A MAN walks into a bar … only this isn’t any man, it is the pantomime villain of Brexit, Dominic Cummings. And this isn’t any bar, but a centre of boho Scottish nationalism: the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool, owned for many years by the family of the former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart. The staff decide to demonstrate their talent for Scottish hospitality by declining to serve the former chief adviser to the Prime Minister and his family. They don’t appear to realise that not serving an Englishman could lead them liable to prosecution under the SNP’s hate crime legislation, just as if he had been Jewish or gay.
But The Dom doesn’t press charges. Instead he inflicts summary justice by returning to the scene of his ostracism later that evening to engage the hapless hospitality workers in three hours of argument about Brexit, Boris Johnson and Barnard Castle. There was a “very forthright exchange of opinions” according to the boss of the Ceilidh Place, Jock Urquhart, who had stepped up to serve Mr Cummings’ food when his staff rebelled. The end result was “grudging mutual respect”. At least, it is reported that the staff deigned to serve the Cummings clan when they returned the next day.
I hope someone dramatises this encounter, the perfect summertime post-Brexit, post-Indyref anecdote. They perhaps discovered that they weren’t as different as they thought they were, right down to their ambivalence towards incomers, and their hatred of Mr Johnson. After all, if Brexit was fuelled by populist English nationalism, the independence referendum was fuelled by populist Scottish nationalism. The Ceilidh Place has now been marked down by the Daily Telegraph as a place the English should take care lest they insult the SNP Taliban. It also tells us something about how Scotland has changed.
I have much residual affection for the little white hotel, a place I used to visit religiously every summer before heading for my favourite hills: Stac Pollaidh, Suilven and Quinag in Assynt. I even got married in the Ceilidh Place, back in the day – well, not there exactly but in the pokey registrar’s office round the corner. But we all piled back there afterwards. It was in the days when you had to dodge the puddles in the dining room because the ceilings always leaked, and they gave you a rubber hose to wash your hair. But the Ceilidh Place offered the best food in the Highlands and the smokey charm of mournful folk music on rainy nights escaping the midges.
Ullapool in those days was still called a “remote” fishing village. It was where people who didn’t think of themselves as tourists went on holiday. Though the last time I was there I saw two Ferraris parked near the Ceilidh Place. A not-infrequent sight now that Ullapool is a key pit stop on the North Coast 500 – a brilliant marketing invention that is loathed by locals almost as much as they love the money it brings in. Ullapool is now one of the most upmarket tourist destinations in Britain. Last time I tried to get a B and B there the cheapest room was £161 a night.
What can you say? Of course it has ruined the place. On the other hand, the local economy was desperately in need of something to replace fishing after the klondykers left. Robert Hicks, one of the founders of Belladrum, ran a rather wonderful boutique music festival there called “Loopallu” (geddit) but it has extinguished itself. It got too big and was attracting the wrong type of people. Ullapool doesn’t need attractions any more.
Like Ullapool, Scotland’s economy as a whole is largely built now on upmarket tourism, brand image and the service economy. But it is amusing that many people still seem to believe they are living as in the days of the radical theatre group 7/84’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil – a kind of oppressed community annually insulted by snooty English people. It’s like the way many Scots think of themselves morally superior because we’re Jock Tamson’s Bairns, hate Tories and love immigrants (supposedly).
The details of the Cummings inquisition are being kept secret, but it doesn’t take much imagination to work out how it went. “You call yourselves democrats,” says The Dom, “but your party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, spent four years trying to undo the result of the biggest exercise in direct democracy in history: the Brexit referendum in 2016.”
“Aye,” replies the bearded barman with the metal hoops in his ears. “But that was based on lies about £350 million a week going to the NHS. Anyway it was just a lot of racism worked up by the Murdoch media. No one knew what they were voting for.”
“Are you telling me that there weren’t a few holes in the Yes campaign in 2014? Your leader, Alex Salmond, couldn’t even say what currency an independent Scotland would use and his financial calculations were pure fantasy. And as for racism: what about the cybernats and anglophobia?”
“But we voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, 62 per cent, and that was brushed aside by your boss Boris Johnson. If the Scottish people had known that we were going to be turfed out of the EU by a bunch of neo-imperialist Tory zealots, there would’ve been a landslide for Yes in 2014.”
And so it would have gone on. But eventually they may have realised something rather surprising. That both Brexit and the independence referendum were born out of similar political circumstances: revolts by communities who feared their identities were being erased; who felt ignored by the metropolitan media and by an elite of identikit “Westmonster” politicians who offered no choice. Given an opportunity in 2014 and then 2016, voters, especially in working class areas, seized an opportunity to give the elites a shock, by overturning the cosy consensus.
They might agree to disagree on Europe. But there were at least two other areas of common ground: that Boris Johnson is an idiot and that there’s nothing like a good Scottish argument to clear the air.
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