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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
21 September 2023
Alasdair Allan: The count after the independence referendum was the most difficult day in my life

Alasdair Allan on a Norwegian steamship

Alasdair Allan: The count after the independence referendum was the most difficult day in my life

What’s your earliest memory? 

It’s my next-door neighbour’s flitting when I was two. 

I grew up in a wee village in the Borders and I just remember people sitting on the stairs and the removal van. But the memory has been dated and I was definitely only two. I don’t remember anything else from that early on.  

What were you like at school? 

Have you seen The Inbetweeners? If you can imagine Will, that was probably me at the very top of my game. Although I didn’t have the briefcase.  

I went to a tiny primary school in the Borders of 15 pupils, and then onto Selkirk High School where my favourite subject was Latin. After the first few years, I liked school, but for the first few years I was quite out of place.  

How old were you when you started learning Latin? 

Second year. It was one of the last state schools in Scotland that offered it. I was always interested in languages, and I did start to do Latin at university as a third subject, but Scottish literature is what I ended up studying. But it gave me an interest in languages in general. 

It’s well known you are a keen linguist. You speak four languages, don’t you? 

That’s right. I have always had an interest in language and literature, specifically in Scottish literature. When I was wee we used to always go on holiday to the Highlands and Islands, and I was really fascinated by Gaelic. 

So, I started learning it when I was at university in Glasgow. I also got a summer job working on a ship and a lot of the crew were Gaelic speakers as well. I ended up speaking a lot of Gaelic as a student, socially.

In terms of Scots, I come from a fairly strong Scots-speaking part of the country and had parents and grandparents who spoke a lot of Scots, so that got me into Scottish literature.   

Who is your dream dinner date? 

Well, I did have a very exciting dinner arranged with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but unfortunately my flight from Stornoway was delayed so I missed him. That was my dream, and he was a heroic figure for me but it won’t happen in this world now. 

What is your guiltiest pleasure? 

I don’t think there is any guilt involved but I am really into old boats, specifically steamships. My great pleasure is going for a day doon the water on the Waverley.  

Excuse my ignorance here, there’s only one steamship left in Scotland? 

This is where the geekery comes in. There is only one seagoing paddle steamer left, and there are a few other steamships.  

I used to live on the Waverley as a student because I worked on board, that was for several summers. I was just cleaning dishes, serving in the shop, catching rope, and putting out gangways, but I did graduate to helmsman at one point.  

That’s probably where the boat geekery comes from, although I have to say that in my job knowing about ferries is not an un-useful skill as well.  

If you could go back in time, where would you go? 

This is where the politics come in, I would go to the debates in the Scottish Parliament about whether there should be a union with England and see if I could make an intervention of some kind. It’s a period of history that we don’t really look at much.  

I quite regularly take the opportunity in the parliament to say “as we said in this parliament in 1608” or whatever, because I am not of the view that this parliament was founded in 1999. I think we have a parliamentary history, not a democratic history. I think it’s interesting and we should talk more about it.   

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever had? 

I was once toying with whether I should paint the inside of my house or learn Norwegian and I was told to go and learn Norwegian, it would make me happier, and it did. I’ve never missed not having the inside of my house painted.  

So yeah, the money spent on the night classes at the University of Edinburgh was much better spent there.  

I have always been fascinated by Scandinavia; I have friends in Bergen and Oslo. But I’m just interested in languages and small northern European countries. I wouldn’t say I’m completely fluent in Norwegian, but I did spend a week visiting friends this summer and I didn’t speak any English in that time, so I’m getting there.  

What’s the worst pain that you have experienced? 

The count after the 2014 referendum. By a long way that is the most difficult day in my life.  

I was at the count in Stornoway and, without sounding too serious about things, it made me realise how much of my life I have spent campaigning for Scottish independence. We all dusted ourselves down and moved on, but it was the most difficult thing I have had to get through.  

What did you learn from that? 

The lesson was there isn’t a shortcut. I believe deeply in Scottish independence, but I also believe it can only be achieved by persuading people of it. I suppose however deeply you believe in something you also have to inhabit a shared reality with other people when you speak to them.  

You wrote your own book on walking the border between Scotland and England, what was that like? 

I did, although I’m not a very good hillwalker but I had always wanted to walk along the border between Scotland and England because so many of my family were born, lived, and worked within two or three miles of the border.  

It has always been this fascinating old thing for me, and I wanted to find out more about it, so I decided to walk along it with some friends, which is about 100 miles, and I also decided to read my way along; reading the literature of all the wee places that I was going through.

By the time I had finished, I had a book which ended up being published.

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