A Kangaroo Cousin Looks At The Saltire

In June 2017 Di and I left Sydney and spent two weeks in Amsterdam and then ten days touring around the Scottish Highlands. As much for myself as anything else, I decided to set out my impressions and thoughts of Scotland in this period of great uncertainty about the future of the place I was born.

In the canal house flat where Di and I spent most of our time in Amsterdam we had access to four BBC TV channels, including BBC World News. English newspapers were also available from a number of bookshops. The Times did a same-day European edition, while the Guardian and the Observer were a day late. The news was dominated by the twists and turns of the Brexit negotiations, the wash-up from the Grenfell Tower fire, the weather (in Britain, it’s always about the weather) and for some light relief, Glastonbury and Wimbledon. There was very little news about Scotland.

In Scotland, we spent time with four of my cousins and their partners. Brexit didn’t really ever come up in the conversations we had. I detected a sense of inevitability about it—even though it was obvious that no-one could foresee exactly what it would be or how it would affect them. My overriding impression was of Scotland being a passenger in a slow motion car crash happening in dense fog.

After the prosperous and convivial atmosphere of central Amsterdam, with its cobbles, canals, outside bars, swarms of well-scrubbed tourists and fleets of retro bicycles pedalled by tall, tanned, healthy Dutchies, arriving at Glasgow Airport was a real shock. The terminal was shabby compared with Amsterdam’s gleaming Schiphol and people in the passport queues and in the terminal looked poorer—less healthy and less well dressed.

My overriding impression was of Scotland being a passenger in a slow motion car crash happening in dense fog.

We fronted the car hire desk and after a bit of haggling, settled on a just returned Mercedes B190 diesel. Driving out (and into) Glasgow Airport is like navigating a maze—with very few signs—but eventually I managed to get us over the Erskine Bridge and on the road to Loch Lomond and the north.

Half-way up Loch Lomond we grabbed a quick coffee in the Slanj bar, a gloomy, converted church in Tarbet, then on through the enduring natural magnificence of Glencoe to Ballachulish, the bridge over Loch Leven and up the side of Loch Linnhe to Fort William.

St John's, Ballachulish


My cousin Joan and her husband John run three properties in or near Fort William. First there’s their residence, The Grange, a magnificently restored Victorian townhouse with a turret, set in grounds overlooking the loch. It’s rated highest quality, 5 Star Gold, by Visit Scotland, was the winner of the ‘Most Hospitable Bed and Breakfast’ at the 2016 Highland and Islands Tourism Awards and holds numerous other awards.

Then there’s The Old Byre, a self-contained converted croft next to Joan’s mother’s house at Blarmachfoldach, up in the hills about three and a half kilometres from the town centre. And finally, there’s West Lodge, a refurbished two bedroom Highland cottage on the main road into town.

We had been due to stay in the main house, but a late cancellation meant the West Lodge was available for the four nights we were in town—and it turned out to be absolutely stellar. That first night Joan cooked us dinner and we talked about what we might do over the following few days—weather permitting. Did I mention that in Scotland it’s all about the weather?

The forecast was promising and John—a builder by trade and a part-time fireman—said we were lucky and proceeded to regale us with a tale of how atrocious the weather had been the previous week (this was in June mind!). John had been one of the drivers for a team of five fellow Fort William firies as they attempted the Three Peak Challenge. The task is to climb the three highest mountains in Scotland (Ben Nevis), England (Scafell Pike) and Wales (Snowden) within 24 hours. The team managed it in just under twenty hours but as climber Iain Henderson told the Lochaber Times later that week, ‘It was horrendous. The weather when we got to the top of Ben Nevis was just unbelievable—it was so windy people were almost getting blown over. It poured with rain the whole time, at every peak it was raining. You would normally get a break from it, but we didn’t at all.’

Eilean DonanEilean Donan Castle

After a great night’s sleep in our stylish but cosy cottage, we were up and on the road to the isles in the morning. First port of call was the fairy-tale Eilean Donan Castle, looking spectacular against the bright blue sky with the Cuillins of Skye shimmering across Loch Alsh. Inside, the Macrae family had renovated the rooms about a hundred years ago and while the bedrooms were small, the great hall and the kitchens were impressive.

Off the main road to the right and up over the hill on a single track road took us to Plockton on Loch Carron, famous as the location of the BBC TV series Hamish Macbeth. Try as we might—and we walked the length of the main street alongside the harbour—we could find no mention of Hamish anywhere in the picturesque village. While it was good to realise the place hadn’t been turned into a Hamish theme park, one felt it was something of a missed opportunity. Whatever, the Plockton Inn and the Plockton Hotel were both doing a busy trade in lunches and Calum’s Seal Tours was packing them in for its twelve pound one-hour boat cruises (no seal sighting, no charge) so maybe they didn’t really need Hamish after all. (No sign of Wee Jock—or any other West Highland terrier—there either.)

Plockton harbourPlockton harbour

Up the hill out of Plockton we turned right at the charming little village of Duirinish and then along the coast—with spectacular views across the sea to the island of Raasay—to Kyle of Lochalsh and the bridge to Skye. Cousin Joan had told us the night before that Skye was booked out through till October and there were certainly a large number of cars, campervans and caravans parked in Kyleakin on the Skye side of the bridge. We drove down the road a while and then, with time getting on, decided we should start thinking about getting back. We could go back over the bridge, I said. Or we could take the short car ferry to Glenelg. The sun was still shining and it didn’t look far on the map, so after a couple more kilometres we hung a left and headed for the ferry terminal at Kylerhea. Well, it might not have looked far on the map, but for the most part it turned out to be a rather hair-raising, twisting and turning single-track road along the side of Sgurr na Coinnich. Fortunately there weren’t too many cars coming up from the ferry and eventually the road started to descend and we were rewarded with a spectacular vista of Glenelg Bay and the mainland mountains beyond.

The ferry itself—the Glenachulish, which used to operate across Loch Leven between Ballachulish and North Ballachulish before the bridge was built—is a community-run endeavour that shuttles across the narrow strait between Kylerhea and Glenelg from Easter till October. Billed as the very last manually operated turntable ferry in the world, on this day it was operated by three ferrymen and two border collies. The two collies are Nak (1st Rope Dog, with his own Facebook page here) and Kim. The trip only took five minutes but it was an absolutely delightful experience.

Kylerhea-Glenelg ferryKylerhea-Gleneg ferry

On the other side, the road wound up Glen More and through the Ratagan Forest with a spectacular view of the Five Sisters of Kintail (five mountain peaks just east of Shiel Bridge) on top of the ridge before another steep descent. And that was quite enough stunning scenery for one day!

The next day we met my cousin Alan and his wife Janice for lunch at the Laroch Bar and Restaurant in Ballachulish. The kitchen at the Laroch is run by a Michelin Star Chef Allan Donald and the food in the bar was excellent. Alan, a mad keen Celtic fan, was exulting over the elimination of Celtic’s deadly rivals Rangers from the Europa League overnight by a bunch of part-timers from Luxemburg. A few pleasantries were exchanged with friends at the bar, but nothing too serious.

Billed as the very last manually operated turntable ferry in the world, on this day it was operated by three ferrymen and two border collies.

Alan surprised me by telling me he and Janice had recently become vestry members (parishioners who look after the church building and grounds) at St Paul, the Scottish Episcopal Church in Kinlochleven where I was baptised. When we moved to Corby in England, I attended some lessons at the local Anglican church as a twelve year old in preparation for the ceremony of confirmation but even at that tender age—the age of reason—I nurtured reservations about the existence of God, missed a couple of sessions and was eventually told by the vicar that he wasn’t going to put my name forward. I guess that had the effect of confirming my agnosticism and subsequently I have never embraced the Christian faith—or any other religion.

I had never thought of my father’s side of the family as having been particularly religious. Our family attendance at church services petered out during the time we lived in Corby. It was news to me that the Robertsons and the Reids—prominent among them my grandfather W.B. Robertson—had been pivotal in building the church in Kinlochleven. Although I was barely conscious of it, the family connection obviously runs deep. W.B. and my grandmother Ann are buried in the Episcopal church of St John’s Ballachulish, just west of the village on the shore of Loch Leven. Looking east from the graveyard is a beautiful view across the water to the Pap of Glencoe. And my parents were married in the strikingly pretty Episcopal church of St Andrew in the High Street, Fort William (a Tesco supermarket is now next door.) With the depopulation of Kinlochleven after the closure of the aluminium smelter in the 1990s, the congregation at St Paul has dwindled and there is now a service there only every six weeks or so.

It was also news to me—when later I read a bit about of the history of the Episcopal Church—that 70 per cent of the Highlanders who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1746 were members. And that following the Prince’s defeat, its churches were burned and under the promptly established Penal Laws, its clergy was forbidden to preach to more than four people at a time under threat of banishment or imprisonment.

As we enjoyed our lunch and conversation, an old man shuffled into the bar and sat down at the table next to us. He was obviously a regular because the young barmaid came promptly to his table with a dram of whisky, a beer chaser and a kind word. It was warm outside, but he was well wrapped up and when one of the men at the bar stopped for a brief chat on his way out, I could see the light in his eyes was dimmed.

That night, Joan and John took us to their favourite eatery in the district, Russell’s at the Smiddy at Spean Bridge, 16 km north of Fort William. A top notch dining experience—pre-dinner drinks in the lounge with Glen playing the role of maître de then into the tastefully decorated restaurant as partner Russell cooked up a storm out the back. I had the Scotch fillet and it was up there with the best steaks I’ve ever had.

The following day dawned overcast and cool—three sunny days in a row being too much to hope for in the Highlands—and with nothing else planned, over morning tea at the Grange we decided to see if we could locate my other grandfather’s grave. My mother’s father, Donald Maclean, drowned in Glen Nevis in mysterious circumstances in 1932, when my mother was eleven months old.

Although I had details of his death, finding Donald Maclean’s final resting place proved to be a fruitless exercise. The local council had details of most of the graves in the district, but his name wasn’t in their records. Neither did it come up in the Catholic parish records. The death certificate did have the place of death recorded as the Roaring Mill, a section of the River Nevis that tumbles over a series of large rocks just outside the town at the entrance to Glen Nevis. We went for a look the next morning as we left town on our way to Elgin. It looked and sounded pretty fierce. This was high summer and he died in March, when the river would have been cold and icy. He lost a leg in the First World War. Did he slip—or did he jump? I’ll never know.

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Fields of Moray


North up the Great Glen we drove, alongside Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, through the roundabout nightmare of Inverness and out the other side into the lush pastures of Moray (pronounced Murray). This was a part of Scotland I’d not been to before and it was quite a surprise.

Just after Nairn, we came across Brodie Countryfare, a huge shopping complex on the A96. Joan had tipped us off about it so we parked the car and headed inside to browse the department store-like spread of Scottish gifts, homewares, mens and ladies clothing. It’s developments like these (and there’s another one just outside Perth called the House of Bruar) that are killing the High Street shops of the smaller Scottish towns—which many think is a pity, but as a traveller, there’s really no comparison.

Onto our bed and breakfast, Ardgye House just outside of Elgin. A two-storey 1904 Edwardian country house on large grounds, it looked great on the Internet and the downstairs reception rooms were impressive, but unfortunately we were to discover that the beds and bathrooms really let it down. Maybe the West Lodge had spoiled us.

My cousin Jan, husband Sandy and their family had lived just south of Elgin for ages and her brother Roddy and his wife Carol had moved from Neilston outside Glasgow to Garmouth just east of Elgin at the end of 2016. We arranged a cousin congress in the Drouthy Cobbler, an ancient pub with bar and restaurant down a narrow close in the centre of Elgin.

I’d spent quite a bit of time with Roddy, a former fireman and fire union official, two years previously while I was researching my TV script about Scottish socialist John Maclean. Family aside, we found we had a lot in common, from politics, to football, music, photography and aye, even ancient monuments. I’d met Jan the previous year, when Roddy organised a big family dinner in Glasgow’s Merchant City—she and Di hit it off immediately. The craic that night was great and so it proved again in the Drouthy Cobbler (the thirsty shoemaker), where despite the lack of shoemakers, plenty of thirsts were quenched.

As the evening drew to a close, a big question I had was, ‘Where are we going to watch the final All Blacks—Lions test?’ That’s no problem, laughed Jan, come to our place. Jan’s daughter recently moved to New Zealand and as Warren Gatland in his wisdom had declined to pick any Bravehearts in the Lions team (despite them finishing second in the Six Nations) the next morning the whole house was solidly behind the men in black. Not that it helped as the Blacks bombed try after try and the Lions kicked their way from behind for a barely deserved draw.

Forres Highland GamesForres Highland Games

No time to dwell on it though, as we were off to the Highland Games at Forres, about eighteen km west of Elgin. Despite the pleasant weather and the picturesque setting, the event was something of a disappointment. The food stalls were pretty basic—no Scotch pies! —and most of the action inside the ring was running races and it wasn’t until the massed pipes and drums got going that the day attained any real atmosphere.

Roddy and Carol were going to meet us there, but I called and told them not to bother paying the admission price and that we’d meet them outside. I’d read a lot about the alternative community of Findhorn over the years and as it was a mere six kilometres up the road, I suggested we go and have a look.

The community was founded by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean in 1962. It has grown around the Findhorn Foundation, and comprises an experiment in conscious living, an education centre and an ecovillage.

The website of the Findhorn Foundation describes it as ‘a dynamic experiment where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit, where we work in co-creation with the intelligence of nature and take inspired action towards our vision of a better world. We share our learning and way of life in experiential workshops, conferences and events that take place within a thriving community and ecovillage.’

The website of the Findhorn Foundation describes it as ‘a dynamic experiment where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit …’

The Park, an ecovillage off the road to the right just before the original village of Findhorn, is nestled amidst dunes and forest, bay and beach and is home to a community of around five hundred people. We had a coffee at the Universal Hall—where I noted upcoming performers included legendary Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and renowned Scottish folkie Dougie Maclean—and wandered around the site for a couple of hours, admiring the houses, a couple of which were for sale. I did wonder about the economy of the community—how people earned a crust. The notices in the village shop gave something of a clue—lessons in how to play musical instruments, languages, Pilates and yoga, but the Foundation website gives a stronger suggestion when it talks about the ‘thousands of fellow-adventurers from all over the world (who come) to participate in … workshops, conferences and special events’.

Findhorn A Findhorn ecohouse

The next day, Roddy and Carol picked us up and drove us to Logie Steadings, south of Forres. Steadings are stables and the owners of Logie House had converted their steadings into a charming, low-key collection of shops (bookshop, arts and crafts, gifts) with a courtyard and a café. There’s also a colourful walled garden and the house itself, white and impressive but not open to the public. The house was built by a Mr Grant, inventor of the digestive biscuit, and the young River Findhorn runs through the property. A very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. That night we took Roddy and Carol out to dinner at the Duffus Inn (pronounced Duff-us, not Doof-us we learned).

A sign outside the pub said ‘Gordonstoun ¾ mile’. Yes, the school that Prince Charles went to (and which he memorably called ‘Colditz in kilts’). I was interested to discover that Prince Philip also went there and Princess Anne’s brood as well. The school was founded in 1934 by German Kurt Hahn and was a blend of the British private school ethos (Hahn attended Eton and Oxford) with a philosophy inspired by Plato’s The Republic. There is an emphasis on physical education, challenging outdoor activities and service to the community (the school’s Moray Badge was the inspiration for the Duke of Edinburgh Award).

With its strip of fertile farming land along the coast, Moray reminded me of the west country of England—especially Somerset. There seems little appetite for Scottish independence in Moray. The Yes vote in the independence referendum was 42 per cent (against a Scotland-wide figure of 45) and Moray also voted 49.9 per cent for Brexit (Scotland as a whole only 38 per cent). Then in June’s UK general election, the electorate turfed out Angus Robertson, the sitting Scottish National Party leader in Westminster, in favour of a pro-union Conservative MP.

With its strip of fertile farming land along the coast, Moray reminded me of the west country of England—especially Somerset.

I wondered whether the royal family’s deep links to the area was a factor in this. The concentration of military personnel and their families around the RAF base at Lossiemouth and the army base at Kinloss (formerly an RAF base) almost certainly is. In fact according to a 2010 report, including both military and civilians, the RAF bases at Lossiemouth and Kinloss accounted for 16 per cent of adult employment in Moray. The figure didn’t include military spouses. That’s a big slice of the county.

Monday was our last day in Moray. Roddy had a friend up from Paisley, a fellow fireman called Billy who’d persuaded him to join him in a paddle down the River Spey in a two-man kayak. Jan had invited us all to her place for dinner, so during the day we decided to have a look at a couple of towns on the coast—Burghead and Lossiemouth. Burghead juts out into the Moray Firth and on the headland sits the whitewashed visitor centre with a small museum inside and a viewing platform on the roof. Whales and dolphins can often be seen with the large fixed telescope there and as it was a bright sunny day, I could also see a cluster of oil rigs sitting idle in the Cromarty Firth way off to the west, either undergoing repairs or just quietly waiting for offshore oil drilling to become profitable again.

Over fifteen hundred years ago there was a great Pictish fort at Burghead. When the current town was built in 1808, a well within the boundary of the former fort was selected as its water source. Excavations revealed a mysterious solid rock chamber, with a flight of stone steps leading down to it. Some speculate it was a shrine to Celtic water deities, others a Pictish cult centre converted to a Christian baptistery. Access to the well is in a backstreet of the town and the entrance gate is padlocked, so we got a key from the visitor centre and went for a look. The stone steps are steep and once inside the water comes right up to the bottom step. There is a skylight at the top of the chamber so you can see the impressive scale of the chamber. It’s quite a spooky place.

Burghead wellThe well at Burghead

East along the coast, the road goes around the large RAF base to the sizable town of Lossiemouth, where perhaps unsurprisingly the River Lossie flows into the sea. Again a headland juts into the Moray Firth and on both sides are white sandy beaches. The first Labour prime minister of Great Britain, Ramsay Macdonald was born here and the upstairs floor of the town’s Fisheries and Community Museum (admission one pound fifty) includes a reconstruction of his study as well as other items. He was born ‘on the wrong side of the blanket,’ one of the three elderly men in attendance confided to me has he showed me round the exhibit. ‘He certainly went a long way from that start,’ I said.

Dinner at Jan’s was a big production. Her youngest son Rowan plays bass in a ceilidh band called Footerin’ Aboot and after a quick rehearsal in the living room they were the first sitting for dinner before heading off for a gig that night. A deeply sunburnt Roddy arrived (with Carol and Billy) and regaled us with the tale of the kayak trip down the Spey. Roddy is a keen fisherman and the spectacle of a succession of Hooray Henrys salmon fishing on the banks made a real impression—in particular the sight of the toffs eating their lunches on picnic tables and chairs while the gillies ate theirs on the ground a suitable distance away. The class divide as strong as ever it was.

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No account of Moray would be complete without a mention of whisky. There are 49 operating malt whisky distilleries in the Speyside region, the greatest concentration in Scotland. The clean air, the plentiful and pristine water of the Spey coming off the Cairngorm mountains to the south (plus natural springs) and proximity to the main barley growing areas of the country provide ideal conditions for making whisky.

But look beyond the warm inner glow that the idea of whisky provides and there are some uncomfortable aspects to what the Scots named uisge beatha (the water of life). Over dinner Sandy told us of a relative (an uncle perhaps?) who worked at one of the distilleries in the district. He would turn up to work in the morning and the custom was for everyone to have a dram before they started. Then at morning tea, another. Of course after lunch, one more. When the shift was over there was cheap Scotch to take home or perhaps it was off to the pub with his pals for a couple before dinner. It came as no surprise to hear that drink helped drive the man to an early grave. And I thought again of the old man and his lunchtime dram and chaser at the Laroch in Ballachulish.

Scotland has long suffered from a drink problem. A recent article in the Economist (11 May 2017) suggested the number of alcohol-related deaths had plunged since the early 2000s. A ‘dram-atic fall’, no less. A Scottish government program for reducing alcohol harm—in the form of training doctors to have short, structured non-confrontational conversations about people’s drinking habits—had proved to be an effective way of reducing consumption, the article said. Tightening the drink-driving limit has also had an impact—no longer is it ‘one for the road’, now it’s ‘none for the road’. Unfortunately, figures released by the National Records of Scotland in August 2017 pull the rug out from that feel-good story. The figures for 2016 show a 10 per cent increase (an additional 115 deaths) on those for 2015.

Tightening the drink-driving limit has also had an impact—no longer is it ‘one for the road’, now it’s ‘none for the road’.

A third proposed government initiative—the introduction of a 50p minimum price per unit of alcohol—is being strongly resisted by the Scotch Whisky Association. An appeal by the SWA was considered in a two day hearing at the UK Supreme Court in London in late July 2017. If the Scottish government’s legislation prevails, bottles of whisky could not be sold for less than £14, bottles of wine for less than £4.69 or four packs of beer for less than £4.

Former Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who was one of the architects of the minimum pricing bill, told the BBC: ‘This (appeal) isn’t about protecting Scotch whisky, this about protecting cheap alcohol sales. What we have to remember is that members of the Scotch Whisky Association are also large alcohol producing companies and they are protecting their interests because somebody sells the cheap vodkas, somebody sells the cheap ciders and it’s the same people that own and manufacture Scotch whisky.’

Whisky stillsWhisky stills on Speyside

MacAskill makes a pertinent point. The great Scotch whisky brands are almost all foreign-owned. In fact, only 29 of Scotland’s 102 distilleries are in local hands. London-based Diageo is the biggest player with 28 distilleries, and its brands include single malts Lagavulin, Talisker and Oban and blends Johnny Walker, Bells, Black and White and Haig. The second largest whisky producer is French firm Pernod Ricard, which owns Chivas Brothers, operates 10 distilleries and sells the single malts Glenlivet and Aberlour. Other famous malt whisky brands now foreign owned include Bowmore (Japanese), Glenmorangie (French), Knockdhu (Thai), Isle of Jura (Indian) and Bunnahabhain (South African). The only major Scottish firms left in the game are Wm Grant & Sons (Glenfiddich) and the Edrington Group (the Macallan and Highland Park).

‘Big Whisky’ as represented by the SWA, is not backwards in trumpeting its contribution to the Scottish and British economies. Using a measure called gross value added (GVA), in January 2017 the SWA claimed whisky’s direct impact on the Scottish economy was £3.24 billion and when the closely related UK supply chain was taken into account, the figure rose to £4.9 billion.

All very impressive. However, in ‘Is Recent Economic History A Help?’ one of a collection of essays published in the lead up to the independence referendum (Mackay, Sir D 2011, Scotland’s Economic Future), Professor John Kay, argued that the figure that counts is not GVA, but gross national income (GNI). This would combine the incomes of those that work in the industry with Scotland’s pro-rata share of the UK corporations tax on whisky profits (unsurprisingly, most of the big companies avoid paying this), plus the dividends and other earnings accruing to residents of Scotland. No such figure has been produced by the whisky industry (no surprise there either).

‘Whether or not it is Scotland’s oil, it is mostly not Scotland’s whisky’.

Professor Kay, who served on the Scottish government’s Council of Economic Advisers, calculated wages and salaries and purchases of Scottish goods and services used in whisky production as only £400 million. To this should be added ‘the returns to beneficial Scottish ownership of whisky-related assets’, which is highly likely to be a modest amount given the industry’s overwhelming foreign ownership. With estimated worldwide retail sales worth around £25 billion, Kay made the arresting claim that only two per cent of the global sales value of Scotch whisky ended up in Scottish pockets. As Business Editor Colin Donald put it in Glasgow’s Sunday Herald, ‘Whether or not it is Scotland’s oil, it is mostly not Scotland’s whisky’.

Kay’s analysis led to some interesting responses—including one from trade unionist and Scottish National Party member Bill Ramsay for a whisky bottle tax. The Westminster government already taxes the hell out of UK sales of whisky, with excise duty and VAT (value added tax) comprising 79 per cent of the cost of a bottle bought in Britain. Despite this, Diageo the largest producer of Scotch whisky, declared an operating profit of £3 billion in 2015—a profit margin of 28 per cent.

Total export sales of whisky from all producers in 2015 were worth £3.85 billion, based on a selling price of £3.33 per bottle. But hold on—even allowing for a 50 per cent mark up, Ramsay asks when did you ever see a bottle of duty free Scotch on sale for £5? A more typical price would be £25—so where is the other £20 going?

Using Professor Kay’s estimate of true export value as £25 billion, and Diageo’s profit margin as a guide, Ramsay surmises real profits as close to £7 billion. He therefore concludes that a billion pounds could be levied on the whisky industry and it would still be extremely profitable. A pound a bottle would be likely to achieve that result.

The idea of a bottle tax would apply to every bottle that leaves a whisky bond, whether for the UK or for export. It would be the same for every bottle, whatever its value. It could be absorbed from the profits of distilling companies. But if it did so, they would make less profit, so they would pay less in corporation tax.

The idea of a bottle tax would apply to every bottle that leaves a whisky bond, whether for the UK or for export. It would be the same for every bottle, whatever its value.

Alternatively, it could be passed on to consumers in higher prices. That could be expected to reduce demand, which is difficult to assess.

In ‘Scotched Earth’, a special investigation screened on BBC TV in 2013, Sir George Mathewson, who was chairman of Scotland’s Council of Economic Advisers said the idea was certainly worth investigating.

The Scottish government cannot tax the alcohol, as that power is reserved to Westminster. However Matthewson (a former chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland) told reporter Douglas Fraser that Holyrood could put a levy on the water used in the distilling process. Powers over charging for water are already devolved to Scotland so it can be argued they would not require additional constitutional changes.

‘If it was left to me I would do what Peter the Great did with vodka and make Scotch a state monopoly,’ Bill Ramsay wrote on commonspace.scot, ‘ but I am not Scotland’s finance minister’.

Aye, more’s the pity.

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Highland thistles

Brexit: The Morecambe-Bridlington Line

The American singer-songwriter Cass McCombs said in a recent interview, ‘Write about what you care about. Write about what you love. That’s what the world needs right now.’ I care about Scotland. I love Scotland. So whither Scotland in this time of phoney Brexit?

My ideal Scotland is an independent state. My Scotland is a republic, free of the monarchy and the aristocracy it supports. My Scotland is a parliamentary democracy with a constitution that hardwires ideals of equality and social justice into the way the country operates. My Scotland is a country where the bastions of privilege and inequality—the private schools, the large country estates, the obscene salaries and bonuses of corporate bosses—have been dismantled and the proceeds made available to the people. My Scotland is clean, green and no longer a fighting machine. No nuclear weapons, no foreign adventures (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan) except as part of UN peacekeeping. The Irish Army is the model. My Scotland utilises its abundant natural resources—sun, wind, water and tides—to create renewable energy and wind down its dependence on fossil fuels. My Scotland—well, I think you get the picture.

In the Scottish version of an old joke, a visitor to a Highland village stops a local and asks, ‘How do I get to Aberdeen from here?’ The local ponders a moment, then answers, ‘Och, if I were going to Aberdeen, I wouldna start from here!’

Indeed, to get to my ideal Scotland, you wouldn’t start from here.

And yet, and yet … the 2014 independence referendum, while delivering a No result, prompted an upsurge of community organisation and an engagement in political discussion not seen since the dark days of Thatcherism. Why, when it seemed like Yes might surge over the line, even the London-based press got interested for a wee while.

Passions ran high and allegations of trickery and misinformation were levelled against the Better Together group while the BBC was accused of bias. When it came to the 2015 UK General Election, the Liberal Democrats were deeply tarnished by their coalition with the Conservatives and the imposition of a program of ‘austerity’, while the spectacle of Labour leader Ed Milliband and former leader Gordon Brown campaigning alongside the Conservatives during the independence referendum proved too much for many Scottish Labour voters. Support for Labour and the LibDems collapsed—Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats and the LibDems 10 of 11—and the SNP swept an unprecedented 56 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats.

While Scots voters sick of the same old politics had a release value in the shape of the SNP, voters in England fed up with their lot and looking for someone to blame were easy prey for the nasty messaging of the anti-immigration UKIP and the right wing of the Tory party. To appease the Eurosceptics, Cameron rolled the dice on another referendum. The anti-EU sentiment of the Leave campaign, riddled with lies and misinformation and fanned by the English popular press, saw the shock 2016 referendum result now known as Brexit.

Desperate Dan in Dundee‘Oh come on Nicola—I said we’re leaving!’

So, in the two referenda of the twenty-tens, Scotland voted to stay in the UK (and by implication the EU) by 55-45 per cent, and then voted to stay in the EU (62-38 per cent). Scotland’s preference to stay in the EU is therefore clear, yet she is being dragged out of Europe by an unholy alliance of old, white, little Englanders and an increasingly impotent English working class that either swallowed the line that the problems of Britain were caused by European immigration, or simply wanted to lash out at the establishment.

As John Kay put it in the Financial Times in June 2016: ‘The great achievement of the SNP … has been to be a party of protest and a party of government at the same time. This is an achievement Brexiteers will find hard to emulate.’

And so it has proved. Cameron fell on his sword following a second successive referendum misjudgement. The new PM Theresa May attempted to shore up support for a ‘hard’ Brexit by foisting a snap election on an electorate weary of politics and ended up in June 2017 with a hung parliament. Since then the UK government has been flailing about, looking for a way to stop people coming from the continent while keeping goods and services flowing. Europeans meanwhile look on with a mixture of bemusement and contempt.

‘The great achievement of the SNP … has been to be a party of protest and a party of government at the same time. This is an achievement Brexiteers will find hard to emulate.’

In Scotland, the uncertainty caused by Brexit contributed to a slip in support for the SNP in the June 2017 election. While it still won a majority of seats (35 of 59) it lost 21 seats to the unionist parties (Conservative, Labour and LibDems). The appetite for independence has also slightly receded, with 39 per cent indicating a preference for Yes in an opinion poll taken in the week after the election.

A second referendum on independence is still the SNP policy, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has hit the pause button on timing, saying she wanted to give people a choice at the end of the Brexit process when ‘clarity has emerged’ about how the move will impact Scotland and the UK.

Do the arguments for independence still stack up? I’m no economist, but it was the economic arguments that persuaded many to vote No in 2014. In this regard I find Professor John Kay’s analysis illuminating.

In his essay ‘Is Recent Economic History A Help?’ Kay concluded that despite the difficulty of isolating Scottish economic indicators from the UK as a whole, there was nothing to indicate that Scotland would not be viable as an independent state.

Fresh fishFresh Scottish seafood

Scotland has competitive advantages in the areas of oil and gas services and financial services, Kay wrote. Food and drink (including whisky as discussed above) and tourism have real competitive advantages but fall short of their potential. He sees hope for the life sciences sector, building on the reputation of Scottish medical schools.

A major problem has been the loss of business headquarters function. This has significant implications for entrepreneurship, which he identifies as an important determinant of Scotland’s growth prospects.

While levels of public expenditure in Scotland have generally been slightly above UK levels, they are not high by European standards and Kay says it is far from clear that Scotland gets value for money from what is spent. Infrastructure overall is in poor shape, transport spending has been inadequate and misdirected he says, while social housing is ‘dire’, resulting in ‘some of the most serious pockets of urban deprivation in Europe’.

While it will be up to the SNP and independence supporters to make a case when the Brexit outcome is known and a new referendum is scheduled, to my mind there is no doubt about the toxic impact of inequality and austerity on the life of the Scottish and British people.

It seems clear to me that over the past ten years, a massive confidence trick has been perpetrated on the UK public. Firstly, the British chapter of 2008’s global financial crisis was blamed on the social policies of the ruling Labour Party, rather than the reckless behaviour of the banks. I recall my absolute astonishment when I first heard this referred to a couple of years ago. It is living proof that if you repeat a lie often and strongly enough and it is not seriously challenged, it becomes a truth.

The GFC led to the state bail out of the Royal Bank of Scotland and a number of other financial institutions. Estimates vary as to the cost of this and one quickly descends into the netherworld of lies, damned lies and statistics. However in December 2009, the UK National Audit Office said government support for the banking sector had reached £850 billion.

The Independent broke this down as follows: ‘The commitments include buying £76bn of shares in Royal Bank of Scotland and the Lloyds Banking Group; indemnifying the Bank of England against losses incurred in providing more than £200bn of liquidity support; guaranteeing up to £250bn of wholesale borrowing by banks to strengthen liquidity; providing £40bn of loans and other funding to Bradford & Bingley and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme; and insurance cover of over £280bn for bank assets.’

In December 2009, the UK National Audit Office said government support for the banking sector had reached £850 billion.

Discounting guarantees, the government spent ‘more than £136.6 billion rescuing some of Britain’s biggest high street lenders’ at the height of the financial crisis, Reuters said in November 2016. But it has so far only managed to recoup just over half that money and the additional interest on the debt used to buy the holdings keeps increasing, threatening a bigger overall loss. Reuters said the government was facing an almost £27 billion loss on the rescue exercise after a slump in the lenders’ value since Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

Yet, the financial sector has become so entrenched within the establishment that runs the UK, that rather than penalise bankers, impose tougher financial regulation and aim to trim the deficit by increasing taxes on the rich, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government elected in 2010 turned its attention to the poorest in society. Its policy of austerity consisted of sustained reductions in public spending, intended to reduce the budget deficit and the size of the welfare state.

In his book Inequality and the 1% (Verso 2014), Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at Oxford University, says that while there are complex measures of inequality, such as the Gini coefficient (cue eye glazing), concentrating on the share taken by the 1 per cent may be one of the best measures of inequality given how simple a target it can be for effective social policy.

Dorling’s book details how the impact of the richest 1 per cent distorts and penalises the rest of British society. ‘It is through their actions, the influence of their corporations and the politicians they support that the top one per cent in the UK fuel growing income inequality between themselves and everyone else,’ he writes, ‘leaving so many with so little because a few think they must have so much.’

Comparing a number of industrialised countries, Dorling notes the price of the top 1 per cent is rarely below 5 per cent. Taking this as ‘the price of capitalism’, he identifies, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland as countries where inequality is relatively low. In the UK the top 1 per cent taken 15 per cent of the income (the US is even worse at 20 per cent).

Unsurprisingly, many of the most highly paid executives are bankers. Dorling writes that in 2011, ‘some 2436 bankers in the UK took home the equivalent of one million euros in pay and bonuses. A third of them worked for Barclays Bank. The number of those high paid bankers in Germany in 2011 was 170, in France it was 162, while in may other European countries in was zero.’

Inequality in the UK in terms of liquid wealth (excluding principal place of residence) is even greater than inequality of income. The top 1 per cent holds 53 per cent of UK liquid wealth, the next 4 per cent 10 per cent and the next 45 per cent hold 31 per cent. The bottom half hold just 6 per cent (source: UK Office of National Statistics).

Dorling’s opening chapter contains an infographic that loads this data onto a map of the UK. The most startling feature is what I will call the Morecambe-Bridlington Line. If you draw a horizontal line between the seaside resort of Morecambe in Lancashire (74 km north of Liverpool) and the Yorkshire town of Bridlington on the east coast, then all the area of England and Wales below that line is equivalent to the proportion of liquid wealth held by the top 1 per cent. The next 4 per cent have everything north of the line up to the Scottish border. The next 45 per cent have Scotland. The bottom 50 per cent? They have Northern Ireland.

If you draw a line between Morecambe and Bridlington, the area of England and Wales below the line is equivalent to the proportion of liquid wealth held by the top 1 per cent.

But inequality is more than just economics, Dorling argues. It is the culture that divides and makes social mobility so painful. The bulk of his book is devoted to showing how the top 1 per cent school their children, how they are rewarded for the work they do, how they amass wealth and the effect all of this has on the rest of the population. Finally he looks at how inequality impacts health, self-worth and the ability to participate in society.

He concludes that among the top 0.01 per cent are those who believe inequality is good, the poor deserve to be poor because they do not have it in them to be any better and the rich are worth their riches. How, you may ask yourself, did this group get the UK in such a tight grip?

Inequality in the UK dropped steadily and consistently from the end of the First World War and reached its lowest point in the late 1970s. Since then it has steadily increased. This is no accident according to British journalist and commentator Owen Jones. In his book The Establishment—And how they get away with it (Penguin 2014), he outlines how power and wealth in the UK have been taken away from the broader population over the past three decades and systematically redistributed to those at the top.

Anne Frank House


My Dutch friend Bart told me the Dutch like the British because they saved them from the Nazis. The queues around the block day after day to get into the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (pictured above) indicate there is still huge interest in what happened during the Second World War.

While I was in Amsterdam I was reading Phillipe Sands’ East West Street, an engrossing history of the emergence of the legal charges ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ first levelled at the post-WWII Nuremburg trials. The book is meticulously researched and pivots around the city of Lviv in present day Ukraine. The lawyers who developed the concepts, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, both lived in the city and bringing the personal connection to the story, Sands’ Jewish grandfather was born there in 1904. The book lays bare the horror of the Holocaust and the process of trying its perpetrators.

At Amsterdam’s stunning Pathé Tuschinski cinema, Di and I saw the 2017 film The Zookeeper’s Wife, about how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo smuggled Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and escape to safety in other parts of the country. And when I got back to Sydney, I was encouraged by some rave reviews to go to see Dunkirk. While personally I felt it was JAW (just another war movie), in a sense it is the ultimate Brexit movie. Of course, the Brits did come back—on D-Day—and that event will grace cinema screens this year in Churchill and Pegasus Bridge.

While WWII has been over for more than seventy years, obviously the reverberations linger on.

Since the EU referendum, attention has been focussed on the implications of the type of hard, over-the-cliff Brexit espoused by UKIP and the Tory right. Under new leader Jeremy Corbyn, who took over after the failure of the 2015 election, Labour did much better than expected in the 2017 general election. Corbyn has pretty much kept his powder dry on Brexit, beyond indicating he accepts the result of the referendum. Perhaps he gauges it is best to take a low profile as the Tory government tears itself to pieces attempting to negotiate with the EU while weathering criticism from all points of the compass and in particular business leaders and commentators.

Historically Corbyn was never a supporter of Britain in Europe, believing it put too many constraints on UK social and economic policy. In 1975, he opposed Britain joining the EU. Ten years after entering parliament, in 1993 he opposed UK ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, which paved the way for the establishment of the European Central Bank and the Eurozone. At the time he said it would be: ‘…staffed by bankers, independent of national governments and national economic policies, and whose sole policy is the maintenance of price stability. That will undermine any social objective that any Labour government in the United Kingdom … would wish to carry out. …’

Corbyn also opposed the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, backed a proposed referendum on EU membership in 2011 and during the 2015 Greek crisis accused the institution of acting ‘brutally’ and allowing financiers to destroy the Greek economy.

In March 2016, as the EU referendum grew near, Corbyn set out his stall on the issue.

‘We also need to make the case for reform in Europe – the reform David Cameron’s government has no interest in, but plenty of others across Europe do. That means democratic reform to make the EU more accountable to its people: economic reform to end self-defeating austerity and put jobs and sustainable growth at the centre of European policy; labour market reform to strengthen and extend workers’ rights in a real social Europe. And new rights for governments and elected authorities to support public enterprise and halt the pressure to privatise services. So the case I’m making is for “remain—and reform” in Europe.’

Corbyn and McDonnell are exploring the freedom Brexit would provide for public ownership, state aid for sunrise industries and fair trade agreements with developing countries.

In July 2017, Larry Elliot, the Guardian’s economics editor wrote a provocative article titled, ‘Why the moaning? If anything can halt capitalism’s fat cats, it’s Brexit’. What? Yes, it was the tiny voice of the UK left that had been drowned out by the megaphone of the right.

In the article, Elliot identified Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell as members of the small Labour band that never bought the idea that being a progressive meant being positive about Europe. Rather, they saw ‘neoliberalism being hardwired into the European project’. Having attained leadership positions, Corbyn and McDonnell are exploring the freedom Brexit would provide for public ownership, state aid for sunrise industries and fair trade agreements with developing countries—all of which Elliot claims would be illegal under European law.

‘Britain is a low-wage economy with a chronic balance of payments problem,’ Elliot wrote. ‘Repeated bouts of de-industrialisation mean there has not been a surplus on manufactured goods since the early 1980s. Growth has become ever more dependent on consumers’ appetite for debt …

‘These problems are not new. They were there long before Cameron decided to hold an EU referendum and they will be there whether Brexit happens or not. … The assumption (of Remainers on the left) is that all will be well provided Britain’s supply chains are protected by continuing membership of the single market and the City retains its role as Europe’s premier financial centre. This is sheer fantasy. …

‘Capitalism’s ability to see off its rivals has always been based on the notion that it will make people better off, even if some people benefit more than others. But that pledge has been broken. Historically, profound political change only happens at times of crisis. Without the Great Depression and the Second World War, there would have been no Labour landslide in 1945. Without the crisis of the mid-1970s, there would have been no Thatcherism. Without the crash, there would have been no Brexit—and Corbyn would still be a backbencher.

‘As it is, Labour is now led by somebody who spent years in the political wilderness with a simple message: that there was something inherently rotten about modern capitalism; that there were radical solutions to that malaise; and that Europe was part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.’

Och aye, it’s an interesting time to be a Scot.


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