I've been on the road. No surprise there you might think. This time it was slightly different. I was one of about a dozen in a mini-bus jooking around Scotland seeking out roads less travelled and villages and towns I've never previously visited.
I was one of a few musicians and my fellow travellers were writers of all kinds, film makers and even a theologian or two. On the day we arrived in Lochgelly our host at the arts centre welcomed us warmly and referred to our leader, Will Storrar, as 'the bus conductor.' Will is one of the theologians I mentioned earlier and a long term writer and thinker on Scottish nationhood. He has some previous on these kind of journeys.
In 1997 his friend, journalist Neal Ascherson, suggested a bus trip round Scotland to listen to what people were saying about the upcoming referendum for a Scottish parliament. It had been inspired by a similar adventure where author Günter Grass had taken a bus off the beaten track during the 1964 West German election. In 2014 Will and Neal felt it was time to back the old jalopy out of the garage and take it on the road again. The itinerary was planned from Orkney to Dumbarton and many stops in between. I've never gone into any tour with as little information in my diary. Intriguingly Will simply told me to meet them all in a bookshop in Inverness...the rest would unfold from there.
My initial invitation had come from playwright, David Greig, who'd called me one day to talk it through. It seems we were both keen to be involved with something which allowed people to make up their mind about the future of Scotland without the need to convert them to one side of the argument. The Bus Party was ideal. Although I am an eager supporter of Yes, the rules of the Bus forbade any of us proselytizing and indeed, once we made our contribution, we were really there to listen. The tour was subtitled, 'Listening Lugs' (Scots for ears) and it proved to be the most interesting part of the journey.
I can describe an event but to represent any one gathering as typical is misleading. In my three days on the bus we visited a bookshop in Inverness, a secondary school in Elgin, a gallery in Montrose, a theatre in Dundee, an arts centre in Lochgelly and a village church in Kettle, Howe of Fife. No tickets were printed and none of us knew whether anyone would turn up on any given day. Publicity was largely left to social media and the ingenuity of a host on any given occasion. Here's a selection of various contributions......Hamish Moore would play a tune on the small pipes, Karine Polwart would sing a song - often unaccompanied , James Robertson would read a short story or poem, Billy Kay would read something in Scots and David Greig would read an extract from one of his plays where he would explain that a dramatic scene involves a proposal and a choice. The pressure to make the choice, he would explain, is ramped up by a deadline. You could see people getting the implications of all of that. Will would then talk to Neal about his take on the journeys he's made before and how 2014 compares to 1997 and and the original referendum of 1979. Somewhere in the middle of all of this I would sing a song that reflected something about the Scotland I knew or the Scotland I wanted to see.....I have a few of these.
So far it's really just a good night out but then something interesting happened. Will would explain that our contributions have stopped and that we now wanted to hear what people were thinking about their village or county. What kind of place did they want it to become and how could a post-referendum Scotland allow that to happen? What kind of country did they want Scotland to be? At first I feared deadly silence; then slowly and very certainly people started to talk passionately about the country they dreamed of. Twice in different towns I heard women say the same thing: 'I don't want to see a Scotland that relies on food banks.' Some people wanted their children to be more ambitious in their career aspirations, there were calls for compassion, fairness and social inclusion and no one mentioned currency, EU or income and tax differentials. Often it was moving and always we recognised that these were new and different voices to the ones we are used to hearing.
The thoughts were written on a roll of wallpaper purchased at the start of the tour in Wick and that document will be handed to the National Library of Scotland this week.
These were small gatherings. They weren't fervent rallies, just Scottish people imagining their future without any politicians breathing down their necks. None of us was looking for a vote and no one suggested how they wanted the referendum to be resolved. It was however a little glimpse of the best we can be and a wonderful insight for me into the real Scotland. If you're tired of the debate or the way you hear it reported I suggest you take a trip to the National Library and ask to examine the wallpaper. It's the stuff that surrounds us.