As Gilbert and Sullivan said: ‘Here’s a how-de-d0′. Having instructed that a specific flag ceremony at Auchindrain
Farm Township in Mid Argyll should be kept private because otherwise it might wrongly become fodder for political mischief-making, its Chair of Trustees, in limbo during the 2011 Scottish Election campaign, herself chose to blow the gaff on the event today.
Writing an account of her diary for last week in today’s online Caledonian Mercury, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Argyll and Bute seat, Councillor Alison Hay, noted under her entry for Friday 22nd April: ‘The museum is taking down a tattered old saltire flag and replacing it with a new one. The old one is being respectfully folded and cremated’.
Unsurprisingly, fed such a tasty titbit, the CalMerc slapped a provocative strapline on her article: ‘ ’Lib Dem campaign diary: council overtime and cremating a saltire’.
Councillor Hay’s initial sensibilities were attuned to this sort of outcome, judging that the event should be kept private for fear of misinterpretation in the heat of an election campaign.
For this reason, For Argyll did not even attend, although the potential photographs could have been visually dramatic in ways that have nothing to do with elections.
What on earth was Councillor Hay thinking of, to go on – herself – to make mention of the event and without the necessary contextual detail, in an online newspaper and under her own name?
This bewildering carelessness, under an inflammatory strap, could leave the museum open to all sorts of hostile enquiry from offended nationalists. There is little so evocative as a flag.
So here, to calm the potential ire, are the culturally fascinating facts that lie behind what will have been a unique ceremony we chose, out of repsonsiblity, not even to witness.
The replacement of the Auchindrain Saltire
Auchindrain – Achadh an Droighinn (the field of the thorn tree), a few miles south of Inveraray on the A83, is Scotland’s only preserved crofting township of the ‘unimproved’ variety. It one of the recognised collections of Scotland and a magical and evocative place.
Under its unsleeping and endlessly innovative new Development Director, Bob Clark and Councillor Hay’s warmly committed and energetic support as Chair of its Trustees, Auchindrain has been transformed over the past year or so. Collapsed walls and buildings are progressively being rebuilt by dry stone dyking. Original drains have been detected and redug. Much information about the township, its way of life and its occupants has been recovered in a variety of ongoing researches. Events and festivals have been held there, giving the place a living contribution to make to its community.
A major part of this interim stage of development has been the remodelling and re-equipping of its visitor reception centre. It now has an industrial kitchen capable not only of its daily catering but of hosting cookery classes; a superb new tearoom, a chill-out conversation corner, internet access and a smart retail area.
All fine and dandy.
But at the gate, on the flagpole, was the tattered old Saltire – or the 15% of the original that was left, shredding in the wind.
Bob Clark got a new flag.
During a casual conversation about the logistics of replacing it, an American voluteer whose contribution to the regeneration of Auchindrain has been immense in very many ways, was horrified when the rag was tossed to the ground. She grabbed it before it touched down, folded it carefully and hugged it protectively close.
A former US Navy Marine, Rebecca Martin, bred in a very different culture and additionally shaped by a military one, saw the flag as a potent symbol that must be handled at all times with ritual respect. When she discovered that the plan was simply to bin the threads of the old one, she flatly refused to allow it.
Bob Clark then enquired what happened in the Marines. Out of this conversation came a plan both to treat the flag with the specific reverence born of Rebecca’s military background and to devise a cross cultural ceremony that would also mark the end of Rebecca’s year as a volunteer.
Consulted on the plan, Alison Hay agreed with interest and was savvy enough to say it should not be publicised for fear of political mischief-making. She had no intention of being disrespectful to the Saltire and knew that her SNP competitor, Michael Russell, would both understand and not seek to make erroneous political capital out of it, were he to know about it.
Quite reasonably. though, afraid that if the planned event were to be publicised on the media, others might make mischief she and Auchindrain could do without.
So the plan, which we assume from Councillor Hay’s published diary went ahead, was that the old flag would be lowered and treated in the manner of the US military, folded, cut and ceremonially burned – a sort of pre-Valhalla for flags – and the new flag would then be hoisted, phoenix like, from its ashes.
Councillor Hay, who would be present, would then say a few words, presumably about the rebirth of Auchindrain under Bob Clark and about Rebecca Martin’s substantial and thoughtful contribution to that. And the ritual would be complete.
So why did Councillor Hay choose to refer today, almost teasingly, to this event and on a major online news platform? It was most probably down to tiredness, coming to the end of an election campaign that has been gruelling for everyone.
Whatever it was, no one should be under any illusion that she was anything other than sensitive to the nuances of the handling of the Saltire. Nor should anyone of nationalist sympathies be offended by Auchindrain, which was working to treat the flag they choose to fly – and a much valued volunteer – with the respect that is their mutual due.