Ross Aitchison: Forward Is The Only Way


One of the single most rewarding parts of being a participant in Scotland’s journey these last few years is the opportunities afforded to just listen and look. Not to the noise of the political elites, or the official campaigns, but to the people around me. They have swayed, swithered and asked questions; they have imparted wisdom and ideas; they have argued, challenged and laughed and joked. But alongside all of these things many have shared their very unique and personal Journey’s to Yes this September.

I have often found myself reluctant to do the same. The idea of writing a ‘Journey to Yes’ is difficult. As an architect, writing on concepts and ideas comes much more naturally, sitting at a safe distance from personal stories. To write a ‘Journey to Yes’ opens you up, forces reflection and raises questions only I can answer. Yet, I kept promising myself the words would come, they would have to be put down before the moment had expired and the regret of not doing so fell upon me. To miss the one opportunity of recording what ideas I was considering at this moment wrestled in my mind. To record nothing as we made our choice felt would allow me to rewrite the story later was something I don’t wish to do.

But despite it all the idea of a ‘Journey to Yes’ still seemed challenging – not least because I haven’t had a eureka moment nor the slow transition from No to Yes. I know and have read and listened to many who have made such a move in the last few years but for me, the choice was never in any sense of doubt. I have always been a ‘Yes’. My story is more a personal narrative to now, this moment and time, as I fast approach my twenty-fifth birthday and this decision which will shape much of my next twenty-five years and many beyond.

I am a nostalgic and at times a rather sentimental person. I’m intrigued by old stories, black and white photographs, the traces of family history and paths chosen. Our personal experiences are often our (best) guides in the making of decisions, they inform our hopes and fears and set the backdrop for each which comes next. We continually meet forks in the road, and with each choice we are defined and changed. This is less a ‘Journey to Yes’ and more a series of choices made which have brought me to this moment and place.

When faced with their first fork in the road together, my parents chose to go to Nottingham. By my Dad choosing to retrain as a Chartered Surveyor they had left Edinburgh to start a new life. A year later in 1989 I would join them, born within the homeland of Robin Hood in the District of Sherwood.

They had met in the late days of the 80s – against the backdrop of Thatcherism – whilst working together in the Benefits Office on The Shore in Leith. The stories of these days, of their carrying out work brought on by the policies of a government neither had voted for, would form an early narrative in my understanding of politics on our isles. My Mum would be returning south of the Border having grown up in the Garrison town of Catterick in Yorkshire, my granddad serving in the British Army in Cyprus, Germany, Northern Ireland. They would reminisce fondly of their time in Nottingham but less so of the backdrop of the worst excesses of that Tory Government, the miner’s strikes and the collapse of industry across Britain. Later childhood holidays would be spent there, visiting the the Robin Hood Museum and hearing stories of Brian Clough and his great teams of players assembled from across these isles.

As a family we would return to Scotland, firstly to Edinburgh and then in 1996 to Aberdeenshire. It was common place over our nightly dinners as a family to discuss the politics of this seemingly far away decade which my life briefly touched. My parents would remind myself and my brothers of the dark days of having to work in the Benefits Office and their experience as a new young couple “down south”. We would talk about the devastation Thatchers policies brought to Scotland and the questionable mandate they had to deliver such extraordinary social and economic change. Discussion would focus on democracy and the deficit we in Scotland faced.

We would hear stories of 1990 when the Poll Tax protests reached London and the amazement of many of their peers in England that it had already been ‘tested’ on an unwelcoming Scots populous for a year. They would discuss openly, like many of their age, that steady and all too familiar disillusionment with a Labour Party which had already by 1990 abandoned them, my Dad choosing to vote for the short lived Social Democrats through much of the 1980s. That’s not to say my experience and upbringing was shaped by a tribal distancing from the Labour Party. There was always warmness, enthusiasm, respect and sadness at the loss of giants like Smith and Dewar and Mackintosh (a visitor to my grandparents house during the 1970s).

Throughout my childhood there would be further tales shared by my Gran and my Dad of my Papa’s stories; about a boy from Harthill who would welcome a number of the political leaders of the day to their house in Eyemouth. Each would illicit questions of curiosity and answers in equal measure. I would, as I grew up, begin to feel parallels and imagine conversations we would have about Scotland, his life and our future. Again all these stories and conversations would be defined by experience and choice. Sadly, as many others will miss out, as the day approaches we won’t have the opportunity to do so.

Those choices he made would come to set some of the backdrop for many of mine. They would shape my thinking and influence my sense of who I am and can be. Born in the 1920s my Papa, from a family from Foula off the hostile west Atlantic coast of Shetland, would be brought up in the industrial heartland of central Scotland.

Opportunity would arise through education – as for many Scots – and Glasgow University would present the chance of a degree in Classics. It would be broken up as war would break out and he too would serve in the British Army. For him it would be in the heat of battle in forests and plains of the Netherlands. Newspaper clippings proudly kept tell of this young man, younger than I am now, capturing a German unit and conducting their surrender in the mutual language of latin. A moment of understanding and respect against the heat and horrors of war.

His return would bring his falling in love with my Gran who would go onto to share his life for over 50 years. Her spirit, inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness and energy into her 90s is an inspirational and wonderful influence on me. The particular story of her and her sister dancing with Sir Harry Lauder around Scotland has been told and retold hundreds of times with joy and amazement.

The two of them would go on to settle in Eyemouth, on the Berwickshire coast, my Papa becoming a teacher of Latin and latterly Navigation – a critical qualification in this once thriving and significant fishing town. This would open doors and present new opportunities to the point where in the 1970s he became the first Chief Executive of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation. His selflessness and want for a better Scotland for all (although I could never say he would support independence today) is a constant inspiration and owes much to the hard work He believed in the power of education, which remains utterly central to improving our collective lot. Latterly his commitment to civic society would find its outlet in local government with his becoming a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Scottish Borders Counicl. My Dad often tells of a story in which he questioned why my Papa fought for EU funding to expand the harbour at Eyemouth at a time of decline in the fishing industry. His succinct reply, “If we don’t do it someone else will”. I’ve always like that.

At times I wonder if there are parallels – of the power of hard work, the opportunities afforded by free higher education, an ambition for better and a belief that engagement in society good improve much of that which surrounds us.

These parallels for me were in many ways aided by my parents choice to move to a new environment. In 1996 we would go north – to Aberdeenshire – where the lives of myself and my brothers would be staggeringly reshaped. We would grow up in a place away from the harshness of the city, in a house with a garden and streets we could play in until late into the night. It was safe and rife with opportunity. We would go to a state school permanently ranked as one of the best in Scotland and with an extensive support network. Anything was possible here in a way when I visited friends and family elsewhere in Scotland it just wasn’t.

The decline in Eyemouth was harsh, the failures of government in supporting fisheries slowly strangling the prosperity of the town. Edinburgh would provoke stark contrast and provide a glimpse of the inner city life I could have had. It was unfair to my developing political mind that by quirk of chance I would have opportunities a number of my primary school peers in Edinburgh could only dream of. These thoughts, guilts even, would be the spark for political discussion around the dining table.

Around our table we would, as a family, reflect on the birth of Holyrood and its changes to how we saw ourselves and the progress made by administrations led by both Labour and the SNP. The smoking ban, progress on equality rights, protection of free education and the abolition of prescription charges to name a few. Within our house, politics was never defined by parties but by openness to ideas that could make things better.

For me a fork in the road would arrive in 2012. Having become politically engaged by our family reflections and discussions I would join the SNP in 2010 with the belief that by being part of the discussion there was an opportunity to change Scotland for the better. I wouldn’t find myself in agreement with everything they stood for, nor would I now, but they offered the closest to what I believed was best for Scotland. Joining allowed me to explore the notion that politics was something not to be done to us – as my parents had experienced – but to be participated in and shaped to reflect the country I wanted to see.

It was through this engagement that my Dad, for a number of years disillusioned by party politics following the heart wrenching disappointment of New Labour, would be persuaded to stand as an Aberdeenshire Council candidate. I was asked to be his election agent. To campaign for your Dad is strange – and stepping into a ballot box to place an ‘X’ alongside his name even more so. But to stand next to him as we were told he had been elected was one of the proudest moments of my life. Those conversations that encouraged the idea that politics was something for open discourse and questioning – not something to be ignored – became manifest. As an elected member of our community his tireless work in building a better place amazes me each day. He provokes cynicism and optimism in me in equal measure and for that I am incredibly grateful.

The home would continue to be fertile ground for agreement and disagreement and the challenging of ideas and opinions. My Mum would encourage tirelessly that we should speak up for what we believed in, stand our ground and above all else express our independence. She would teach us the value of art in our life and provides a constant sounding board for ideas and decisions. She would make sure I knew that my opinion was always valued and its expression encouraged. She constantly keeps me grounded and reminds me that our family have had to work for where we are and the opportunities we have had. As a family we would visit galleries and museums to expand our experience of the world around us. We would always talk about politics against the backdrop of art and culture and experience.

I would often wonder if this were a normal state for families across the land or whether it was just us.

This campaign has taught me, wholeheartedly it wasn’t just us. It was never just us.

People from across Scotland have been having the same conversations. We just haven’t heard them loudly enough before. That’s all changed and we can’t let it reverse. People are becoming engaged again. Like for my Dad the disillusion is being washed away by a new tide. We are a political people and we want something better and this experience has shifted us onto new ground. We’ve reflected on little stories and big political choices gone before. I’ve grown more sentimental and nostalgic whilst more than ever being excited of the possibility of the future.

My stories, their forks in the road and choices, are just one of many across this country. It is no more or less valid than any other, it is merely a series of choices and experiences which have brought me to this place. They’ve all made me an independent person seeking an independent future.

My own experience with National Collective and the broader Yes movement has inspired and amazed me. When faced with my own fork in the road two and a half years ago to join a group of five or six others in a small pub in Edinburgh to talk about independence, I said Yes. That group was National Collective. Look at it now.

That we are here sharing this moment is a testament to the work of so many incredible people doing their little bit. Each and every one of these achievements shouldn’t be underestimated.

When Scotland decides on Thursday, we face a choice of two futures which will define the direction we go in next. Although sentimental and nostalgic, forward is the only way.

Ross Aitchison
National Collective

Image from Simon Baker


About Ross Aitchison

Ross Aitchison is a Part II Architectural Assistant based in Edinburgh and a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, originally from Aberdeenshire. He is a national organiser for National Collective.