Last Ferry to Orcadia
LAST FERRY TO ORCADIA: From The Province Of The Cat by George Gunn.
On the Wednesday night before the election a violent storm hit Caithness. Around eight o clock the sky turned black and great sheets of snow, sleet and hail lashed in from the Atlantic on a cruel North West wind. Ghostly, almost thunderless, white lightening flashed like a signal out of the firmament. Surely, I thought, this is a portent, like the Valkyrie seen over Murkle before the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, for one of the most important and strangest elections in Scotland’s history.
Because what sort of election is it when the main issue on the minds of the majority of the Scottish people, no matter that the media insist it isn’t, is independence for their country. But not so, it would appear, for the SNP, the only party that can deliver it? The SNP constantly deny this, but they have not campaigned for it. What an extraordinary set of affairs. Do they really think they can achieve independence by ignoring it. Eammon De Valera famously declared that he would defeat the British Empire by ignoring it. It worked for Ireland in the 1920’s but I fear it is not a strategy which will work for Scotland in 2020’s. Like the ultra-violent May Gobs, with their white lightening on the night of the 5th of May, this strategy has never been seen before.
Meanwhile off the North West coast of the Highlands the NATO exercise “Strike Warrior” which will run for two weeks 8th May and will involve more than 30 warships, three submarines and 150 aircraft from 11 nations and is a final test for the UK’s “Carrier Strike Group” ahead of its first operational deployment to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific. There will be a shadowy role for the Vanguard submarines. That’s right – the vessels which are based at Faslane and armed with Trident nuclear missiles. Getting rid of Faslane and Trident being one of the main reasons many Scots want an independent country and an issue hardly raised at all, if ever, by any of the four main parties during the election campaign. “Strike Warrior” will be a war game with the UK force on one side and NATO’s Standing Maritime Group on the other. It will take place off the west coast of Scotland – the Hebrides, Campbelltown, Loch Ewe, Ullapool and An Garbh-eilean off Cape Wrath in North West Sutherland, upon which live ordinance of various kinds will be dropped. Something that can happen almost no-where else in the world. The NATO nations – the UK, the US, Denmark, France, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland – will be joined in this ugly heavy metal jolly by Australia with 34 naval units taking part. Soon there will be nothing left of An Garbh-eilean. If the rocky island were our political aspiration then it is being pounded into rubble.
In a statement Scottish CND chair Lynn Jamieson said: “The UK government has not been coy about this war game. It has been trumpeted with all the posturing and a strut of an Edwardian Dreadnought parade – the flag waving prelude to the slaughter of WW1. At the heart of the promotion is the carrier Queen Elizabeth and its bizarre role in a Cold War style patrol of the South China Sea. This aggressive behaviour is utterly infantile and irresponsible in the midst of a pandemic, and a climate crisis, when the clear and urgent challenge is to learn to collaborate for the safety of us all and the future of the planet. We are already hosting a multitude of UK military bases and installations and it is intolerable that we are also forced to be the military playground for the United Kingdom and NATO. We want something more wholesome for our land and waters and a reputation for making peace not war. We trust that the new Parliament we will elect on Thursday will take that vision forward.”
On Wednesday afternoon before the portentous Gobs of May hit us I walked over the Hill o’ Forss and the clear blue sky was full of the drifting tracer residue of military jets high up in the atmosphere. Some conspired to form temporary Saltires in the vast Caithness sky and I thought of the significant elements of the Duke of Marlborough’s army camped just over the border at Carlisle in 1707, just in case the bribery and corruption didn’t go as planned. The timing of the “Strike Force” war games is uncannily prescient. They got scant mention in the TV news.
As much as the Scottish people are denied the whole truth being published in the broadcast and print media they are also denied true democracy when they come to vote for their parliament and subsequently their government. Because despite what the political parties, and the BBC and STV, think we have to remind ourselves that the ultimate political power still resides with the people and not with elected politicians, in however rigged a system. It certainly does not reside with a naval fleet, armed to the teeth, steaming up and down our Western sea-lanes and blowing up bits of our country.
The mad scheme to build a fusion nuclear reactor at Dounreay, the increasing militarisation of the Highlands as a playground for the armed forces and the planned expansion of the Trident missile system bases at Faslane on the Clyde, were all issues which were never discussed once in the detached, online campaigns conducted by the four main political parties. As a result we have a digitalised, virtual zoom-democracy where the only light shining is a dull shade of grey and the mantra of the moment, chanted silently around the Parliament building, obscuring the words of our poets, is – whatever you say, say nothing.
Scotland is being presented to its people as a country, unique in the world, where we can only concentrate on doing one thing at a time. It’s the pandemic recovery or a second referendum. Both, somehow, are impossible. This is a nonsensical notion and speaks to the trope that the Scots, despite their long and distinguished history of invention and discovery, are now reduced to being slow witted children who have to be led by the hand and are incapable of doing anything for themselves. Before the votes are counted you could be forgiven for thinking that we are all living in a surreal world where nothing much makes sense.
Time passes. The day of the vote dawns bright and sunny. The Valkyrie driven May Gobs have calmed. As I approached the Pennyland School polling station there was a queue stretching from the door to the street. This was also something never seen before in Caithness. Inside it was a busy scene of good natured organised chaos. There were not enough booths. There were no pencils. Voters had been instructed to bring their own but many hadn’t. So people were wandering about looking for a pencil. There were boxes of them by the registration clerks but they seemed to be being kept a secret. Despite this there was a sense of occasion. This was a mixture of Covid procedures, about which most Caithness folk have been very fastidious, and an understanding of the importance of the exercise we were collectively engaged in. The Pennyland School is in the middle of “the Atomics”, the housing estate built in the late 1950’s to house the Dounreay workers. There is still very much a strong Unionist sympathy here, with the correlation to employment at the DFR/PFR-HMS Vulcan nuclear complex some miles West along the coast. But despite this nuclear hegemony which it exerts over the town of Thurso, “the Atomics” and its associated British politics, is very much an island of industrial plantation and has the feel, I often think, of a lost and forgotten world. Caithness is a rapidly changing society with all the problems of having being shackled to an economic singularity, which is now receding into history and the nuclear repository at Buldoo. Caithness badly needs the creative impetus an independent Scotland will provide.
I walk down to the sea and look out to the sea. The Hamnavoe, the scheduled Northlink ferry, is steaming out of Scrabster bound for Stromness in Orkney. I think to myself – if Maree Todd does not win here for the SNP and if the SNP does not win well across the country we will all find ourselves on the last ferry to Orcadia.
Time passes. The following morning breaks with the bad news that Liam MacArthur has increased his majority for the Lib Dems in Orkney. Orcadia is calling. This is countered, with celebration and relief, an hour later by Maree Todd holding Caithness, Sutherland and Ross for the SNP by a majority of over 2,000, 43.1% of the vote. The Lid Dems in second place with 36.1% were bolstered by both the Tories and Labour lending them their vote. This is the tactic which pans out over the day. The Lib Dems/Tories/Labour are now the Unionist Party rendering Scotland into a two party country. The truth is, since 1999, it always has been. Now it is out in the open. The SNP, for all its faults, represents change and positivity for Scotland and the Unionist Party are the democracy deniers. They will crew the last ferry to Orcadia.
The result of the election so far, for the Highlands at least, is Kate Forbes massive 24,192 majority, 56.1% of the vote, in Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch with a turnout of 68%. This is the biggest majority in the country and probably the highest turnout for any constituency which nationwide is at 64%. This, despite the portents of storm and the tragic effects of Covid, is heartening.
What is not heartening is listening to the BBC. They are a broadcaster in denial. They refuse to recognise the significance of what is happening here. They are obsessed by the SNP not reaching an overall majority. A majority which is almost impossible under the Holyrood voting system. Ah, you have reached the Moon but you haven’t got to Mars. They cannot accept that with 39 seats won, so far, and with 824,094 people voting for them, the SNP are by far the majority and that independence, through a referendum, is the people’s desire. Twice as many people voted so far for the SNP than for the Tories and yet we have to listen to the ramblings of Murdo Fraser, who has never won an election in his political life, and Willie Rennie, who is the only Rennie that actually gives you indigestion. Both sound as though they are on hallucinogenic drugs.
All that is the usual annoyance I have grown to expect from the BBC. However, two things chilled me. I was moved by a young woman who was vox-popped on an Edinburgh street who said that she didn’t support a referendum on Scotland becoming independent because she was English. This on a day when the SNP were winning spectacularly from Caithness to Kintyre and from Lewis to Edinburgh. The other spectre at the feast was the terrible news from Hartlepool. What is perplexing is that an articulate young woman can feel this way about Scotland whilst the English electorate seem to be committing political suicide. Boris Johnson has already rushed into print via the Daily Telegraph to announce that he will drop the portcullis of Westminster on the Holyrood parliamentary road to a Scottish referendum. So why is this young woman so needlessly worried about an independence referendum because she is English, when the UK government simultaneously announces it will deny democracy its legal head? This situation cannot stand for long and the young woman’s fears must be overcome and she must be reassured. Know Your Place Unionism will lead to the destruction of democracy. As far as I can see none of the English political commentators who appear on programmes like Newsnight have a clue about any of this. Scotland needs to embrace that young English woman in Edinburgh and assure her she is welcome, valued, needed. If anything, she is exactly why we need to be an independent country. She is us.
Time passes. Saturday in Caithness is bright, cold with an endless sky. The May Gobs are never far. You have to keep your eyes open. The list votes have yet to be announced. Gillian Martin, with a 64% turnout, retains Aberdeenshire East with a reduced majority of 1,889 over the Scottish Conservatives who increased their vote share by 11%. That increase came from the Lib Dems who were down 10%. The Unionist Party lost again. Today NATO launches its “Strike Warrior” exercise and they will begin bombing Innis Garve in the name of freedom. We are counting votes here in the Highlands, across Scotland, as the May Gobs return, in the name of freedom. The intellectual gaps in the SNP’s independence narrative are clear for all to see. Fighter jets scream across the Caithness horizons highlighting one. Trident, the death eggs of NATO, are nested in Scotland is another. Our future relationship, as an independent country, with the EU may be yet another. Yet I can’t be a pessimist, because I’m alive. That was the mantra of James Baldwin. I am optimistic because optimism is a state we can consciously bring about. I am also hopeful because I cannot, no one can, afford to despair. As the novelist Ali Smith put it recently:
“Hope is a tightrope across a ravine between a here and a there, and that tightrope’s as sharp as a knife blade.”
I am here in Caithness. Nervously waiting to be there. In a new country. Where anything is possible. There are 24 more constituency seats to be announced. The list votes will follow. The last ferry to Orcadia could still yet sail. On Radio Scotland David Mundell, the ex-Secretary of State for Scotland, told the nation that the constitutional question is a reserved matter and Nicola Sturgeon can think what she likes. Know Your Place Unionism in action. It doesn’t matter how you Jocks vote. We know best. In opposition to this, simultaneously as Mundell was talking, Audrey Nicoll held Aberdeen South and North Kincardine with an increased majority and 42.3% of the vote. 23 to go. The BBC tell us that this result, so far, is not “the miracle” the SNP were looking for. No-one in Scotland is looking for miracles. We are looking for democracy. The ability to put into action what we vote for. Will the Westminster government resort to the rule of law to keep their tied state together? The answer from David Mundell would appear to be “Yes”. In Renfrewshire South and Dundee East the people have also said “Yes”, but “Yes” to an independent Scotland. Mundell is already on the last ferry to Orcadia.
The day wears on. The words of Burns come to mind:
“Why should we idly waste our prime
Repeating our oppressions?”
Bad news. The SNP could not reclaim Aberdeen West. The Lib Dems lent the Tories their vote so the Unionist Party wins by 8.1% and with an increased majority. Whatever that actually means anymore? With Aberdeen West goes any chance of the overall majority the BBC drool on about like braxied dogs. The SNP hold Edinburgh Pentlands with their majority up 2.9%. The thought occurs – is this the longest election in the history of the human race? I am tiring. Galloway and West Dumfries goes to the Tories. This time it is Labour who lend their votes to the Unionist Party. In the end, who cares what intellectual holes there are in the independence argument when we are merely, as Burns sang, repeating our oppressions? Elections are about the sheer bloody arithmetic of battle. I can stand it no longer and walk down to the sea and stare out over a grey, cold Pentland Firth. The Hamnavoe ferry emerges out of the mirk West of Hoy en-route for Scrabster. The fluorescent strip across her bridge like an orange hyphen in a formula of rain is the only colour as the Mey Gobs batter my head with a vengeance. The last ferry to Orcadia is tied up at the Scrabster pier, ready to sail, with David Mundell as purser. The war planes of NATO are his Valkyrie.
Time passes. The results are in: 64 seats for the SNP, 31 for the Tories, 22 for Labour, 8 for the Green and 4 for the Lib Dems. Alba nowhere. George Galloway nowhere. Except that they are shackled by the chains of their egos to the cruel bulkheads on the last ferry to Orcadia. For Boris Johnson and to a lesser extent Sir Keir Starmer the message from Scotland is clear: you cannot manage what you don’t understand and you can rarely understand what you have never experienced. The Scottish people have spoken most eloquently. We are like the tide; our desire is our surge. I can hear the surf beating at Thurso East and the words from one of my favourite poems, “The Sea Is History”, by one of my favourite poets, the St Lucian Derek Walcott, for some reason floods into my mind,
“in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea-pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of history, really beginning”
When it was all over Nicola Sturgeon made a fine speech. Just one seat off the impossible majority. But now she has eight Green allies so the bloody arithmetic is on her side. She is now empowered. The delay in the results only compounded the urgency emanating from the ballot box. We need, as soon as is practically possible, to implement the creation tools we posses in order to fashion our new society, post Covid, post UK. If Hartlepool is the future of English politics, then so be it. We can feel sympathy for our neighbours, the people of England, and we must help them, but we cannot let that divert our purpose. We have to remember, every day, that we have kissed the future. That sweetness must not turn to the rust of memory in our mouths.
©George Gunn 2021