fluttering and crowds cheering. Unfortunately, all the chivalry and charisma and charm was for nothing, as nothing can prepare you properly for the weather in Ayrshire.

As the knights approached the tournament grounds, the heavens opened, turning the land beneath their feet to mush. Ladies in fine dresses fled for their carriages, and the crowds sheltering under leaky grandstands had to turn back. Lord Eglinton announced that the tournament would gather again the next day but it wasn’t until the 30th that the event actually took place, this time with a far smaller crowd around a waterlogged field. Afterwards, a banquet was held, with only 400 people in attendance.

The tournament would go down as a massive blunder, one which the Earl’s political opponents parodied and mocked for years to come, and which proved a huge financial disaster for The Earl. Despite its resounding failure to capture knightly valour and wow crowds with an example of British nobility in action I think this event is worth remembering, both because for a brief moment Kilwinning was the centre of attention, not only for Britain, but also further abroad, and also because it imparts an important lesson – never trust the weather to stay sunny on an important day in Ayrshire.

Voting History In Ayrshire

As there is a general election coming up, I thought I would take this time to look at how Ayrshire voted last time around; I’ll look at what those results meant for Ayrshire in 2017, and what they could mean for our vote in December.

Ayrshire is split into four different constituencies: North Ayrshire & Arran, Central Ayrshire, Kilmarnock & Loudoun and Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock. We’ll take a look at each of these in turn and then consider what this shows for Ayrshire as a whole.

In North Ayrshire and Arran the SNP managed to hold on to their seat in 2017, but suffered a massive drop in their majority, from comfortably over 50 % of the votes to just under 40%. This is still a large share, but going from most of the votes being cast in your favour to a majority of constituents actually voting against your party can’t be a welcome change.

In what was initially a surprise- although one that will become ominously more common as we discuss the other seats in Ayrshire- 2017 saw the Conservative Party grow from just shy of 15% of the vote share to more than double that amount, going on to become the second largest party, overtaking Labour.

In Central Ayrshire we have a similar story. The SNP lost the voting majority while still retaining their seat. However, in 2017 the majority was far slimmer, with only 1267 votes between the SNP and the rising Conservative Party. Labour here again lost out, completing a downward trend from holding the seat in 2010, to second place in 2015 and third place in 2017.

In Kilmarnock & Loudoun there was some variation from the trend set by the two other seats discussed so far, namely that Labour managed to retain second place rather than trailing behind the Tories. However, the Conservatives again managed an incredible increase in votes, from around 12.5% in 2015 to more than double at over 26%. Again, in this constituency the SNP held their seat, but the pro union parties totalled a larger voter share when added together. On the other hand, the SNP managed to get their highest share of the vote, at over 42%, which meant their safest majority at over 6000 votes.

Finally we get to Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock, the largest upset among the four. This was the only seat the SNP didn’t manage to keep from 2015 and the only place in Ayrshire that elected a Tory. Yet again labour performed poorly and placed third. The victory for the Tories was only slightly tainted as they didn’t manage to get an overall majority of the votes, totalling just a tad over 40%, with a majority of over 2700 votes, not insignificant but not the biggest win either.

So what does this all mean? Labour have fallen very far from 2005 and 2010, when they won unambiguously in every Ayrshire seat, and have now dropped to third place almost everywhere. Meanwhile, the Tories appear on the up and up, even winning a seat in Ayrshire and biting at the heels of the SNP in every other seat, something that would have been ridiculous to suggest in 2010. Are the SNP on the way out after their incredible high in 2015? I don’t think so, at least not for a while. The SNP are resilient, having made a comeback from losing the independence vote by winning 56 out of 59 seats in Westminster, and managing to hold a majority in Scotland in 2017 despite the loss of 21 seats. One cause for concern for the SNP is that in every seat in Ayrshire more people voted for unionist parties, Labour and Conservative, than the pro-independence SNP. It’s hard to say if this trend will repeat itself this year. With Brexit looming ever closer and most of Scotland voting against it the SNP might stand to gain votes. The Conservatives are now the second largest party in Scotland, both in Westminster and Holyrood. It’s difficult to say if they can repeat this come December, but having sold themselves as the only viable opposition to the SNP, it’s possible that the SNP downturn might continue and we could have a Tory in every Ayrshire seat come the new year. Labour stand in a poor position. Corbyn managed to win a larger voter share than any other Labour leader since Tony Blair, but didn’t perform well in Scotland, remaining about as popular north of the Border as Milliband was. Labour do have an opportunity, however, if they manage to position themselves as a pro union party that will give voters a second say on Brexit. They could then take advantage of the current political climate and undercut both the SNP and the Tory party, but this would require a massive effort to deliver.

You may be wondering why the Lib Dems have not been mentioned in relation to these seats. That’s because in every single seat the Lib Dems went from having between 15% and 10% of the votes in 2015, to political irrelevance, not even topping 2% in any seat in 2017.

I’ve tried to be as unbiased as possible while writing about past elections and I hope I managed that above, but if you are a long-time reader of the ACU you can probably guess which way we all lean. Rather than tell you what to vote out of any ideological reason I’m going to be a little cynical and encourage you to vote tactically.

Vote Labour no matter what seat you’re in.

If you’re worried that Labour won’t win, vote Labour- even if they lose, the next time the seat is contested Labour will stand a better chance of victory; If you think Labour will win, vote Labour so they will get a larger majority; If you want Brexit, vote Labour because they will get the deal done in 6 months; If you want to remain, vote Labour because you will get a second chance to beat the leave vote. If you want to remain part of the union, vote Labour in order to protect the NHS, the economy and worker rights, which are themselves the best arguments for the union; If you want independence, vote Labour because the Tories will not give Scotland a second referendum and you can vote SNP in the Scottish election.

Vote Labour.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Ayrshire Institutions: The Last Train Home

Getting the last train back from Glasgow after a big night out can be an adventure in itself; Whether you saunter on down the carriage with your blue lagoon in hand, or rush in covered in sweat because it’s a Saturday and you forgot the last train on a weekend is at quarter past 11 so you ran full pelt because you swore you would not be getting the vomit comet bus home at 3 in the morning EVER AGAIN. At the weekend, with carriages packed with all manner of inebriates, football fans to hen do’s, work nights out to gig-goers, the atmosphere can turn from camaraderie to hostility in an instant. That social pressure cooker environment has no doubt produced some memorable moments in your life, as it has in ours. In loving tribute, we’ve collected a few of these stories from our readers- some …… For those not familiar with the last train just assume these stories will be PG 13 at best. Think of this like tales of the unexpected or twilight zone, except you know what to expect and it will probably be more purile.

Our first story is a cautionary tale about being a little too straight-laced.
It begins with the all too familiar conundrum of a broken toilet door. As the out of order sign flashes incessantly, a group of frustrated passengers congregate outside, shifting awkwardly and muttering to themselves. Until a hero announces himself from among their ranks. “Ken you can jimmy the door open on these toilets, aye?”, he says. our story teller doesn’t see exactly what this enterprising gentleman did to open the door, but for the grunting and banging it sounded like he just broke it down. Now, I’m sure you respect private property as much as everyone else here at the ACU, but our story teller was desperate. With half an hour till his stop and his back teeth already floating, he did what everyone else in that carriage did- queued up and pissed in the sink (the toilet was really, genuinely out of order.)

Now you might be thinking all’s well, that ends well, and if this were a Shakespeare comedy you might be right. But it’s not, so you’re wrong. About ten minutes later, after everything has seemingly settled down, a young man comes up to the toilets, sighs, and- to no one in particular- says “Out of order, aye?” At this, half the carriage jumped in all at once, a smug chorus telling him exactly how to strong arm the door. Surprisingly, however, the young guy balked at the thought of joining this mob of relieved delinquents. “am no breaking into a broken toilet” he says, and sat himself down. It quickly became apparent that, much like everyone else a few moments ago, this boy was struggling, but after a while of moving around on his seat managed to get comfortable. The next five minutes went by uneventfully, and likely would have continued as such, had God been watching that night. As the train draws near Dalry, just passing the bridge that flies by over head, there’s a wee bump in the rail. An insignificant hiccup, under normal circumstances almost imperceptible, that is, unless you have a bladder full of vodka coke and a head full of misguided principles. Watch, as our story teller did: the bump approaches. The bump passes by. On the honourable young mans face, a thousand emotions all expressed at once. Relief, rising to panic, then to anger, and finally to acceptance as his integrity slowly pools around his feet. The train rumbles on. The out of order sign blinks mockingly. A choir of neds laughing. A harrowing scene.

The next stop on our journey drags us kicking and screaming through the unwanted details of a couples married life. Good advice for a happy marriage is not to go to bed angry, and much like the marriage bed, the last train home is not something you should climb aboard if you’re in the middle of an argument. Hash it out before you get on, because, by god, you won’t be the first couple to decide on divorce on the last train home. Three lads, one of them our story teller, were sitting down when a couple, already arguing walks on, sitting on the set of seats behind them. The theme of this argument, as is the case with a great many relationship woes, was jealousy. Now jealousy is a slow and insidious poison- it makes people act in ways they would never otherwise and hurt those they love the most. This couple, a pair of rockers in matching denim jackets that had been married for near 15 years(Mr and Mrs Rocker from this point onwards), were arguing because Mrs Rocker was jealous of two things: The first was that Mr Rocker had taken his previous wife on holiday to Turkey five times, but not once taken the current love of his life so much as down to Wales. Without knowing the full details of their relationship, this seemed a reasonable concern for Mrs Rocker to table. The second reason she was upset was that Mr Rocker had previously been willing to engage in something she had termed “experimental sex”, but was now beginning to bore her. The other passengers shift in their seats. Mr Rocker turns red as a stop sign. Visibly embarrassed, he attempts to rein in the situation by pleading with her, saying He’d take her to Marmaras tomorrow if she would only stop talking. But it wasn’t enough, Mrs Rocker had tasted blood. The poor guy was crucified. despite Mrs Rockers complaint that he was somewhat boring these days, apparently in his hay day he would engage in things we’re unable to describe due to decency’s sake, however rest assured the other pasengers were given a full, if unwelcome account. We don’t know how this particular story ends however, with our story teller having to get off at his stop before the drama was over. For our part, the ACU hope the couple managed to patch things up, go off on a nice trip abroad and do things to each other that would make your mother blush.

The last stop on this frankly arduous journey is a bit of a weird one. The last train is never a sober affair, and consequently full of red faced older gents who think their insistent patter is a gift. Imagine you and a few friends managed to bag a table seat, it’s a long way home and you’re thankful you won’t be standing the whole way. Things are grand but then one of these guys swaggers up, no big deal yous have a spare seat and he seems nice enough. Yous all get chatting and you can tell he’s had a few but so far he’s amicable enough and you share a few exaggerated polite laughs. Until the conversations takes a turn. Apparently his daughter is away on holiday with her boyfriend, just turned 16 and they are away celebrating. That’s lovely, you begin to say, before he bulldozes over your pleasantries with “she’ll be pumping away like a rabbit the now” with a massive grin on his face, laughing away like he just told the funniest joke in the world. The conversation stopped dead. No one else at the table laughed, no one else on the carriage laughed, and there was still twenty minutes to go before the the story teller’s stop, every minute of which was filled with this father, oblivious to the change in atmosphere, elaborating endlessly on how lewd a time he expected his daughter was having. Awkward.

On a characteristically more serious note, please remember to treat rail workers with decency and respect; the last train home is always a mess, and it’s them that have to clean up the booze, sick and whatever else we leave behind when we get off. They have to deal with the drunk patter and break up the fights. They make sure we get home safe, so spare a thought for them.

Postal Strike

The Communication Worker’s Union, which represents over 110,000 workers within the postal service, voted on whether or not to go on strike. This passed with an incredible majority, with 97% voting yes. With a turnout of around 76% this makes it the most powerful democratic mandate in recent British history. To put that in context, the last time a general election drew a turnout percentage that high was in 1992, before my lifetime.

This strike will be the first of its kind in nearly 10 years, and with numbers like these it’s clear to see that there is a lot of passion behind the vote and a motivated union membership. The strikes come after the CWU said an agreement reached with the Royal Mail to raise pay, reform pensions and reduce weekly working hours from 39 to 35 per week by 2022 was being disregarded, and that management were trying to get out of holding up their end of the bargain. Worse still, there are worries that new CEO Rico Back- who has a reputation for treating workers poorly- will try and turn the tide of reforms back even further.

These concerns are troubling for anyone who works within the postal service, but could also mean a reduced quality of service for those who rely on the Royal Mail as standards are dropped to push for profits. The majority of parcels across the country are delivered via the Royal Mail service, with rural post offices representing vital community hubs. Further privatisation and selling off of assets could cut older or vulnerable people off from the rest of the world as well as hurt the economy. The general secretary of the CWU, Dave Ward, has said that they will “fight the board’s asset stirpping plans” and build the postal service into something that “supports local communities and [in] growing the economy.”

While this is a national vote, Ayrshire is playing a key role: with a ballot turnout higher than the national average, as well as holding gate meetings and demonstrations before the ballot papers even arrived, the Kilmarnock office is a centre of activity and planning. Tam Dewar, the CWU divisional representative for Scotland and Northern Ireland, gave us the following statement:

“Royal Mail Group and Communications Workers Union concluded a groundbreaking agreement in 2017. This tied the Board of the newly privatised Royal Mail to grow rather than contract as a business, to maintain the separate functions as a Group, protected terms and conditions in the face of ‘gig economy’ terms – zero hours contracts with no annual leave or sick pay and no pension entitlements – and agreed a strategy to negotiate changes required through automation, a changing workload and increased consumer demand for next day parcel delivery.

This agreement, “The Four Pillars” was groundbreaking since the privatisations of the past had resulted in asset stripping, wage cutting and job slashing in pursuit of the bottom dollar. And important aspect was an agreed shorter working week to 35 hours as full time employment. Many commentators questioned what RM got in return but the main benefit was a good stood of industrial stability and agreed Agenda for reform.

Within a year of the Agreement being signed RMG gave the CEO Moyà Green a golden parachute of several millions and hefty pension to leave the Board, quickly followed by the Chief Operating Manager and Department heads who had signed the deal. A new CEO was recruited through a £6m buy out from an RMG subsidiary GLS. This was a European based parcels business operated by German National Rico Back, a Swiss based multi millionaire who made his money through atrocious working practised described by a German TV documentary as “verging in slavery”. Mr Back made it plain that he had no international of honouring the 4 Pillars Agreement.

Following reports from throughout the UK that relationships had broken down the CWU notified the RMG Board of our intent to ballot 110,000 members pending a period of external mediation.
The strength of our small Trades Union lies in the fact that we have workplace Reps elected in every Delivery Office. This grass roots organisation of how we communicate in a two way conversation with the National Leadership. Kilmarnock Delivery Office is a case in point. Over 100 Postal delivery workers organised by two elected Reps. While most Offices would have one gate meeting over the 7 week ballot period Kilmarnock held a weekly gate meeting as part of meal relief. In many communities like Kilmarnock a job with Royal Mail provides secure employment with a pension in retirement, sick pay and benefits and annual leave pay. This is especially true in small and remote communities throughout Ayrshire. These terms and conditions were won through the efforts of past generations and this generation has been called upon to defend them and we will.

Our Union is organised from Lands End to Orkney including Northern Ireland. We are organised from the bottom up so no Area is forgotten but there are more Postal Delivery Workers in London than in the whole of Scotland. I hold the post which coordinates Union activity in Scotland and Northern Ireland and have a voice equal to any other part of the UK.
Rural and small town communities like Ayrshire enjoy a six day delivery of one price goes anywhere Postal delivery service. This is at threat both from the Board of Royal Mail Group who want to cut service to maximise profit and from the Postal Regulator Ofcom whose main remit is to encourage competition rather than quality of service. The Isle of Man service has just reduced deliveries to five days and our suspicion is that Ofcom plan a similar attack.
CWU members deliver to every address in the UK. Our golden rule is ‘Never Cross a Picket Line” in respect of the fact that any group of workers going on strike a losing pay must have a genuine grievance. In return many other Trades Unions repay that respect through support at times like these.

Our Union does not want to strike, we want our employer to honour the Agreement made, if not the picket line calls.”

We at the ACU wish the postal workers and the CWU the best of luck in the coming months, and would also encourage our readers to show their support. We would also like to remind anyone upset by the disrupted service not to direct their anger to the hardworking and burned out workers, but the people that have put them in this position, namely Royal Mail Group, who have demonstrated they have no qualms with reneging on a previously established agreement. If we continue to allow private entities to do this, it won’t be long until you face a similar situation with your own employer. Maybe you already have. As this and previous strike action demonstrates, without strong unions we’re at the mercy of empty corporate promises and platitudes.

The Ayrshire Boy Who Tried to Kill Hitler.

Small as it may be, Saltcoats has its share of heroes and history. Everyone knows that the town got its name from the salt harvesting industry which formed it. Some might know it was once home to Colin Hay of Men At Work fame (however he did quickly relocate to a Land Down Under). Perhaps fewer people know that it was the only place in Scotland where the Italian ice cream shops didn’t get their windows tanned in amidst the anti-Italian sentiment that swept through the country during WW2. Interestingly enough, it’s got another claim to fame, being the birthplace of one of the men that tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

That man was Otto Kiep, born in Saltcoats in 1886 while his parents were on holiday there. The family were already well respected within Glasgow society, with Otto’s dad working within the Imperial Consulate at the turn of the 20th century. Otto’s cousin would even go onto serve in the British Army. Otto however eventually returned to Germany to study law and take up a job within the German civil service after World War 1.

Otto Kiep (7 July 1886 – 26 August 1944)

Despite inadvertently being part of the Nazi government, Otto was not happy serving under Hitler or following the Nazi party line, once losing his job because he attended a dinner in New York in honour of Albert Einstein. Celebrating an openly socialist, anti-Nazi Jewish German academic was not something a member of the German administration at that time was meant to be doing. Otto recovered from losing his position however and returned to a government role, secretly joining the “Soft Circle”, a German resistance organisation that would work from within the German government and attempt to bring down the Nazis. Their meetings would discuss the on-going war and occupation of Europe as well as organising aid to Jews and political dissidents across Nazi Europe. This group included Germans from all across the political spectrum (at least the parts that weren’t already apprehended) and all walks of life that were opposed to Hitler.

Unfortunately Otto- along with most of the Soft Circle- was later betrayed by a Gestapo informant. For nearly a year Otto was held in prison where he faced abuse and torture.

Otto was, however, also part of another group of German resistance, the far more militant Kreisau Circle. Composed mostly of military men, this group had a more focused idea on how to topple the Nazis and kill Hitler. While there were many plans, the most notable- especially in regards to Otto- was the July 20th incident, where a member of the Kreisau Circle placed a bomb in Hitler’s bunker. The bomb unfortunately failed to kill the Fuhrer, and Otto, despite being in jail at the time of the attempt on Hitler’s life, would soon be killed for his involvement with the group. Around 4000 others would face the same fate in the aftermath.

From this point onwards we know the rest of the story. Hitler would be dead less than a year after Otto, and the Soviets would go on to occupy Berlin, ending the war in Europe.  We do have to ask ourselves how would history have been different if Otto hadn’t been caught along with the rest of the Soft Circle, and if the attempt on Hitler had succeeded? Would the war have ended sooner? Would more lives have been saved?

Today Otto is remembered by the German Resistance Memorial Centre for his opposition to the Nazis, and I think with him being an Ayrshire boy, at least by birth, he should be remembered by us as well.

The Drug Crisis in Ayrshire

Ayrshire has always been an area affected by poverty and unemployment. These issues, combined with strained social services meant that a drug crisis in the area was almost inevitable.

Unfortunately, as the drug trade has boomed, organised crime has moved in, with police reporting there are now four serious and well organised groups profiting off the back of Ayrshire’s drug habit. Among the numerous measures the police have taken in response, some give cause for concern.

The police recently presented a report to South Ayrshire council stating that they had, over the previous year, put more funding into combating the rise of drug related crime, highlighting their tactic of targeting suppliers to strangle the gang’s income, as well as preventing these drugs from reaching buyers. This increase in funding has already shown results, with an increase in the number of drug apprehensions in Ayrshire compared to the same period last year.

New blood has been introduced with the appointment of Mark Hargreaves, taking over the role of Divisional Commander. Nicknamed the “Hammer of the drug dealers of Ayrshire” by the Daily Record- a title that’s a mouthful but invokes the right feeling of the man- Mark is a veteran of the police force of nearly twenty years and before moving to Ayrshire worked in the East End of Glasgow, as well as Pollock and Govan.  

Mark appears to be a man well suited to taking on the drug trade in Ayrshire, both in experience and in attitude. When appointed to the role he specifically called out drug use as a poison in communities, arguing that the presence of drugs in an area leads to an increase in more serious violent crimes.

One facet of this new anti drug trade strategy that is being implemented across Ayrshire is an increased emphasis on coordinating with the community and local businesses. This includes Taxi Marshals, street pastors and even pubs. One such incident resulted in three individuals being caught with drugs in their possession while out in Ayr in early September.

And therein lies the problem. The new spotlight on the drug problem across Ayrshire appears to target drug dealers, the people and gangs that profit from the trade and users together. Tactics like this have a history of falling apart, where the drug user is seen as a criminal rather than a victim. Instead, in areas like Portugal, where drug users are given treatment rather than jail time, far lower rates of drug use and drug related deaths are reported. Treating drug users like criminals leads to higher drug user rates and drug related deaths.

There are doubts surrounding whether or not the drug problem is getting worse in Ayrshire, or if we have simply been an area with historic issues. Ian Cavana, Counsellor for South Ayrshire, has in the past raised concerns over the narrative of increasing drug related issues in the area, instead suggested police are getting better at detecting these issues. Either way the rampancy of drug related issues is not a problem unique to Ayrshire, despite the 82 deaths reported last year; Scotland as a whole tops the charts in drug related deaths across the EU, and not by a small margin. We have nearly double the rates of Estonia, who placed second, and around three times the rate of the UK average; We also have one of the highest rates of drug use in the EU. With around 1.6% of the population estimated to be active drug users the reason behind Scotland’s depressing accolade is clear.

Benzos(like Valium and Xanax) are relatively new in terms of recreational use yet are now topping all other drugs as the leading reason for drug user deaths, with North and East Ayrshire ranking third and fourth respectively in areas of Scotland where Benzos make up the highest proportion of deaths, more so than all other drugs combined.

With new drugs entering into our community and claiming lives, what else is being done to cut off the impact of drugs in our area? The NHS offers services to help users quit drug addictions and groups like Addaction are now active in Ayrshire, trying to close any gaps in rehabilitation services. The question however, remains: Just how much enthusiasm and support do these services really receive from the powers that be?

In a recent East Ayrshire Council meeting Councillor Tom Cook said that a number of constituents had stated they find the presence of people picking up methadone from town centre pharmacies “off-putting”, with many saying “they don’t come in to the town centre because of that.” It was then suggested that the distribution of this treatment should be moved to pharmacies outside the town centre, which would further stigmatise and ghettoise sufferers of addiction, widening the gap between physical and social rehabilitation. While South Ayrshire has an incredibly high rate of supporting people to access alcohol and drug recovery services, constantly topping the Scottish Government’s target, the language of finding people recovering from addiction as “off-putting” speaks to the ongoing need to collectively undo decades of denigrating and dehumanising disinformation propagated by media and governments. This being considered by the council gives me doubts about the faith these institutions have in rehabilitation’s importance in fighting Ayrshire’s drug crisis.

While policies that seek to help users are showing to be successful abroad, is a policy of tarring drug dealers and drug users with the same brush really going to be the policy that helps our community?

Photo by Jonathan Gonzalez on Unsplash