- Best bits: Hearing local people talk with huge enthusiasm about their local community and its future, whether in Stranraer, Wigtown or Gatehouse of Fleet; and camping under the stars in the shadow of Orchardton Tower with my partner.
- Worst bit: Struggling to find the time to write my campaign diary!
- Folk of note: Danny and Lusi in Gatehouse, saving buses and enriching young people’s lives with outdoor classrooms and youth groups.
- Miles travelled: 540 (+120 having fun visiting castles!)
- Things I learned: That Loch Ryan is the only place in the UK where you can find native Oysters
I’ve spent most of the last few days immersed in Galloway’s past, present and future, speaking at the Stranraer Festival of Politics, listening to local folk there trying to secure a future for the town and discovering the rich history of Galloway.
Week 12, the first week of the short campaign, started with getting a new car on Wednesday! It’s one of the great frustrations of the South that it’s near impossible to get around without a car as public transport is either non existent, intermittent or unintegrated across much of the region. I’m really grateful to Alison MacLeod who drove the new wheels down to Edinburgh from Applecross!
On Wednesday afternoon I put the new car to the test and drove over to Strathaven where I met some of the brilliant team behind the Avondale Beekeepers. Aily, the powerhouse of a woman behind the project spoke with passion about the impact that even a small group of people can have in connecting a community with the landscape around them.
From introducing children and young people to bees and how they fit in the ecosystem to persuading farmers that allowing hives on their land will increase their crop yields, the project is making a hugely positive impact around Strathaven.
After some delicious pasta bake and bee chat with Aily and Moira we popped up the road into Strathaven for a cross party discussion on food poverty. Hosted by Who Cares Talks, the event started with a talk from Nicola Simpson who works at a local food bank. She told the audience some of the personal stories of folk who’ve no other choice but to use the food bank.
People who have had one tragic, unavoidable thing happen in their lives only to discover that the safety net they thought was there to help them, has some massive holes in it. Aside from the local Tory who claimed that food banks weren’t such a bad thing and who seemed very confused about the difference between the minimum wage and the living wage, there was broad consensus on the panel that failures of the benefits system, low wages and high costs of living were to blame for food banks.
After the debate, Brenna and I stayed over at my Dad’s near Biggar and had a great morning feeding goats and ducklings and helping Dad with some heavy lifting. In the evening I went into Edinburgh for a sneak peak at our upcoming party election broadcast before zooming home to catch the tail end of the leaders debate on the BBC. Friday was spent trying to wade through emails and prepare for a weekend in Stranraer. For the first time this year I sat out in the garden in my bare feet and hung the washing out to dry in the sun.
On Friday night, Nat and I drove 170 miles to Stranraer to the Harbour Lights B&B for a weekend at the festival of politics. The festival, Politics Through Our Eyes, was launched by local folk who were fed up of political discussion being concentrated in the central belt and of Stranraer being consistently overlooked, even within Dumfries and Galloway region. I was speaking at two events over two days. In the first, on the future of democracy in Scotland, I spoke about how political debate in Scotland seems to have died down since the referendum, with fewer people engaging in discussion about big ideas. For me, the level and content of today’s political debate is failing to inspire people and that’s really dangerous for democracy. Similarly, the lack of power in local democratic structures means that many people are left wondering why they’d bother putting themselves forward to stand as a councillor or why they’d go to the effort of joining their community council. If nothing’s going to change, why bother?
Sunday’s debate was interlinked in many ways, focusing on who owns Scotland. Much of the discussion was on land reform so I spoke about Green proposals to tax vacant and derelict land and raise up to £300m a year, bewilderingly voted down by the SNP Government. We also spoke about who owned the means of production, beyond the land itself. The wide ranging discussion concluded with a feeling that we need to put far more faith (and money) into communities to own their own assets, whether land and property, businesses or energy production.
Outwith the events I was speaking in, I attended a couple of other discussions – one with Robin McAlpine from Common Weal and another on the local economy. Both discussed the desperate need for investment and regeneration in the South in general and Stranraer in particular. Since the ferries left several years ago, the town has seriously suffered. Coupled with a persistent feeling that Stranraer is overlooked by the “local” council (headquartered 75 miles away in Dumfries) and by national government, folk are worried about what the future holds.
But thankfully, there are local people who are determined to see their town flourish. Romano Patrizio told me about his efforts to get the Stranraer Development Trust established and to bring investment into the area. Having just missed out on getting the town designated as a Business Improvement District, he’s intent on trying again and on expanding the Trust’s ambitions. Apparently Loch Ryan, on which Stranraer sits, is home to the UK’s only native oysters, marketed in the Hebrides at £78 for a half dozen. Romano’s ambition is to launch an oyster festival to bring people to the town and celebrate one of its natural assets. I’d definitely come to that!
From Sunday night to Tuesday night I took some much needed time away from the campaign to spend time with my partner Nat. It was his birthday on Tuesday and as a history geek, he was really excited to visit the castles and abbeys of Galloway. We camped for a couple of nights, narrowly avoiding getting totally soaked and taking in an unfeasibly large number of historic sites. From Carsluith to Cardoness and Caerlaverock, we saw *a lot* of towers and even camped in the shadow of Scotland’s only round tower house at Orchardton. After being a bit sceptical at first, he told me in the car on the way home that he could see where I was coming from – the South West was a pretty impressive place.
This coming week I’ll be supporting the final steps of the Haud the Bus campaign, trying to save D&G’s evening and Sunday buses; chatting to folk at a street stall in Penicuik; meeting weavers and artists in St Abbs; and taking part in a hustings with NFU Scotland in St Boswells amongst many other things! Until next time…