Alan Bissett, Alasdair Gray, Alex Salmond, Art, David Grieg, Humor, Isle of Lewis, National Collective, Nicola Sturgeon, Politics, Rory Scothorne, Ross Colquhoun, Satire, Scottish Highlands, Scottish Independence, Scottish Literature, Scottish Nationalism, Stornoway
It was a stunning afternoon in July and a matter of weeks until the day of the vote. By the time that the bottles of Hoegaarden on National Collective’s “Yestival” bus were past their “best before” dates, Scotland would, or at least might, be independent.
The “Yestival” organisers had to take a high tone with the captain of the Stornoway ferry before such a big bus could be approved for boarding. Never before had so many writers and artists intended to visit the Isle of Lewis, and so it would be an insult to history if their bus did not take priority over the other passengers’ vehicles. In the end, a little crestfallen circle of farmers and rural professionals were left behind with their cars on dry land.
At Stornoway, Ross Colquhoun, the Director of National Collective, was planted on the quayside with his clipboard, ticking off the artists as his colleague, Rory Scothorne, rounded them up and herded them back on to the bus. There went David Grieg, and at his heels Alan Bissett. Weeks ago, Colquhoun had been breathless with wonder at floating amongst these glorious planets, but they now seemed increasingly like huge balls of gas. The writers and artists never stopped complimenting the “marvellous energy” of the “Yestival’s” young organisers, until this had begun to sound distinctly patronising to Colquhoun. The big names were all prima donnas, all of them, and, as Colquhoun had insisted repeatedly, National Collective required discipline, selflessness, maybe piping down about your own opinions every now and then, and sticking to the agenda.
Eventually they were on the road, with Scothorne at the wheel. Their destination was Tunda village library. They would showcase themselves to the local community and, more importantly, listen to what the community had to say.
Unfortunately, once Stornoway had petered out, nothing seemed to ever really get going again. The bus reached some semblance of a village, with a few surprised looking cottages, but it was all over before it had begun. Finally the bus was elbowing its way down a tiny lane. Scothorne reassured the rest of National Collective that they would soon emerge outside the cottage garden of the village library.
A tree swung in to take a bite out of the bus and its teeth clattered and slithered horribly across the roof. The lane ended suddenly and the bus was in sunshine again. Then there was a clap with a tiny, faraway yelp somewhere inside it and the vehicle had stopped with a shudder.
Colquhoun looked sharply at the driver.
Scothorne shot up dutifully. “I’ll go down and see…”
When he returned, his face was the very picture of woe. “I’ve hit a cat!” he wailed. “Oh God, it’s lying in the road and writhing about!”
It came to Colquhoun that the library that they were about to visit undoubtedly had a resident cat. There was consternation amongst the writers and artists. National Collective conferred urgently. “Just drive off!” Colquhoun hissed over the rising clamour. “If we’re quick, they’ll never know it was us!”
“We can’t just leave it there!” Scothorne sobbed. “It’s inhumane!”
“I’ll sort it out!” Everybody on board jumped. It was the first time that the novelist Alasdair Gray had spoken on the entire journey. He stood up, a moody presence in his sunglasses and black leather jacket, and waddled contemptuously down the length of the bus to the doors.
That day the villagers assembled inside Tunda public library witnessed something that they were unlikely to ever forget. Hilda, the library cat, was dozing in the cottage garden, when Scotland’s most radical novelist materialised from amongst the roses, raised his leg, and brought down the heel of a leather boot on the cat’s skull. Again and again and again the literary titan stamped, until Hilda’s head was perfectly 2D. With a final pout, Gray spun on his heel and returned to the bus.
National Collective tore away. They would later find the library rabbit, which the bus had originally hit, wrapped around one of the front tyres.
There was now a window in the afternoon’s itinerary. National Collective roved about in their bus, looking for somebody to listen to. They finally chanced upon an auld Lewis fisherwoman who was darning her herring nets on the harbour wall.
The bus disgorged itself of its creative thinkers and they swarmed around the goodwife like locusts around a drop of honey. Unperturbed, she continued to stitch doggedly away at her nets.
Colquhoun presented National Collective’s credentials. “We are a community initiative which seeks to engage with local communities by listening. Err, what do you think about Scotland’s future?”
The brisk dipping of the fisherwoman’s needle had not missed a beat and neither, it seemed, had her nonplussed heart. Yet her eyelids fluttered and then, like the sun unexpectedly peeping over the rooftops, she broke into a girlish smile. “Ae gae brr am gaern. Mae nae brr gae am gaern a brean ftt amgae Rihanna’s “Stay” am ane brgg agae anent amangae.”
National Collective were spellbound. Colquhoun realised that he was grovelling but he could not help it. “Thank you so very much. I cannot say how much of a privilege it has been to listen to such a real, authentic voice.”
They traipsed, half stupefied, back to their bus. “There is such wisdom, such richness, in the people’s authentic voices,” David Grieg declared.
“Oh my God, it was amazing!” Alan Bissett bubbled.
“Och, but…” Scothorne hesitated for a second between truth and consensus. “Didn’t she mention Rihanna and… the song “Stay”?”
“It was purely a coincidence,” Colquhoun decided. “To us, it sounded like “Stay,” but I’m sure that in… whatever language she was speaking… it had its own rich, native meaning.”
And that, they agreed, was that. In village after village National Collective had been disappointed. They had encountered aloofly sarcastic old farmers and their loutish sons. Often the creative thinkers would behold the Highlands’ raucous pubs with the same claustrophobic distress that Victorian missionaries, when regaled with Zulu dances, had once gazed at thousands of gyrating bare bottoms. Here, however, Scotland’s folk magic had been found to be charming and, on the whole, quite sensible.
National Collective raced off. At half past three, they were scheduled to address a community meeting in Carloway.
Once again, they were not certain at what point they had arrived at this settlement. Cottages appeared and then there were suddenly no more cottages. National Collective soon found themselves upon a blackened plateau, and so they stopped and reversed laboriously.
Scothorne had to disembark outside a tiny cabin which was conceivably some sort of shop. “We’re here for the community meeting,” he told the girl on the till.
“The community? You mean those old ladies who sit on the bench?”
“The community. We’re here to talk to the community.”
The girl gazed about, startled. “I thought I saw them last week… Minister?” she turned to a crooked old man who had just slumped into the shop. “Have you seen the community recently?”
The minister sniffed. “Nasty old women. I always keep out of their way.”
The girl on the till had a thought and she brightened. “I can phone the policeman, if you like?”
For a moment, Scothorne wanted to shake her by the neck. “I have some of Scotland’s leading creative thinkers outside!”
The girl looked responsible. “I’d best phone the constable.”
National Collective were a predominantly left-wing movement and they were annoyed whenever they found themselves on friendly terms with the police. Nonetheless, various villagers directed their bus down a sequence of lanes until it was parked outside an ancient stone shell, the policehouse.
The constable was washing his socks by hand in a babbling brook behind the station. “You’re looking for the community? Well, this is a fine thing. It just so happens that we got one of those megaphones last year. I’ve never yet had a chance to use it.”
And so the constable wobbled off on his bicycle, brandishing the sort of megaphone that freedom fighters had used to address political rallies in the 1970s, whilst National Collective nosed after him in their bus. “Has anybody seen the community? The local community?” the constable barked at the passing cottages. “If anybody has seen the community, please report to my police headquarters.”
When the last cottage in the village had shown its wan face, the constable was apologetic. “You know how it is,” he told National Collective. “About this time, they’re all locked in their houses watching Neighbours.”
National Collective set off again. There was no hotel on Lewis big enough to contain all of these creative thinkers, and so they would have to sleep in their bus. The organisers had reckoned that the safest place to spend the night would be the car park of the island’s only Tesco. Yet Scothorne got his roads muddled up at a crossroads and a mist was falling, creating the sudden impression that the bus was soaring through an unearthly grey tunnel.
Unbeknown to National Collective, their road was climbing steeply, to tottering cliffs, to the very end of Scotland itself.
In that moment when everything vital shoots into the mind, or at least in that moment before the sea bed of the Atlantic shoots straight through the forehead, National Collective’s creative thinkers briefly appreciated the true force of the aesthetic.
Alex Salmond was midway through a press conference about the viability of controlling interest rates in an independent Scotland, when there was an interruption from the back.
“Excuse me, sir, but news is coming in that the whole of National Collective has been killed in a traffic accident on the Isle of Lewis. Your reaction?”
Salmond was instinctively delighted. Until now, they had never found any way of incorporating these pesky far-flung islands into Scotland’s independence narrative.
He grunted. “You know, I’m shocked and saddened to hear of this. To lose, as it were, in a single bus plunge, all of Scotland’s most talented artists is something that it will take us generations to recover from. To lose such great artists as…”
It had swooped down into Salmond’s face like a bat. He was a consummate media professional and so he did not register any dismay or surprise. But even he was unable to conceal such a gaping pause.
“To lose such great, fine Scottish artists as…”
He chuckled and then flashed a little of his usual Ronald Reagan charm. “I’m sorry, but I’m so dazed with grief that I don’t think I can even continue. We’ll leave it there.”
Behind closed doors, Nicola Sturgeon pounced on him and wrung his arm. “Fucking brilliant!” she hissed.
Salmond blinked. “What? Put me in the loop.”
“We no longer have to pay out benefits to all of these unemployed wankers!”
“You mean arts subsidies which support the creative economy?”
“I mean paying for shit poetry and tedious crappy music. This is triple the amount that we’ll get from North Sea oil! We’ve fucking made it, pal!”
Within that mound of depleted glamour, something seemed to twinkle. Salmond was hardly one for making sudden movements, but an eyebrow rose and it did not fall again.
Months later, Scotland achieved independence and it became the richest country in Europe. Tinpot Scandinavian nations were condemned to forever rehearse debates about how they could emulate the Scottish model. The UK begged Scotland to join a currency union and the European Union begged them to join the European Union. It was a miracle: Scotland had somehow authored its own destiny at the precise moment that its creativity had lapsed.
[As a theme song for the No campaign, Rihanna’s “Stay” is perfect, but it is hard not to prefer Low’s cover.]