“The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
We all have our go-to films, those great movies that sustain us through our difficult days, that reinforce our worldview and restore our belief that human nature is essentially good, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
For me, the picture of choice is Bill Forsyth’s 1983 classic “Local Hero”, where the accidental hero “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) is sent to Scotland to purchase the fictional town of Furness for a Houston oil company. The twist is, of course, that the deal falls through because the company’s owner – Mr Happer, played brilliantly by the late, great Burt Lancaster – arrives by helicopter and decides to make Furness an astronomy centre instead – much to the chagrin of the locals who have already spent the money on Mazeratis. Meanwhile, McIntyre has ditched the suit for a knitted jumper, has developed a fondness for whisky and has even taken to asking for it in a passable Scottish accent. The final scene sees him arriving back home in his soulless Texan apartment block, and emptying his pockets of collected rocks and shells before attaching scenes of his beloved Furness onto his fridge door. He is home but knows where he’d rather be, and the film ends with the iconic red telephone box ringing in the Main Street of the village. Bill Forsyth doesn’t have to spell it out. Houston is calling. Mac wants back.
Now: I don’t come from Houston and I don’t deal in oil. I’m a Stranraer man who deals in yeast and silage additive. My house is comfortable enough but it will never be mistaken for Southfork. And yet on getting home, tired but happy after Show Week in Orkney, I find myself doing what Mac does and sticking photos – of Skaill Bay, of the Brough of Birsay, of Maeshowe, of Hoy – onto my fridge door, or my Facebook account. And then I pick up my ‘phone and dial a number.
Living and working in these islands for a week, I feel like I’m in an Orkney bubble. And what a fine bubble it is. It’s a place that gets under your skin and becomes part of your very DNA. Issues like the tourist tax and the name of the new hospital suddenly assume importance. The opening day of the new Premier League football season becomes irrelevant compared to the upcoming Parish Cup Final (well played Stromness, but what an effort Rendall. Football, eh? Bloody hell). I see it in my weans, too. By the end of the week, they’ve ditched “wee” and adopted “peedie”. Cattle are now “kye”, and, at the holiday accommodation and in the absence of goalposts, “gansies” will have to suffice.
It’s also a blessed relief to escape the Scottish cringe. My week in the islands begins in earnest when the early morning radio programme is presented by folk who speak in the local dialect, whose local paper’s cartoon strip uses local vernacular (“hid”, not “it”), and where the farming magazine I advertise in writes articles in the Orcadian dialect. I come from a place where teachers used to tell me that Gaelic was never spoken in Dumfries and Galloway, despite Stranraer being a Gaelic word (it means Broad Nose), so this matters to me. “It’s a sad man my friend living in his own skin that can’t stand the company”, sang Bruce Springsteen. Orkney feels, for all its contradictions, like a place comfortable in its own identity.
You get to know people and are suddenly, unexpectedly, emotionally involved. I met a fine Orkney man on a tour to the Scottish Borders this summer who’d had as difficult a year as it’s possible to imagine, yet last week he won the Supreme Championship at his local show. His wife won – after forty years of competing – won the industrial championship. It was just wonderful. At the County Show, I met a man who’d finally, as he put it, “ticked one off the bucket list” by selling a Beltex tup for £10,000. He’d just got back from Carlisle Mart that morning, and his enthusiasm was a living example of one of those human stories that remind us why we bother about the industry – and why we bother about anything at all.
On Saturday, In a rare moment of County Show calm, a couple approached me in the Birsay Farmers tent. Although I hadn’t seen them in over twenty years, I knew exactly who they were. George Burgher, attending with his wife Freda, was the NFU secretary in Kirkwall during the time when my father was the president of that organisation, and enquired if my parents would care to attend the 100th anniversary of the Orkney NFU in 2018. If I know my father, and his fondness for Orkney and a good night out, he’ll have booked his ferry before this article is published.
When I got home this morning, not only had George confirmed his invitation to my parents: he had attached a report that had appeared both in the Orkney Herald and The Orcadian. Last week I wrote that there is nothing new under the sun, and the report from 1918 – written only days after the Armistice – confirms this. A Mr D Stephen talks of the farmer’s “reticent nature, his inherent reserve of speech, and shyness as a public agitator”.
This rings as true today as it did in 1918. But so does the following extract:
“The interests of the farmer and the interests of the country are identical. The farmer, the landowner, the farm worker and the consumer must meet each other on common ground, realising that their interests are bound up together. Agriculture has passed through an age of state neglect. No civilised country has ever spent so little in its encouragement as has our own”.
It was true then and it’s true today. It may be about to become truer, as food safety and security founders on the rocks of a hard Brexit and a UK government that values continuing power over the peace of Northern Ireland, and which falls silent as its desire to leave the EU and make a deal with hormone-beef producing America compromises its wish to speak out on a Trump administration that shamefully fails to call out fascism that he himself has helped to bring about.
I loved being in Orkney this week. I always do. But nothing exists in a vacuum and everything connects.
It worries me terribly, for example, that there are “discussion” documents that have gained traction within the Scottish farming industry which are based on the premise that Scotland has already left the EU and that we already exist in a post-Brexit world where we have a UK single market and pan-UK support system. When was this decided? Nothing of the sort has yet happened, but the lack of outrage at what feels like a coup makes me despair.
There’s a lot of talk in the farming industry, and I heard it in Kirkwall at the weekend, about speaking to the members, taking the temperature, reaching consensus. But that’s not leadership. That’s a focus group. It’s like Henry Ford once said – “If I were to ask the public what they wanted, they’d ask for a bigger horse”.
I strive for independence because without it Scotland cannot possibly prosper. But I recognise the qualities of those of a different persuasion.
The late, great, Tony Benn once said that politicians are either signposts or weather vanes – in other words, they either have unimpeachable principles or change with the popular mood or the party whip. Ruth Davidson and Theresa May both argued intelligently and passionately to remain in the EU. Both are now hard Brexiters, despite overwhelming evidence that such a position will hurt people across these islands as the economy shrinks and public services cannot employ essential workers.
This industry – this Scotland – needs real leadership. Signposts, not weather vanes. The courage to follow instinct rather than a focus group. The kind of bravery that fails to turn up at a breakfast consultation meeting, citing a subsequent engagement. A chutzpah that can’t be bothered with policy advisors. A native wit that doesn’t need a breakfast meeting with Michael Gove to ascertain that Scotland wishes to remain in the single market and the EU, and that if David Davis can’t deliver that we’ll go ahead and do it anyway. That recognises that our political outlook, our culture, our farming, is different and can’t possibly be represented by people who not only don’t care about us but who legally aren’t obliged to. People who now openly despise us.
I thought a lot about stuff during my week in Orkney. It was maybe the sun, or the air, or the whisky. But I think that Brexit clarifies things. We have no say over farming and fishing powers. Those powers we thought we had over farming and fishing have turned out not to be powers at all. The Supreme Court ruling means that neither we nor any other devolved administration need be consulted over article 50, hence rendering the Sewell Convention redundant. The DUP bung buries Barnett. Whatever powers we have are lent, not given.
The Brexit endgame is therefore the return of direct power from London. And that’s not a political point – it is already happening. This is an existential threat to farming and to the Scottish nation itself.
How we respond tells us everything about our self respect. It is up to us.
Let’s get this done.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News check out more of his articles by using our search facility.