It’s the end of a packed weekend in and around the ever-quirky Ceilidh Place in Ullapool. Therehave been over a dozen previous Changin Scotland get-togethers but this was my first—and, unfortunately, reputed to be the last. There were so many newbies like me that they had to shift the main venue to the nearby Village Hall to accommodate the 80-100 at each session.
Starting Friday evening and running to Sunday lunchtime a series of a nine discources of over an hour each with 2-4 ‘names’ on-stage covered an eclectic range of topics from feminism through the Smith Commission to possibilities in the Arctic. Not all gave speeches and not all who did seemed comfortable doing so. But there was a clear sense (rare, if not unheard-of in political discourse) that all were sincere and none were here purely as a career move.
In the opening session Politics; Cultures; Imaginations, Kathleen Jamie, one of Scotland’s finest poets who deftly exudes a couthy and an international outlook simultaneously and Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting exchanged views on how Scotland was perceived and how it perceived itself under the astute chairing of BBC Business Correspondent Douglas Fraser.
Intense audience participation over whether Scotland was comfortable in its skin (it was) was relieved by Douglas’ chocolate Labrador—impatient at the back of the room—broke free to join him onstage and spent the rest of the session flat on his back contentedly having his belly rubbed. It was that kind of gathering—intense yet disarmingly informal.
My own response to sessions was mixed: I found the Gender Power Radicals and Leadership xession to be both hectoring and old hat. A lecture about how young men were trapped in male aggression seemed the same antique one-sided feminism that was espoused by Andrea Dworkin 25 years ago and not in tune with the more complex interactions behind modern thinking.
Probably my favourite session was with Lateral North’s obviously nervous Tom Smith, somewhat calmed by able chairing from Andy Wightman. But despite himself, Tom’s articulation and enthusiasm shone through talking about seeing Scotland from a radical geographic perspective—as the threshold of Europe for trade with Asia via the Barents Sea and Orkney becoming an entrepôt, capable of handling 300.000-ton ‘cape size’ container ships too large to access Rotterdam or Hamburg directly.
The liveliest, most audience-interactive session was chaired by Gerry Hassan What Do We Do about Scotland, England and the UK? The main contributor was Adam Tomkins, a Professor of Public Law at Glasgow since 2003 and advisor to the Conservatives on the Smith Commission. Not only did he give insights into why it reported as it did (e.g. why 15% of Welfare was included and Pensions weren’t) but he made a strong case—through reference to other countries—why this was about as powerful a settlement as could be hoped for.
This led to what was, for me, the least enjoyable passage where the audience turned clearly hostile and accused him of a “party political broadcast” as his views clashed with the bulk of those there. I found this unfortunate; I had hoped for a more open and flexible debate, hearing many views but this reminded me of when Labour’s Pat Watters addressed the SNP Councillor Conference and the atmosphere was very much one of Daniel in the lion’s den.
And there lie the limitations of the gathering. While genuinely attempting open and varied debate, Changin Scotland seems to attract almost entirely independence supporters in the older age groups. I was reminded of SNP conferences of the 1990s when numbers were small and many grey hairs present had seen the false dawn of the 1970s and suffered the depredations of the 1980s wilderness.
Although the bulk of attendees would probably have been glad for that, in no way did this resemble the razzmatazz of Nicola’s rally in the Hydro last week. It had more content but significantly less buzz and enthusiasm. It also contrasted poorly with last month’s SNP conference in Perth—shot through as that was with young people and wide-eyed enthusiasm of new members; neither element was present here.
But perhaps I expected too much. Under Jean Urquhart’s kindly and embracing stewardship. the Ceilidh Place has always been a quirky corner of unexpected homey comfort—one that old hands rather than firebrands are likely to appreciate. The fact that attending requires both travel and accommodation expense also mitigates against the younger audience readily available in Glasgow or Edinburgh should not permit too much criticism or sombre analysis.
The bottom line is that, for three days and £60, I got to rub shoulders with a panoply of names I have read and admired and was able to discuss my country and its future in a variety of cosy environments scattered around a picturesque Highland village. As memorable weekends go, this one will be hard to beat.