2007 - 2021

Changing Scotland


The announcement from the Sunday Herald couldn’t have been imagined a few years ago (‘The prize is a better country. It’s as simple as that.’) We’re in the middle of rapid change. This isn’t to suggest that the big change that needs to happen isn’t political. It is. But it’s worth looking at how the referendum is part of a wider change movement.

Here’s ten positive ways that Scotland has, and is, changing. We could publish a top ten of the dire ways in which Scotland is fixed and stagnant, but hey, we’re feeling positive. Tell us where we’re wrong and what we’ve missed …

MEDIA The Sunday Herald has taken a brave step, but the fact that it’s such a big news story – a newspaper supporting democracy in the country it publishes in – tells it’s own story. What has changed, just by virtue of having this debate at all, is that it’s suddenly not acceptable for even the pro-Union papers to have a complete absence of columnists with different views. In this sense the referendum has forced and accelerated pluralism into the Scottish public sphere.

Of course there’s a long long way to go. But these first steps are welcome and there’s huge energy and technology giving options for change.

One driver is the collapse of print media. Iain Macwhirter, writing in the Saltire Pamphlet series ‘Democracy in the Dark’ reports that the Scotsman only sells 22,000 full rate copies and has managed to lose 80% of its readership in a decade.

Channel 4 News broadcasting from Stornoway is a marker, as is James Naughtie, Libby Brooks and Sarah Smith returning to Scotland. Even if Jon Snow’s blog – generous warm and intelligent – also felt patrician and oddly colonial (‘From the Farthest British Isles’) – it’s a sign of change.

The fact that the column sent George Foulkes into apoplexy shows a further change. The leaping Lord complained that the Channel 4 Newsman must have spoken to ‘indyluvvies’. He is, it seems, the Gatekeeper in Ermine. That’s the biggest change, the collapse in deference and the loss of credibility of the Labour Party, a move closely tied to the shift in media power.

SPORT In the 1970s, 80s and 90s you’d assume qualification for the national team to a World Cup. The debate was how far we’d get. We should have beaten Brazil in West Germany in 1974, where we were unbeaten. Nowadays it would be seen as a triumph (and a minor miracle) if we qualified at all. Kids today will grow up assuming it’s the natural thing for Scotland to have a top-three-in-the-world tennis player.

Murray winning Wimbledon already seems unremarkable.  Just as Scotland being beaten by Italy at rugby would seem too.

I still believe that Scotland’s under achievement in sport is due to a calamitous combination of chronic under-funding, poor strategic leadership, under ambition and a failure to create a mass pool of engaged, motivated and healthy-active young people.

Of course the biggest shift is in league football. The Old Firm don’t exist any more, and the biggest derby next year in the SPFL will be in Dundee, where a revived Dundee United under a young manager face a promoted Dundee FC under Paul Hartley.

The Herald reports today that ‘Rangers’ may have only sold 2000 season tickets, as the trust between fan and board has completely evaporated in face of gangsterism, greed and fiscal incompetence on an industrial scale.

Club entities like the Rangers FC and Heart of Midlothian may re-emerge in new forms, but with Aberdeen resurgent and the highland clubs holding on to a credible place in the top tier, and with two cup finals without a Glasgow giant, Scottish football’s death has been exaggerated.

Yes it’s going through a painful process of restructuring and downsizing to an appropriate scale. But this is a healthy and essential process after years of excess.

CROWDSOURCE FUNDING There’s a real benefit in volunteer energy and amateur zeal. But there’s also a need for some resource to be brought into projects and campaigns. Previously people were caught between having to commercialise their work (not always appropriate) or having to apply for grants, which can form another sort of dependency.

Now, a brand new tool has arrived giving an easy way for projects to gather small amounts of money from many pockets. This collectivized financing is going to allow lots of creativity as people unlock better ways to connect.

RENEWABLES It didn’t get the recognition it should have at the time, perhaps, ironically, swamped by the referendum coverage, but the expansion of the Cruachan plant near Oban is a huge unspoken step forward to a sustainable future. Without the endless fruitcake Nimbyism of the anti-wind power brigade, hydro is the quiet giant of Scottish renewables.

The station, near Oban, can currently produce up to 440 megawatts (MW) of electricity, but if expanded it could generate 1040 MW.

That would mean hydro power could provide up to a third of Scotland’s generating capacity in the next ten years.

Whilst all forces are obsessed with oil, the real story about Scottish energy independence, and the real ‘future focussed’ story is about the shift from carbon polluting fossil fuels, to renewable energy.

WOMEN in POLITICS With an openly gay Tory leader, a leader-in-waiting in Nicola Sturgeon and with Johann Lamont at the head of Scottish Labour, women in party politics are surging ahead despite the tired cliche of Scottish ‘macho politics’.

The Scottish Government’s recently announced commitment to 40% representation on public bodies is a major breakthrough and this is maybe an area where you can expect cross-party support?

All male panels on tv or public debates are now condemned, and rarer, if still, especially on tv, a persistent problem.

But beyond party politics it’s not difficult to think of powerful articulate woman at the very heart of our public debates: Lesley Riddoch, Joyce Macmillan, Mandy Rhodes, Kate Higgins, Meg Beresford, Shona McAlpine, Saffron Dickson to name but a few.

GAY RIGHTS With Patrick Harvie and Ruth Davidson leading two of the five political parties in Holyrood, there’s a public sign of leadership. In February with couples snogging in the public galleries we had “a historic day in the history of the Scottish Parliament”, which received the front-bench backing of Labour’s Jackie Baillie and Conservative Jackson Carlaw, with MSPs voting by 105 to 18 in favour of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill.

There’s loads to do, no doubt,but it was a huge step forward for equality.


Patrick Geddes as pollinator, mounted on a beehive behind the old Netherbow, by artist Kenny Hunter.

SELF-RECOGNITION From the gentle confidence of Katie Morag to the great strength of Celtic Connections, to the participatory and ambitious celebration of the SAY Awards, to Itchy Coo, the cultural cringe, whilst not completely shed has been shrugged aside in many areas.

From the rehabilitation of Patrick Geddes (pictured right) to the recognition of John Muir (coast to coast) we are beginning to get a feel for our own history.

This has some way to go, but the momentum of change is clear.

SMOKING It’s difficult to describe to people who didn’t experience it, but smoking used to be virtually compulsory. Every pub, restaurant, home, bus, and cinema was filled with a thick fug.

Scotland was the first country in the UK to introduce a smokefree law in March 2006. It’s a law change that Scottish Labour should be commended for. It’s a classic case of change-resistance. Remember beforehand when people declared that it would be a disaster? There’d be riots. Pubs would close. There wasn’t a peep. Yes a few pubs closed. The results were, as anyone with any sense would have predicted. A Glasgow University study showed a 15% reduction in the number of children with asthma being admitted to hospital in the three years after the ban came into force in Scotland. In 2007 a study of nine Scottish hospitals has found a 17 per cent fall in admissions for heart attacks in the first year after the smoking ban came into force.

Other benefits included:

  • a 39 per cent reduction in second hand smoke exposure in 11-year-olds and in adult non-smokers
  • an 86 per cent reduction in secondhand smoke in bars
  • an increase in the proportion of homes with smoking restrictions
  • no evidence of smoking shifting from public places into the home
  • high public support for the legislation even among smokers, whose support increased once the legislation was in place

See details here.

This isn’t a political point. It’s an observation about change. What one days seems impossible and immoveable, seems ridiculous the next.

GAELIC In 1985 there were only 24 primary school children being taught in Gaelic; last year the figure was 2,953. Sixty-one schools across Scotland now offer Gaelic-medium education. There’s a time-delayed-revival coming.

But more than that, the appreciation of gaelic as a part of Scottish national culture is complete with only reactionary forces biting back against a new consensus.

POLITICS There’s some key facts to back up what people feel to be palpably true, that we’re experiencing a huge democratic revival.

Voting intentions for young people announced today show 63% in Scotland compared to 31% in London, that’s being put down to the ‘referendum effect’. Funnily enough, if you speak to people and encourage their views, they respond. Who’d have thought it?

The referendum creates changes in its wake.

There’s now more than 98,000 16 and 17-year-old registered to vote. This isn’t a question of Yes or No. Whichever way they vote this is about re-engagement from disenfranchisement.

Whilst there’s a lot of focus on social media (guilty!), up and down the land there’s the return of the public meeting. There’s nothing like unmediated live public events – away from your telly, ‘off the sofa politics’, and that’s the real winner here.



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  1. Alex Buchan says:

    It’s good to see all the different aspects brought together. I’m concerned though that the analysis isn’t balanced when the possibly effects on a no vote are left out. A no vote is being related to as, either just a missed opportunity for more fundamental change or as an unknowable factor. It’s a bit like talking about UK elections without wanting to talk about what might happen if the Tories get elected with an overall majority in 2015. The fact is, people do talk about possible trajectories after, either a Tory or a Labour election victory, and you can be sure the three unionist parties have given thought how they are going to capitalise on a no vote. A no vote wouldn’t just be a historical event, it would also be a conditioning factor in virtually all of the areas you’ve highlighted. For instance, in the press it will be seen as having decided the issue of Scotland’s future and will probably lead to a refocusing on UK politics and a lessening in interest in Scottish politics. I accept it wouldn’t be 1979 all over again, but there needs to be some thought and analysis over how things could be taken forward in the event of a no vote.

    1. Lou Nisbet says:

      There is no need to plan for NO as it will not happen. Two simple facts
      1 This referendum was all but won before we started – look at the last Scottish GE.
      SNP – 44%(List vote) Greens 4% Others supporting yes 2% = 50%
      2 The SNP acknowledged this on the night when someone asked a new SNP MSP when they would hold the referendum. ‘When we know we will win’ was the reply.

      So forget about NO and the nonsense from BitterTogether and the MSM it WILL be YES!

  2. yerkitbreeks says:

    In sport, as in many things, there are three keys to regular success – the pool of talent ( Man United sucks in from the world ), the money invested ( UK did best in those over-indulged Olympic sports ) and the home crowd size. So, we’ll probably never occupy the top echelons except perhaps in curling, but hey ho, it’s all about participating and getting healthy as a nation.

    After watching a piece in Landmark I contacted the business ( oyster ranching on the West Coast ) as they were looking for investment, to find they hoped to get the big boys in ( so if it does well look out for it being flogged off to an overseas outfit ), so Crowdfunding has a bit to go up here.

    Oh how I wish you could have added Land Reform to your list. As a lad in Aberdeenshire I recall “immigrants” from Orkney coming in to farm – and superb they were at it given they had no feudal history unlike the mainland, so behaved as entrepreneurial owner/occupiers. Today there are some coming in from Ireland ( mainly to Dumfries & Galloway ) but unless all future immigrants are to be settled in the urban Central Belt, Land Reform is desperately needed. 300 acres in the right spot will support a family so why does my neighbour here in the Borders have 53,000 acres ? The selfish few have to be persuaded to share and probably Land Tax is the key – after all a Dane who has bought an estate here does pay a bit, except it is to the DANISH government !

  3. Finlay Macleoid says:

    If only you were right about the Gaelic language in terms of a time related revival coming. It needs a far greater base with an infra-structure that can cope with large numbers and not the small numbers we have at present. I do hope you are right but the numbers just don’t add up are they are far too small.

    1. Neil McRae says:

      Well said Fhionnlaidh, where is the evidence for a “revival”? Just wishful thinking in press releases, unfortunately. If only it was that easy!

      Otherwise – yes, optimistic times in Scotland.

      1. Terry MacGhilleathain says:

        Cultural tourism is an international phenomenon. Here in Nova Scotia we add one billion to our annual income just because of the residual Scottish enclave and Gaelic traditions. Scotland as ‘little England’ is not very enticing specially when you consider that the USA already has English tourism locked up. But the unique brand of Celtic Scotland has always had its own appeal to the diaspora. So train up your wee ones in your own tradition and trust in the well proven adage – if you build it, they will come. Suas Alba!

  4. wanvote says:

    A few other positive changes: Commonweal Project, Business for Scotland, CBI revealed, Glasgow to be first solar city, Games Organisers forced to think again by £17k + demonstration of people power, Scotland’s Future, Team Scotland, Written Constitution, Radical Indy, Women for Indy, many strong political voices – aye it’s all good!

  5. carthannas says:

    Thanks for that, Mike. A really inspiring list. Particularly pleased to see Gaelic there, my children have all benefitted from Gaelic-medium education. Not only that: the long running series Eòrpa is still one of the best documentary programmes on any channel, whether in Gaelic or English.

    My only argument with your choices would be the inclusion of James Naughtie. Had he returned to bring the analytical and balanced reporting for which the BBC is known – quite unjustifiably so, it is now obvious – then I’d agree with you. As it is, he’s just another BBC Scotland reporter promoting a pro-union agenda. There’s enough of them already without importing more.

  6. J Goss says:

    “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
    ― Alasdair Gray

  7. jtweedie says:

    I’m a Rangers fan and one of my dreams has been for them (and all the other clubs where resources allow) to do a lot more work with their communities, including supporting and developing local young people, including girls. Giving access to their facilities for community groups, or helping develop local sporting amenities would go a long way to helping ease Scotland’s health problems (particularly those caused by lack of exercise).

    Sporting success can and does produce a feel-good factor which surely must be beneficial to people, not only in generating greater confidence, both in self and in others, and provide an impetus for continued future success. It can give a nation a morale boost to see people like Murray winning major championships, or athletes performing well at the highest level (including hopefully a future Scottish Olympic team).

    Thankfully the SFA has finally learned that to be a success solid foundations must be built, and these foundations are now in place in the shape of the football academies around the country, with professional coaches aiming to develop young players in the right way, injecting them with skill and ability and the confidence to succeed.

    The football clubs are professional organisations and look after themselves first, but I’d like to see a better recognition for supporting and developing the game in Scotland, as it would benefit them in the long-term as well as the national team.

    Sport is just one way in which nations that present themselves to the wider world and I think a more confident, self-aware and fairer society will provide more opportunities for Scotland to shine on the world stage.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks for the comment. Makes sense.

    2. Joe Rockss says:

      jtweedie I am sorry Scottish football is in the state it is owing to the ineptitude of the SFA. The blazers of the SFA have watched as Scotland status as a footballing nation has nosed dived over the past 30 years .The current President Campbell Ogilvie is compromised because of his involvement in the old Rangers EBT and the “wee tax case” discounted options scheme .
      Too many on the SFA committees are more concerned with badges on their blazers than the grassroots football.

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        And you could add an appalling lack of innovation, commercial, cultural or strategic? Our league football is without a sponsor and our youth football is sponsored by MacDonald’s …

      2. jtweedie says:

        I’d recommend reading Mark Wotte’s blog to see the kind of stuff that’s ongoing. There’s definitely room for improvement at the top, but it does appear that some effort is being made at the grassroots level to make a change. It will be several years before we see the fruit of this, but I personally think it looks encouraging as the focus is on the development of skill, tactics, fitness and with those, confidence. http://performance.scottishfa.co.uk/

        There’s no doubt been mismanagement on a massive scale in the past, but some people have stepped up and decided to make a change. We need those in the top level clubs to buy into it or it might never work.

    3. Craig P says:

      Investing a large amount of money at the elite level in sport can return dividends in terms of major championships won, gold medals at international events, etc. But it is bad for the health of the nation as a whole if elite success is pursued at the expense of grassroots facilities. This happened in Australia in the build-up to Sydney 2000, and now Australia (despite their healthy image and high level of performance of elite Australian athletes) is one of the most obese nations on earth.

      UK Athletics is currently following the same model. It was successful in London in 2012. But I would rather pursue a grassroots strategy targeted at raising the health and wellbeing of the general populace, even if it meant Scotland never won anything at elite level.

  8. This is a political point, re public health: I supported the then Labour Executive in it’s proposals to bring in a smoking ban and remember writing to encourage them not to give in to pressure from the tobacco companies because this was far too important. The SNP also supported ScottishLabour to make this happen. When it eventually came to pass I even got a letter inviting me to Edinburgh Castle to celebrate it’s passing into law.
    When the SNP bring forward similar legislation to tackle alcohol abuse through minimum pricing the Scottish Labour Party can’t find it in themselves to give their support. This is very disappointing and frustrating but goes to show how far SLAB gets itself lost in internal politics.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Yes I agree completely. It could be Labour’s lowest point in my opinion, not backing a change policy so obviously in the public good. I also remember (Lord) John Reid arguing against the smoking legislation saying it was ‘the only pleasure in a working mans life’…

  9. JBS says:

    Johann Lamont surging ahead?

    Ooh, you are awful…

  10. What a very insightful article. It is sometimes difficult to see history in the making when we are living through it. It reminds me of notices in B&B’s and hotels that claim to have colour TV in every room. What other kind of TV’s are there!! Eh am over 50 so eh ken the answer. Football, I find is a great way to explain life and outcomes in general. Because of it’s cyclical nature it can explain the rise and fall of empires. If anybody said that Rangers would be in the bottom tier of football 5 years ago they would have been locked up as a basket case. Then we had all the doom merchants Billy Dodds, Chick Young et al saying that Scottish football is facing Armageddon. The truth is there are winners and losers in every situation. The wee clubs that Rangers have played on their way back to the top flight have been made more financially secure because of the crowds that they have taken to their grounds and that’s good for the grass roots of Scottish football.
    I wonder if the USA will fragment into smaller nations….They seem too diverse to stay together. One for the future.
    Anyway I digress. Independence winna be easy, we should make that clear, but the benefits, I’m sure, will outweigh any downside. That’s because we will be spending our money on Scotland’s priorities
    Well done to Dundee for getting back to the top league on merit. Eh kent we could dae it!!!
    So can Scotland.
    Keep up the good work

    1. Muscleguy says:

      I’m only 48 and I remember the arrival of colour telly in Ayrshire. Then in early ’72 we emigrated to NZ and found to our dismay that colour telly there was still a few years off. Both countries have changed enormously for the better and having lived in a small vibrant independent democracy I can’t wait for Scotland to become one.

      Last time I got this excited by a vote we were changing the voting system in NZ from FPTP to MMP. Two epochal democratic votes in my lifetime mean I’m spoiled (we were in London for the Devolution referendum, moved up here in time to vote for the resumed parliament).

    2. gonzalo1 says:

      As someone who was at Dens Park supporting Dumbarton that day can I congratulate Dundee FC on their promotion. However, the ref turned down (some would say bottled it) when the visitors had a stonewall penalty turned down with 8 mins to go. If it had been awarded, and the Sons’ had scored, then Hamilton would have been promoted. However, that’s football and that’s life. Swings and roundabouts.

  11. umbra13 says:

    Good to see Crowdsource Funding highlighted as a positive change factor. For too long, those initiating arts projects have been supplicants having to exhibit the right behaviours and ring the right bells (outcome-driven Knowledge Industry mince etc.), whether to State or Lottery bureaucracies. And institutions such as Creative Scotland remain sources of the old-fashioned patronage in their gift. I have been pleased to contribute in a small way to a variety of projects recently, such as last month’s “Reclaimed” exhibition in Glasgow, and hope this can be a decentralising self-governing wave of the future.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Yes, I think it’s an overlooked key to enabling projects and groups real autonomy.

  12. SquirrelTowers says:

    Great list, and very positive. I can see changes over the time I have lived up here (1995) and chunks of it seem to me to be linked to the setting up of the Parliament. I can only imagine how many more positive changes we can make happen in the next 20 years if we get a Yes vote. Also strongly agree that you have included the growth of renewables (witnessed first hand since 2007) and the importance of women (and family friendly working hours) in Holyrood. I am hoping that people activated by campaigning in the indyref continue and we see fewer career politicians and more people from ordinary backgrounds in Parliament and local government.

  13. Al Ross says:

    I was one of the folk jon Snow spoke to in Stornoway. I am not an Indyluvvy whatever that is George and I’ve voted Labour all my life. I was a Dont Know and spent the last 6 months debating with myself and reading and listening. In a strange way what the Sunday Herald said was where I ended up in my deliberations albeit they managed to articulate it in a much better way! I see an opportunity to end up with a country we want, its going to take a lot of hard work and will not be easy but I geniunely think we can get there

  14. Bob Waugh says:

    This is a really good detailed explanation why if there is a No vote in September, it will not be “business as usual” – even though The Usual Suspects will try to tell us it is. All this change has to go somewhere. By the time for the next Westminster elections it would be clear that the people of Scotland had been lied to about a new deal on increased devolution,and revenge would be taken.
    But messy, eh? Time for for a clean break with the past in September.

  15. A very good article with which I mostly agree.

    As far as sport is concerned however we could be doing so much more. For starters we could make it law that clubs should be handed over to supporters groups for a fair price. Looking at Hearts, despite their impending relegation their future looks very bright as a near debt free fan owned club. Wouldn’t it be great if this happened to all professional teams.

    Secondly we really should be investing in other sport. Scotland needs more than two rugby teams for starters. I’d also love to see Shinty expand to become a cultural cornerstone much like Hurling in Ireland. Get shinty clubs running in primary schools across the country, Shinty and Gaelic are heavily linked, they could grow hand in hand.

  16. James Coleman says:

    “the Scotsman only sells 22,000 full rate copies and has managed to lose 80% of its readership in a decade”

    That 10 years is more or less from around the time the SNP started to look like a Government in waiting through to actually becoming one with a resounding overall majority in a proportionally elected parliament. And throughout that time the Scotsman was carrying out a nasty hate campaign against the SNP; still is.

    But is the management too blind to see what is perhaps the cause and effect?

    1. gonzalo1 says:

      Surely they can’t ignore the financial/commercial implications of their stance? Or can they..?

  17. Paul Goodbrand says:

    You might want to have a think about how many of us “Rangers” supporters there are, and how many of us will be voting for independence, and helping to build a better nation. Sly digs only reveal a nastiness that Scotland could do without.

  18. Alexandra-M- says:

    Really fantastic article.

    People fear change, we are creatures of comfort and ritual – try to change things and the fear of the unknown sinks in and we try and talk ourselves out of those changes, regardless of how we will actually benefit in the long run.

    The referendum has been a turning point for politics in Scotland. People are up off their bums and participating in a level of positive activism I’ve never seen, their eyes are being opened, and once you see something it’s extremely difficult to unsee it.

    1. James Craig says:

      Yes I can see a Scottish version of the Uk state with centralised government in Edinburgh with a population rising to say 15% of the countries population by the year 2100, with high prices and low unemployment sucking the life blood and population from the rest of the country, where chronic unemployment rules amidst whats left of the withering periipheral population , it would have affected shetland to if they hadnt declared their own independence back in 2065. meanwhile Edinburghdonia (Scotland) continues pandering to Scandanavia who realy arent interested in Scotland anyway.


      Lets do something different,

      A Federal Scotland, 14 states based on the present health board areas .

      A voting system where the voter rules not the party chief s(STV.)

      A 2 chamber Federal government in Edinburgh


      Switzerland 7 million population richest country in europe per capita.

      Germany Largest economy in Europe and largest exporter in the world barr China

      Canada, fastest growing economy in the western world

      USA still the largest economy in the world

      Australia , who was going through an unprecedented boom while the rest of the western world was going through the recent mill.

      the most democratic and economically successful structural system in the world.

      PS each state will also have its own locol government councils within each state.

      States can learn best practise from each other

      federal government in edinburgh cant overule state decisions .

      i would vote yes for that , but getting rapidly unimpressed with Nordic fixations ,as seems to be too commom of recent weeks.

      1. gonzalo1 says:

        USA is an economy and system that is a helluva lot different from Germany. An independent Scotland will be flexible in the way its politics and economics work. If something is inefficient then change it, I don’t see the problem. And look to others for ideas. It is the UK economy that has stuck to the same old tired failed right wing politics.

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