'The Forgotten Country': Big dreams and the struggle for southern Scotland

Our reporter Nathanael Williams travelled across the South of Scotland to talk to people and listen to their views on where Scotland is heading with Brexit

SITTING IN CAROLINE’S CAFE in the centre of Kelso, it’s easy to imagine that the much touted Tory revival in Scotland is on the cards. People here are angry and tired with the recent call for a General Election by Prime Minister Theresa May, compounding for many a sense of being endlessly bothered.

It’s a feeling of being harangued over questions they haven’t asked and for outcomes they feel they’ll be punished for regardless. In small towns, small dreams are treasured and big dreams are feared.

As the cafe settles into its customary hum of families and pensioners chattering about the local gossip, Helen Caughton 57, a former modern languages teacher spoke to me about the frustrations of the political choices facing people like her in Scotland. She, like many, voted SNP in 2015 - sweeping the area’s MP Calum Kerr into the House of Commons with the tiniest of majority of 327 votes. But now she is unsure how she will cast her vote and is the kind of voter Tory challenger John Lamont has been eyeing up as the Tories throw everything at the seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

“I used to vote Labour. Being a teacher and Labour were always close to the unions and pretty sound on education. I switched to the SNP because they seemed to know what they were doing. They came across as competent and safe.”

Helen voted No in the 2014 referendum, unconvinced of the economic message and idea of uncertainty surrounding independence at the time. She voted to remain in the European Union last summer after a quiet campaign in the south. But what did she think about the first minister’s argument that the Tories dragging Scotland out of Europe could precipitate the conditions for another referendum?

In small towns, small dreams are treasured and big dreams are feared.

“I voted remain, sure. But I’m a bit conflicted about the way it's all been mixed up with the referendum vote. There are still questions I want to know, like whether investment would be safe or the economy steady. I mean those guarantees are difficult for anyone to give.”

That message of stability has been soaked up by many across Scotland, especially in the south, and the SNP are struggling to fight against a two-faced logic from unionist opponents, that a Brexit UK would still be more stable than an independent Scotland. This idea seems absurd to the most loyal of Independence supporters, but to the undecided it resonates. In many ways, it remains a battle of perceptions on a daily basis which has fused with the momentum of the UK General Election.

It’s a curious state of affairs considering that Kelso and many places in the South are arguably ripe for the kind of transformative change those in the independence campaign would long for. Kelso falls under Roxburghe country where the Duke of Roxburgh and the Duke of Buccleuch, like two buttresses, held between them the convenorship of the county council for 43 years between 1900 and 1975. In truth, they still dominate the economics of the surrounding counties with vast land holdings and corresponding businesses.

To symbolise this, Floors Castle, the seat of the premier baronet of Scotland, squats on the edge of town with an imposing stone wall that reaches for miles around the estate - barring all but serving staff and paying visitors. You may enter but you pay for the privilege to see privilege.

But all this reinforces the idea of a settled way of doing things. The town is a small beautiful place where cricket is played, people travel to Galashiels for the opening of the new TK Maxx and in the outskirts the employees who work in Floors Estate dare not raise a voice of complaint. This is because everyone, even the subdued, live in a world where you don't upset the apple cart for fear losing what little you have. As an ex-member of staff told me on a walk around the estate, “big dreams have big falls.”

To dream big, and dream of things which have not yet come to pass, you have to put yourself and all you have on the line. So the language of doubt deployed by the Scottish Tories and Scottish Labour has worked to an extent. In the Borders, the local elections this year resulted in 15 Tories being elected to wards across the constituency. From Hawick and Hermitage, Jedburgh, Kelso and Mid Berwickshire Tories found themselves the majority in wards alongside the SNP.

In the EU referendum, the turnout was 73.4 per cent with Remain gaining 58.47 per cent of the vote and Leave 41.53 per cent.

Travel to the south west and the story morphs from insecurity to resentful forgetfulness in the constituency stretching from Dumfries to Stranraer. In particular, the locals often feel forgotten by Westminister, Edinburgh, Scotland and everyone.

Farmers in many ways epitomise the tensions that exist between those who are convinced of a progressive supremacy marching inevitably to independence and a ‘small c’ conservative Scotland ill at ease with grand projects of any kind.

The SNP’s Richard Arkless took a 41.4 per cent share of the total vote with the Tory candidate Finlay Carson taking 29.1 per cent in 2015. But the Tories are looking to pick the carcass of the Scottish Labour party, which fell further behind in 2015 and are putting a lot of resources into the constituency in the hope of an upset. The most vicious fighting has been between small town businessmen and farmers across this section of the south, both of whom are relentlessly courted by both parties.

Farmers in many ways epitomise the tensions that exist between those who are convinced of a progressive supremacy marching inevitably to independence and a ‘small c’ conservative Scotland ill at ease with grand projects of any kind. Travelling around the area of Terregles outside Dumfries, I meet up with Graeme, who owns a small tenant farm where Limousin cross cows are reared, and who hates all things politics.

“The way I see it is you have to get on. These guys have big plans all of them go on about big ideas but when you give them the chance you don't see the change they promised.

“The problem is people talk about change and hope but then they back off or let you down. Folk can't handle that. They need to know it’s the real thing and it will change their lives.

“But we’re still the forgotten country down here. People don’t pay as much attention if any. I mean not like up there [the Central Belt] where everything seems to matter more.”

Things came to a head in Dumfries around 2010 when the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, Richard Montagu Douglas Scott, nearly saw a “mass walk-out” of tenant farmers after offering them new leases on tenancy with a 100 per cent mark-up in rents.

“Why not? I don't go in for big dreams. But I do want things to be better.”

Tenants working the land on his 80,000-acre Queensberry estate surrounding Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire, feared losing their livelihoods following the rent review and although the storm passed, tenant farmers still do not feel safe despite the land reforms being passed. Buccleuch, who is also chief of Clan Scott, owns 270,000 acres of land in the South of Scotland, Midlothian and Northamptonshire and is said to be worth £115million. Across his estates, there are 200 tenanted farms and four mansion houses, providing work for 250 people.

There is the risk such people will either withdraw from the political process or vote for a Tory Brexit and wait for the subsidy from a new UK Government to arrive. This is a more certain deal, all be it a miserable one. But there is the prospect of voters welcoming a new push for a referendum and questions about nationhood but - only if they are connected with practical concerns and aren’t seen as distant promises.

“A lot of people round here are just made cynical”, Graeme laughs.

“You need to convince them that it’s not just a wild goose chase, people have lost a lot and it makes them cautious.”

How’s he going to vote in the election?

“SNP.”

What of another, hypothetical, independence referendum?

He grins: “Why not? I don't go in for big dreams. But I do want things to be better.”

Picture: CommonSpace

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