An Orange Morning in Edinburgh

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  By Peter Geoghegan
 
On Saturday, I took the 10am train from Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh.  Almost as soon as we pulled out of the station the tinny sound of flute band music on mobile phones began.  A woman near the end of the corridor had a Union flag on her lap.
 
Across the aisle from me sat four burly men.  They were all drinking cans of Stella.  The youngest had a soft, babyish face and wore an Orange t-shirt with a Rangers crest framed by the motto “we are the people” in ornate font.

  By Peter Geoghegan
 
On Saturday, I took the 10am train from Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh.  Almost as soon as we pulled out of the station the tinny sound of flute band music on mobile phones began.  A woman near the end of the corridor had a Union flag on her lap.
 
Across the aisle from me sat four burly men.  They were all drinking cans of Stella.  The youngest had a soft, babyish face and wore an Orange t-shirt with a Rangers crest framed by the motto “we are the people” in ornate font.

I asked if they were drinking to celebrate.  “Nah, we’re going to the protest,” the baby-faced lad smiled.  One of his travelling companions, a small, stick-thin middle-aged woman with peroxide hair, was perched on the seat beside me.  “We’re going to defend the Union,” she winked.  “And to drink.”

“Where are you going?” I was on my way to the Orange Order parade, too, but I didn’t say that.  No point.  Better to be an interloper.  I said, half truthfully, that I was headed for Aberdeen.

Our conversation developed in fits and starts, breathing in the gaps between the badinage with her travelling companions.  She asked where I was from.  I told her: the Republic of Ireland.  She looked confused for a moment then smiled again: “the other side”.  She had a hard face that softened when she smiled, giving her a playful vulnerability. 

She told me, matter-of-factly, that she was in “a mixed marriage” (a phrase I only hear in Glasgow and Northern Ireland).  Her Catholic husband was still undecided about the referendum.

Her son was definitely voting yes. “He hates that, the flag”, she said pointing at a Union flag on the cover of my newspaper.  And what did she think?  It’s “too soon” for independence, she said, but “maybe later, in a few years”.  Her solicitous answer surprised me.  I had expected a rousing defence of the Union.

When the inspector came she took her ticket out of a wallet with a Rangers logo.  It matched the pendant dangling around her neck.  “Rangers is my life.  It’s the important thing in my life,” she beamed.

She met her husband through football.  Three decades ago they both were on the way to watch rival sides of the Old Firm.  “He stopped on the road.  I said ‘what are you looking out.  He said, ‘You'”.  Her husband still supports Celtic. “It doesn’t make him a bad person it’s his only flaw”, she said with a smile.  She clearly meant it.

The train pulled into a suburban station.  She stared intently out the window, as if an acquaintance had hooved into view.  I turned to look, too.  The oldest guy at the table across the aisle, who had spent most of the journey watching videos of football casual chanting, put down his mobile phone.

They all stared out the window.  On the opposite platform stood a man in a Celtic shirt.  “Look at him”, said one of the men with some menace.  “Cunt”, said another.  The woman stuck up her middle digit, her face contorted with hatred.  The object of her ire stood oblivious.

Once we left the station her face softened.  I felt comfortable again.  We got to talking about the referendum again.  She was just back from holiday in Greece. The country was a mess.  What was to stop Scotland ending up like that?

The trip to Greece – maybe she missed her annual visit to Belfast.  She was inviting me ask what she did in Belfast.  I had a feeling I shouldn’t – but I did. 

Every year this amiable woman attends a parade for Brian Robinson.  I worked in Northern Ireland for many years.  I know who Brian Robinson is: an Ulster Volunteer Force man who killed innocent Catholics.  Something inside me snapped.  “Why do you march for a sectarian killer?” She said he was a soldier.

He was a cold-blooded killer.  I was livid; that someone would travel to another country to honour a vicious murderer seemed particularly sickening.  “Imagine if paramilitaries had killed one of your family.” She said nothing for a moment.  “But it’s part of my culture.”

That word ‘culture’ always signals the end of a line of conversation.  I started a new one.  “What about Ian Paisley?” “Turncoat”, she spat the word out almost instinctively.

Then, as if embarrassed, she says she wished “we could all live together”.  She sounded like she meant it.  The baby-faced lad asked if I’d take their photo.

A Union flag appeared from somewhere and the woman hopped on the opposite table. Say cheese, I said.  A chorus of “no surrender” came back.  The bespectacled man in the seat behind looked disgusted.

The woman sat back down beside me.  Murrayfield drifted past the window.  Apropos of nothing she said:  “Its not the Orange Order, it’s people like us, following them, who cause the trouble.”  She stared off behind me.  I said nothing.  At Waverly station, the five piled out, shouting good-natured goodbyes as they left.  I wished them well.  I meant it.

Possibly the best thing about the referendum is that it has been an opportunity to see Scotland for what it is, warts and all.  Just as the politically engaged neophytes have inspired, the online trolls on both sides have engendered despair.  This is what Scotland is, like it or not.

The Orange Order parade itself was peaceful and surprisingly solemn.  Nonplussed tourists certainly bulked up the crowd lining the old town route but this was without doubt the biggest Orange display I’ve ever seen in Scotland.  There was the occasional shout of “vote no” and chorus of “rule Britannia” but there were also reports of a rogue independence supporter trying to goad the bandsmen.

But by 3.15pm the general bon homie had dissipated.  The Royal Mile felt like the day after a music festival, rubbish tossed on the street.

Outside the back entrance of Waverley, a small mixed group posed for photographs holding the Northern Ireland and Union flags alongside a loyalist Somme standard. Inside the station, a gang of a dozen or so men sang songs about “fucking Celtic”.  I felt sickened, again.