I’m one of those idiots who never learn. If I go to a bad restaurant I always go back again to see if it really was as bad as I thought. Likewise, whenever I travel north to Fort William my spirits soar in anticipation. And whenever I arrive in Fort William my spirits plummet in despair at what I find. The local tourism website describes it as “Capital of the West Highlands” and as “Outdoor Capital of the UK”. My arse. Fort William is a soulless disconsolate place. Half way down the High Street there’s one of many shops selling tartan tat to tourists. In the window is a life-size advertising placard of a young man in a white vest. Around his waist is a piece of tartan material bearing the embossed image of a sporran. Across the top of the placard is written “It’s a beach towel!” “ No, it’s a kilt!” “No, it’s an Insta-kilt!” I mean I’m all for celebrating your national heritage but Jeez! There’s a few pubs in town but most of them are there to sell one pound shots and freezing yellow lager to the local youth to get off their tits and forget they are unemployed and there’s nothing else to do. The previous evening I was walking past one of these pubs when a young girl was vigourously ejected then turned round and shouted at the bouncers “Wull tha’ be a lifetime ban then?”
Nevertheless, the quite wonderful West Highland Museum on Cameron Square is a magical place for Jacobite hunters. By the way, nearby is both a Cameron Road and a statue of Cameron of Loch Eil. You may have guessed that this is Cameron country, and Clan Cameron made up a sizeable chunk of the Prince’s rebel army. The museum posters claim “one of the finest collections of Jacobite memorabilia in the world, including the unique secret portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie”. This portrait was actually more impressive than I expected. At first sight it just looks like a silvery metal cylinder standing upright on a few blobs of randomly splashed paint. The Tate Modern would be glad to display it. But if you look at the cylinder carefully from the correct angle you can see reflected a dim blurred head and shoulders which looks vaguely like the Prince. After Culloden in 1746 it was treasonable to support the Stuarts, so after dinner loyal Jacobites would place the tray on the table and toast the Prince’s likeness reflected in the cylinder, thereby avoiding detection and discovery. And this is just part of a really superb and extensive collection, including the Prince’s waistcoat, a lock of his hair, and many broadswords, targes and other weapons used at Culloden. My only frustration was that many items were labelled “said to be”, “attributed to” or “thought to be”.
Nevertheless, I wandered the galleries transfixed until I bumped into Betty Bruce who was cheerfully failing to control an unruly bunch of 12 year-olds on a school visit. Betty is both the education officer and a trustee of the museum. She was brought up in Fort William, emigrated to New Zealand, then came back home to retire. A no-nonsense woman, dressed quite severely in a plain red jumper and black trousers, she was nevertheless friendly and talkative and clearly in love with the Highlands and her job. We chatted for a while about the Jacobites and then I asked her what she thought about the upcoming independence referendum. She paused for a moment then looked away and said:
“I’d better not answer that.”
Now I didn’t want to offend her, but I’d been practising for this trip by watching “Newsnight”. I took a deep breath and pressed home like Paxman:
“I take it then that you’re for independence and you’re too polite to be rude to me about the English?”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. She started to turn a weird shade of purple and I thought I saw a wisp of steam escape from her right ear.
“I am ABSOLUTELY against independence and the referendum and I will not say another word about it.”
Union 1: Independence 0: Nae That Bothered 2
She was more forthcoming on sectarianism though, in fact she laughed in my face when I brought it up. She said all the kids went to the same schools and that they were a happy mixture of catholics, protestants and episcopalians. Sectarianism just wasn’t a factor in their lives. Any Scottish sectarianism I’d heard about was confined to those “ridiculous” Rangers and Celtic “football idiots”. Then she ran off to rescue her schoolkids and I felt bad as I never got chance to thank her properly.
I talk to many people in my everyday life about my interest in the Jacobites and most of them labour under the delusion that it was a Scottish v English conflict, but this is very far from the truth. In fact, at the time many Lowland scots loathed the Highland savages who would come south on cattle stealing raids, and many Scots were strong supporters of the Union. Butcher Cumberland’s army at Culloden contained a significant Scots contingent (though not a majority of Scots as some sources claim.) As in most civil wars, the supporters of each side are hard to categorise, but it can be superficially described as Highland Catholics and Episcopalians v the Government. Now, despite my best attempts with Google I’ve never really got to the essence of Episcopalianism so when I saw the large and impressive Episcopalian church on Fort William High Street I went in. There were only two people in the church, a man sitting midway down the pews and a woman attending to the altar flowers. They were both in their sixties and so could have been a couple, but I doubted it as the man’s unkempt clothes and shock of white hair gave him the air of an ex-alcoholic searching for the strength to continue his recovery.
I approached the woman at the altar and complimented her on her church. Her name was Shiela Hancock, and despite being born and bred in Fort William she had no interest in the Jacobites, though she was far more forthcoming about Episcopalianism. It was hardly a deep theological discussion, but it was interesting. Episcopalians seem to be somewhere in-between Catholicism and the Church of England.
“We have bishops, which the Church of Scotland doesn’t. We’re in full communion with the Church of England. We don’t venerate The Pope the way the Catholics do. We don’t hold The Queen as top, only the Anglicans do. I can’t really think of anything else, we’re very similar in every other way as far as I know”.
And what do you think about Scottish independence and the referendum?
“I’m not happy about it, and most of the people that I know are not for it, and that’s why we want the one question when it comes to voting.”
And why is that?
“Well I think united we stand, we were brought up Scottish and British, we are British”.
Union 2: Independence 0: Nae That Bothered 2
“I’ve never come across it because we in Fort William just inter-mingle with all the churches. As far as I can make out it’s just football. I have cousins who are Wee Free’s, which is as puritan as you can get, and I have cousins who are Roman Catholics, we don’t even think about it. My eldest daughter she married a Catholic and the children came one week here and one week to the chapel, we call the Roman Catholic church the chapel here. Now unfortunately, they don’t go anywhere.”
I sympathised, thanked her and left. I’m quite simply astonished at how willing people are to talk to me and how open and agreeable they are when they do. Maybe it’s me that’s got the problem. Perhaps I should go on a cynicism management course when I get home.
It was now getting dark and I went looking for a good pub to talk booze-fuelled bullshit with the locals. After previous visits to the area I’d despaired of ever finding a decent real ale pub in the entire Highlands, never mind Fort William, but a few steps down the High Street and I was in the Grog and Gruel, with lots of Camra stickers in the window and a selection of real ales from Scottish breweries behind the bar. I bought a pint of the strongest and surveyed the room for my first victim. There was a tall, middle-aged, well-dressed man with an intelligent and educated face sitting at a table alone. Maybe he would be delighted to discuss Jacobite history and contemporary Scottish politics over a few pints. I sat down at the same table and started talking:
“Nice pub you’ve got here mate!”
He gave me a blank look.
“Désolé, monsieur, je suis français et je ne parle pas anglais.”
Nice one Andy! What a tool! I then had to use my halting French to help the waitress explain to him that his meal was a few minutes late so it would be free of charge. A nice touch I thought. But now it was nine o’clock and the place was beginning to fill up so I moved on and stood at the bar where I was joined by Mike, a fireman. He was originally from North Wales but had lived twenty years in Birmingham, then he moved to Caithness because “something happened” in Birmingham and he had to get out. Caithness! Wow! I don’t know what “happened” in Birmingham but given that Caithness is as far away from Brum as you can get without emigrating it must have been something pretty exhilarating. He’d lived in Fort William for six years and had never encountered any anti-English racism, and in fact said he’d encountered more hostility from the South Welsh than the Scots. Mike’s friend was Doogie, a 59 year-old local electrician and Fort William’s tribute to Rab C Nesbitt. He had quite simply the most amazing teeth I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across. Well when I say teeth, he didn’t have any at the front, top or bottom, and the ones he did have projected from his mouth at intriguingly diverse angles to each other. He complained vociferously about
“All the blacks on the telly, on the adverts and the programmes,”
And then said he hated “the fucking English, no’ individually y’understand, just as a country”.
Despite this he was undecided about independence. He said it all depended on the oil. He said that if you carried on the line of the Anglo-Scottish border from Carlisle to Berwick in a north-east direction and all the water south of this line was English, then England would get most of the oil and he would be against independence, but if you drew the line due east at right angles to the coast and all the water north of the line was Scottish then Scotland would get most of the oil and he’d vote for independence.
I realise he was pissed and probably playing to my gallery but I’ll put him down as pro-independence just to get them off the mark. So that’s:
Union 2: Independence 1: Nae That Bothered 2
As we were talking a young man in his early twenties came in who was clearly off his trolley on booze or drugs. He shook my hand, put his arm round my shoulder, asked me how I was, and tried to walk off with my whisky. A bouncer threw him out. It was time to go.