Painting the Wild

In Johnstonebridge, my mum went out to paint again, once I, the last of four, was finally shut up safe at school. To become yourself again after years of engaged motherhood, I know, is difficult and wild and desperately needed, especially for a loner. To be alone again just for a while, in silence with yourself.

She was never like some genteel ‘lady artist’ with fine brushes and watercolour-paper, sitting prettily admiring ‘the view’. She would strap a massive canvas to her old-fashioned bicycle and an old army bag full of oil paints, turps and big brushes, reach the wildest and truest corner she could, find a final secret magical place, set up her tools and just sit. She told me that after a while of stillness, the life began to forget she was human, the wood would gradually begin to stir – even investigate her. Maybe a curious bird would be the first, hopping tentatively closer in the branches while getting back to its everyday business. Maybe sometimes the rarer treat of deer or hare – creatures whose eyes could meet hers in a surprise moment of shared daring, wonder and intelligence. Or a pheasant, sudden and alarming flap and scream, heart-jarring. I never saw this; I was necessarily not a part of this stillness, so I’m only guessing. I did learn though to be still in the woods alone in my own way as a child, and felt something of the strange magic, the life and death of the tangled land, the fairy glades and the sudden terrors, the bleak places that don’t want to let you through.

When she painted, it was a dialogue with the soul of the place. She painted it as it was, as it felt; not just how she saw it. I imagine her in a kind of vital trance of activity, a religious act of commune, mixing colours, bringing life and love and spirit to the white of the blank canvas.

She talked to old loner locals too on her travels, found out the stories of places and people, the history you can’t find in books. Later she found old maps of the area and made copies which she coloured delicately, re-inscribed old place-names, tried to bring the old times (which were not even our own, as the place was not ours) back to life, to keep them real.

We were incomers; we would never be really accepted. Local women seemed as suspicious of my mum’s furtive exploration and her openness to disregarded old people’s tales as they were of her keeping goats and hens (eventually sheep and pigs too) – seeking supplies and advice from reluctant farmers, and always making friendly and engaged conversation, even with men. A woman, in this community, should clean the house dressed in a checked nylon overall covering good clothes, should keep her hair demure and tightly permed, should blandly feed and neatly dress children, maybe do some knitting from paper patterns, chat mildly to other women. She should not wear Indian cloth and dark hair hanging free (or tied in a headscarf when necessary, when working) or sew princess dresses or dolls for her daughters from made up patterns in her head, should not be steeped in the stories of the old or in paint and animal shit and straw and mud, or splashed by goat’s milk, birth-blood and amniotic fluid. Should not say what she thinks. She should beware of magic.

(I realised recently that a part of me when I hear the word ‘community’, imagines a mob of locals wielding pitchforks rather than a welcoming collection of people working to live together).

Sometimes she would show us her discoveries, her more accessible places, a little chance to share in her wonder. Elizatown was one – an abandoned village built right on the gravel of the Kinnel’s riverbed, only reached by a difficult steep path through old beech wood, loamy and ferny – a long walk for short legs. I went there fewer than five times in my life – the last time I was around twenty and walked there with my boyfriend in summer and explored the haunted ruins, and skinny-dipped. We had to run from hungry clegs in the end.

The woods were always my favourite part of being outside as a child (the proper mixed deciduous woods, not the dark uniform forestry tracts, which had the wrong kind of fear, more true bleak horror than fairy), though they were never quite as big or wild as I thought they should be. It was too quick and sudden that you’d be out the other side and into a field of cows or onto the road – in places the roaring dual carriageway from north to south which cut the land in two. I could still hide there, make dens, find trees to climb and sit in, or wild damsons to eat if I was lucky, or bitter sloes, but could never really get lost – often a necessary part of the stories I was living in the woods. So I would generally have to invent the lostness too, purposely wander through the densest thorns and undergrowth, take the longest and most difficult route; create real adventure. My big brother showed me how to properly use the woods for play – tree-climbing, making swings, having wars, hiding out commando style, but I often went there to be alone. Especially the woods I knew well enough to play at getting lost in, well enough to hide.

Growing up seemed to rob me of this world, bit by bit. First love, then motherhood kept me always in company. Now a stressed mature student, I spend far too much time indoors and too much of that living only in my mind, only connected to books and screens, practically forgetting my body even exists. Someday I’ll remember myself though, go into the wild places alone again. Maybe I’ll write, maybe I’ll paint, maybe just be, but I know that waiting for me there is a part of me I’ve missed for a long time.




Footnote: the original of this piece was written in late 2012, towards the end of my undergraduate degree. Happily, I have since been able to fulfill the hopes I express in the last paragraph!

A version of this was published in the winter 2016 issue of The Notebook: A Progressive Journal about Women and Girls with Rural and Small Town Roots. Issue (#5), ‘Women & Land’.


The Referendum Will Not Be Fairly Televised

(with apologies to Gil Scott Heron)

You will not be able to rely on TV news.
You will not be able to turn on the BBC and hear balance.
You will not be able to help folk kidding themselves
about the safety of the status quo
and the need to close their ears to nasty separatists,
because the referendum will not be fairly televised.

The referendum will not be fairly televised.
The referendum will not be brought to you
by a journalism with integrity.
One side will not be allowed to speak
without scornful and derisive interruptions.
The other side’s wilful misrepresentations
will not be challenged, their airtime will not be limited.
They will not have to deliver their no-vote devolution promises,
better, faster, safer change, the closest thing to federalism…
because it’s over now and you
should accept the result and eat your cereal
because the referendum will not be fairly televised.

The TV will not show you pictures
of Britnat extremists on the nineteenth
celebrating their ten per cent margin of success
by giving nazi salutes, kicking people when they’re down,
burning saltires and screaming abuse… at a peaceful gathering.

The referendum will not be fairly televised.
The referendum will not be brought to you by
those who care what you think, what you think
is either irrelevant because you live in a region, not a country,
or dangerous because you’re a nationalist extremist,
like Hitler, get it?
The referendum will not give you right to reply.
The referendum will not allow that your side is not irrational,
deluded, following a cult-like leader.
The referendum will not let you look
like a voice of reason or a normal person,
because you are now the other, a nat, a separatist
and nothing you say should be taken seriously.
The referendum will not be fairly televised, sister.
The referendum will not be fairly televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised.

The next time? Well, we’ll see.


Journey to Yes

I was a little girl when I first heard of Scottish Independence. I was born in the early 1970s into a Glasgow family who now lived in Argyle, at the Holy Loch, right next to where the US navy at that time kept their Polaris nuclear submarines. My dad was a CND member and campaigner and a Labour voting trade unionist and the use of Scotland (anywhere else being too close to human populations!) to store these hideous, offensive and pointless weapons was just another affront on top of the fact that they existed at all.

It was my oldest brother that I remember being told about Independence by, about a movement which had been ongoing for decades and which asked why Scotland, as a country in its own right, shouldn’t rule itself. Why we should continue to be a convenient holiday home or dumping ground, and always unable to do anything to overrule decisions made by our larger neighbour which affected us, often very negatively.

Back then, it seemed like Scottish Independence would never be achieved, it was so obviously the just thing, but equally obviously very unlikely to be allowed by those who have long benefited from the arrangements as they stood – it had long looked like just another foolish dream, like peace or equality.

When we voted to have our own government in 1997, I could hardly believe it. Of course I voted for it, but I was still astonished that it was allowed to happen.

This Thursday’s vote – well, it’s been a long time coming, and I’m still amazed that it’s been allowed to happen. A legally binding, constitutional decision made by democratic process. Wow. And yes, they’re trying their hardest not to let us make the choice based on honest and fair information – of course they are.

And I’ve followed the saner and more complex reasons against too, as well as those easily put aside, just in case I’ve been led by some emotional cause instilled in childhood and was just being a blind follower. And I certainly don’t want to abandon the left in the rest of the UK, but I think they’ll do fine – there’s a lot of them, and I’m sure if they examine their consciences they couldn’t ask us to stay just for some vague hope of saving them through some as yet undefined process – it certainly won’t be by our voting power.

And I don’t want to anger the population of England who apparently might take this personally, but if they are (and I’m sure most aren’t), then I can’t see how us now saying ‘Oh well then, never mind, I guess Westminster rule is okay’ will stop that from happening. And I like feeling a bit British as well as wholly Scottish and I don’t see why that has to end.

And I certainly completely respect anyone’s decision to vote, fully informed, for what they think is right.

But this is not “Alex Salmond’s vanity project”, it’s not fueled by some foolish dream of utopia and it’s not about the English. It’s not about the squabbling between factions or vandalism on either side or the personalities involved. It’s not about who is better. This is simply a chance some of us have waited for our whole lives to let Scotland, this rich and vibrant country, speak for itself, rule itself and be properly present in the world. Let’s remember that that’s what this is about and not allow the will of elite establishment figures to mess it up.


Telling Language

An undecided voter asked me recently whether I know of any good reasons to vote no – whether someone with Scotland’s best interests at heart could know everything I know and still reasonably vote no in Thursday’s referendum.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself, wondering why some intelligent people do think that Scotland should not be an independent country, and having heard many very poor arguments as well as some I have a lot of sympathy with, my answer is still no, I genuinely can’t think of any good reasons why Scotland shouldn’t be an independent country.

I’d like to focus here on the very many poor arguments, and argue that the language in which they’re usually spoken suggest that those using them have depended on biased mainstream news outlets and No campaign leaflets (which have been shown to be full of misinformation and empty of actual relevant information) to make up their minds, and state why that is a problem for democracy.

Yesterday, thousands gathered outside the offices of BBC Scotland in yet another peaceful protest against the worsening bias of the supposedly impartial BBC during the campaign leading up to a referendum which asks citizens of Scotland: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. Earlier in the year, John Robertson, a Professor in Media Politics at the University of the West of Scotland published a report entitled ‘Fairness in the First Year’, a purely data-based examination into the content of messages put out by the main evening news on BBC and STV.

The research by Professor Robertson and his team found that television news was in fact significantly biased against Scottish Independence in several ways, including the ordering of news items, the use of unchallenged ‘expert’ sources and the number of politicians representing each side allowed to present their views. The one that I find the effects of most easily visible when debating with or listening to No voters is a media tendency to personalise the views of the Yes campaign as those of Alex Salmond. This, the report points out, is ‘a long-established strategy to weaken arguments [by] shifting focus from collective reasoning or shared values to supposed personal desires and personality traits’, and has been historically used to undermine or demonise many UK political figures, including Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

According to the UWS study, this strategy, or tendency, occurred repeatedly in one direction – Better Together arguments were never conflated with the desires of any single individual. It also notes that personally insulting comments by anti-independence figures against Alex Salmond were very prominent and were frequently echoed in the tone of news presenters. In my own experience, this is so prevalent within this debate that it’s probably not visible to many people, it is now just the norm.

In the mainstream news, the Yes campaign are also consistently described as ‘nationalists’, even though many within the campaign would not describe themselves in this way. This and the also common use of ‘separatists’ allows people to conflate Yes campaigners and voters with those from troubled world regions in other news items, or in the worst cases, with ethnic nationalists who want independence because of a belief that we are racially superior to those of other nations, or even because we hate the English.

In my own debates with those friends or acquaintances on facebook who unthinkingly post No campaign propaganda which I know is untrue (and while they themselves are unlikely to change their minds, I reason that they might have undecided friends who might benefit from seeing a polite Yes voter point out the flaws in some of these incorrect assertions), I have found that I am commonly referred to as a ‘Nat’, or told that I have been duped by Alex Salmond. No matter how much I explain my reasonings or post links to information stating the untruth of the original post, in the minds of some I represent either a deluded fool or the bogeyman, and in either case nothing I say should be listened to.

I read recently too about the psychology of rumours, how during World War II, rumours would pop up in the US population and sap morale (one bizarre example was: ‘the Russians get most of our butter and just use it for greasing their guns’ ), but that the government found it very difficult to dispel these rumours, for many reasons, but one relevant to the current situation in Scotland is that it has been shown that rumours which play upon our emotions are especially difficult to dispel with rational arguments. This means that even when we show that the NHS Blood and Transplant service (NHSBT) have flatly denied Gordon Brown’s claim that an independent Scotland would lose access to these services, or show that pensions will be safe in an independent Scotland, it is difficult for people not to keep feeling the initial fear or panic that they felt on hearing the rumour/misinformation, even if they do believe that they were lied to in the first place (lies often compounded by trusted media sources, which have consistently repeated these untrue assertions rather than challenging them). In fact, the feelings which have been provoked in the population over this peaceful democratic decision have been more akin to those produced by wartime propaganda.

I have a gut feeling too, that the more far out and incorrect the scare story, the more difficult it is to correct it without sounding crazy – especially when corrections never seem to be published by guilty sources. I’m often left feeling that the original claim is so far from the truth that to explain this would take longer than the other person would be prepared to listen to. And this worries me because an awful lot of people seem to be making this huge decision based on false information, not just biased, or overly optimistic or pessimistic, but incorrect. How can a result now be considered democratic after such a flawed information base has been set up? How can we let the misinformed hear the truth and convince them to believe it?

But it comes back to this in the end – this is another trick. All of the No campaign’s fallacious arguments and misinformation, all of the demonization and undermining of Yes voters as a group that nice people wouldn’t want to belong to, all are just deliberate distraction from the fundamental arguments for Scottish independence, because there is no genuinely good counterargument which justifies the risks and uncertainties brought about by a No vote.

Scotland is already a separate country, whose needs could be better met by a government voted for by the people who live here. Scotland should be an independent country and the Edinburgh agreement signed by the leaders of Scotland and the UK guarantees that any negotiations afterwards must be in the interests of both parties. There is no certainty either way, but Scotland could and should be an independent country in a mature and respectful relationship with other countries. This is the rational starting point towards a better future; not utopia, but the best possibility of working towards something better.

I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument otherwise.


A Foreign Country

Another common No voters’ worry (or No campaigners’ strategic insertion of problems) that I’ve seen again and again, is that many of us have family and friendship ties on both sides of the border and it might seem that suddenly these people will become ‘foreign’ to each other or will have to choose an identity of Scottish rather than British, in the case of those who live here. That Independence for Scotland will create a border where there wasn’t one before.

Well, firstly, sense of identity is complex and necessarily very personal. I consider myself both Scottish and British and I will continue to feel both as part of my identity. We’ll still be living in the British Isles and there is a huge amount of shared history, culture, language, even political ideology between the people of the different countries of Britain. I am Scottish first, and like many others, I have sometimes found it annoying when my Scottishness has been seemingly discounted, even when forms or questionnaires have only a UK option, or when ‘English’ is used by newsreaders instead of ‘British’. Or when Scottish people are stereotyped or made the butt of jokes in ways that are no longer considered acceptable for most other groups of people.

But the entity which is Britain, the Britain which exists in us, is neither wholly good nor bad, and has undeniably partly formed me and lots of elements of my life and I see no need to ever deny that. Britishness, as far as I’m concerned, will still be a part of my identity even if Scotland votes to become an independent country, which I hope it does.

As for the border, well, the important point to me is that the border does exist and has done for a very long time (although historically it‘s moved around a fair bit…) and it is already, by its very nature, a border between two separate countries with a longstanding separate legal system, education system, health service, currency. We are used to knowing that when we pass the sign that says ‘Welcome to England’, we are in a different country. And crucially, for me, that isn’t a bad thing.

I lived 30 miles from the border for most of my childhood and crossing it was exciting. I would feel about it as I would entering any foreign country, aware of difference, but enjoying that; the different way of speaking, the small variations in culture, all slightly merged very close to the border on both sides, but all distinct too. And knowing that it’s probably relatively safe because being neighbours on the same island, we share a lot – a general desire to be gun-free, enabling a much safer environment to be in, a language or languages, literature, music. Perhaps generally a sense of the importance of society and what politeness, restraint, decency and fairness mean (although these are huge generalisations, and may not be accurate, but I think that they do exist in our own beliefs).

We are pretty well calibrated as well as encompassing many vibrantly different cultures, some of which themselves used to be foreign. But England is already a separate country from Scotland. The border won’t be a new thing.

And I have lots of friends who originate from (or still live) South of the border too, and lots of musical heroes, favourite writers, filmmakers etc. Sure, anti-English sentiment exists, as does anti-Scottish sentiment, and pretty much anti-everything sentiment. People feel all sorts of different things. I can’t see how this country ruling itself would make that worse.*

Obviously, I’m speaking for myself, and not everyone will agree with me. But I think that it is possible to see this not as a ‘breaking up‘ a ‘ripping apart‘ or even a ‘divorce’, but as entering into a more mature relationship. Much of the fear discussed here is around matters which are of the mind and of the attitude and which we can therefore deal with pleasantly if we choose to. So let’s celebrate our differences, our similarities, while at the same time respecting each other’s rights. Let’s be in a partnership of mutual cooperation rather than this strange historical melding which leaves Scotland’s decisions in the hands of the English electorate and Scotland feeling scorned and powerless.

*Although it is entirely possible that the worst sides of the current campaigns have made this worse already, and especially the media spin on the campaigns – however, there is no reason to think that this would be improved by a No vote, especially since the level of misinformation and media bias might make such a result look undemocratic and unfair.


The Divorce Analogy

In the first televised debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, the latter claimed that Scotland remaining in a currency union with the rest of the UK would be like partners sharing a bank account after a divorce (or words to that effect).

The marriage/divorce analogy has been used a lot by the No campaign and like the ‘family of nations’ one I think it doesn’t really work – not least because the campaign for Scottish Independence is not a campaign to break up a relationship, but rather to strengthen it by giving both partners a more equal status (of course, I say ‘both’ but another flaw in the analogy is that there are more than two partners in the UK ‘marriage’, but hey ho…).

In order to examine the analogy more closely, I’ve tried to think of a marriage/love relationship which is as close to the situation of Scotland and the UK as possible. All of the partner’s responses are things I’ve read or heard said by various No voters or campaigners adapted as closely as I could to fit the relationship situation. It’s a little bit tongue in cheek, but hopefully illustrates my point…

So, imagine that a good friend of yours has been in a relationship for quite a while. They’ve had their ups and downs, but both partners seem to love each other and they share a lot. But your friend hasn’t always seemed very happy recently and when you ask about it, they tell you that they wish they were permitted to make decisions for themselves like other adults do in our culture.

‘What do you mean?’ you ask.

‘Well,’ they reply, ‘I have to hand over all my wages to put in the family pot and then he/she gives me back an allowance out of it. I’m allowed to spend what I like on most things, after my share of looking after the children and the house (which, by the way, includes the expensive changes my partner has made to his room, which I didn’t agree to), but I don’t get to have a say in the biggest and most important things. And if I complain, I’m told I should be grateful for what I have.’

You say to them that this doesn’t sound like a great basis for a relationship, despite the good bits and advise them to discuss the matter with their partner. After all, you say, the strongest relationships are built on communication and mutual respect.

Your friend doubts that a reasonable discussion is possible, because they’ve tried in the past, and even if their partner says things will be better, it never happens. Still, they agree to give it a go if you come along to witness. This is what you hear:

Friend: Darling, I wanted to talk about formally making our relationship fairer, I’m just not happy with things the way they are and whenever you promise to change, it doesn’t happen.

Partner: Please don’t leave, I love you, can’t you see how destructive a separation would be?

Friend: I’m not leaving, I’m not going anywhere, I’m just asking for a more equal relationship…

Partner: Hmph, well, you’ll never manage without me, I’ve always given you everything, you hear?

Friend: But surely all my earnings have contributed a lot to the household? The housekeeping money you’ve given me isn’t even as much…

Partner: Well if you leave, I’m not letting you use any of our stuff.

Friend: But can’t we come to some kind of amicable agreement? Surely it would be easier for both of us if we talk about this rationally and peacefully, share what we can, have a gradual transition towards a better relationship?

Partner: No. My family is hurt by what you’ve done, causing division like you have after all we’ve done for you. I’ve told them all about it. They’re angry, things will never be the same.

Friend: But I love your family, that isn’t what this is about, I never wanted division, just a fairer relationship.

Partner: Well, let’s see how you cope when those people we threatened show up…

Friend: To be fair, I didn’t want to be involved in that…

Partner: (sobbing) Can’t you see how good we are together? It’s us against the world, we’re stronger if we stick together. The whole community fears and respects us.

Friend: Yes, but we don’t have to lose the good stuff, we could be equals, allies, still sharing all the good things we created together, but each making our own decisions, respecting each other. And to be fair, it’s possible to have respect without quite so much fear…

Partner: You just think everything’s my fault, that it will all be perfect if you leave. Well it won’t. Bad things will happen and then you’ll be sorry. And you’ll beg me to take you back, but it’ll be too late.

Friend: I never said it was your fault; it’s just that the balance is unfair. Don’t you think we’d both be happier if we were more equal, like all our neighbours are?

Partner: Oh, the neighbours, you just want to invite them all round all the time, well I’m not having it. We’ll have to put in an extra security system and how are you going to pay for that? I don’t want all this division…

(This could go on for ages, but I think it’s quite long enough as it is…)


Family of Nations

So, my eldest daughter left home yesterday.*

The night before, joking, I said to someone in a facebook thread in which we’d been debating independence, something along the lines of: ‘I have to go, stuff to do, my daughter’s leaving home tomorrow – bloody separatist that she is ;)’

A silly joke, but it got me thinking about some of the analogies used by the No campaign, particularly David Cameron and George Osbourne’s use of ‘family of nations’ (as in don’t break up this…). Like the marriage/divorce analogy used by Alistair Darling (among others), there are lots of ways this doesn’t work – eg. are we to assume that one or more of the countries making up the UK is a parent and others are children?**

If so, why should we accept a relationship which implies such a discrepancy of power? And if Scotland is one of the children, then isn’t it normal that we should one day want to take responsibility for our own lives? … And of course Scotland isn’t actually thinking of ‘leaving’, just trying to acquire the normal powers enjoyed by most modern countries. And unlike Scotland, our daughter hasn’t been contributing more financially to the ‘household’ than she gets back…

So it’s not really a useful analogy, but if I was to run with it for a while… It’s obviously difficult and in some ways really sad to see Beth go, she’s a friend as well as our child and we’ll miss her terribly, and I’m understandably nervous about her having to fend for herself in the big bad world.

But I didn’t at any point consider saying ‘Don’t go, we love you!’ or, for that matter: ‘Well, you’ll never manage. Without our backing you’ll struggle and you’ll be back begging for help, but it’ll be too late. On your own head be it…’ Both of which seem to have been fairly prominent messages to Scotland’s Yes voters from some of the No campaign and in the open letters from celebrities.

We respect that our daughter is a capable individual who has to find her own way, make her own mistakes and enjoy her independence. We’ll always be here for her when she needs us, but she really doesn’t need us holding onto her with threats of a doomed future, or how because our family has been wonderful while we all lived under one roof, that that means she has to stay right here with us for all her days. And as an independent adult, our relationship with her might change a little, but there’s no reason why it should be a change for the worse!

So – I don’t think of Scotland as a child leaving home, I think that would be truly an insult to Scotland, but if we were, why not encourage us and support us rather than swing between despair at us ‘leaving’ and threats of retribution because of hurt feelings?

* I did ask my daughter’s permission before publishing this!
** Of course, maybe, since we’re contributing so much to the value of the pound, we’re actually supposed to be not the child, but the major earner in the family who is about to walk out and leave our children starving? But then if that’s the case his analogy still doesn’t work – how many families do you know where the major earner just gets a portion of their earnings back and is at the same time criticised for being a scrounger?
** Or maybe of course it’s a nod to Wittgenstein’s family resemblances theory, but that seems unlikely and wouldn’t get rid of the problem of discrepancy of power.