First a riot, now a shooting: small town Scotland in the early weeks of 2011

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by Kenneth Roy

For a few alarming minutes, it seemed that we might have another Dunblane. ‘Reports are coming in of a shooting at a school in Scotland….’. The words bore an eery resemblance to the early bulletins on the morning of 13 March 1996 before the numbing enormity seeped into our consciousness. Auchinleck was no Dunblane. Bad enough – 11 children injured – but no Dunblane.

Still, we should pause to ask what is going on in this Ayrshire village – it never did acquire burgh status – which was the home, if not the birthplace, of the lawyer, biographer, drinker and womaniser James Boswell. It is barely a fortnight since the notorious ‘riot’ at the grudge match between Auchinleck Talbot and Cumnock Juniors. First a riot, now a shooting – could it be true what is often averred, that there is no law to speak of east of Ayr?

It has been pointed out by apologists for junior football that it wasn’t much of a riot. There were only three arrests – the equivalent of around 90 at an Old Firm game, given the respective size of the crowds – although Auchinleck has subsequently ‘banned’ six of its own supporters ‘sine die’, as they say in football. But it seems the mood in the streets on the day of the match was exceptionally ugly, just as it was again yesterday. The local rivalries which characterise Scottish parochial life would be hilarious were they not so rancorous. Cumnock is a mere stone’s throw: I use the term advisedly.

Ayrshire, like West Lothian and Lanarkshire, specialises in dark, sullen, near-derelict villages and small towns which Edwin Muir memorably observed as having the quality of an everlasting Sunday. He was writing in the early 1930s at the time of the great depression, when small groups of pallid, shilpit, unemployed men could be found on the street corners. Remarkably little has changed in the 80 years since Muir conducted his Scottish journey for the book of that name, except that the industries on which they depended for their existence are long gone and it is rare to encounter groups of unemployed men on street corners. They are mostly indoors now, watching 24-hour news from somewhere else.

In the Scottish litany of defeated places, Auchinleck is perhaps the most depressing (the Scotsman’s Bill Jamieson, a product of the Ayrshire valley towns, might disagree). It is not possible to pass through it without wondering whether the mean little shops and pubs are open or closed, how the people survive the everlasting Sunday, and why there are not more of them running naked down the endless main street, screaming in despair at the state of the local environment and of their own circumscribed existence. We must be able to do better than Auchinleck. But how, oh Lord, how?


In its tiny way, the holding of the dinner in the large town 12 miles distant was a symbol of the centralising pull of Scottish civic life, away from the small, dour, self-sustaining settlements on which our society was once largely based.


I will give two examples of what is wrong.

The first involves a confession of my own Auchinleck connection. The late Neil Gow, one of the softest touches on the Scottish bench, once prevailed upon me to become the president of the Auchinleck Boswell Society, a scholarly association devoted to the study of the great man’s works. The kindly sheriff assured me that the responsibilities were brief and far from onerous. He was right.

The president occupied the post for a calendar year. He (it was rarely if ever a she) was expected to deliver a learned address at the annual dinner, go away, and never darken the society’s door again; the tradition being that the president was not invited back as past president to subsequent dinners. Some presidents coped with this restriction better than others; my predecessor, the poet Alan Bold, died soon after his term of office expired. I chose as my theme Boswell’s unsuccessful attempt to convert David Hume to Christianity on the latter’s death-bed. The speech seemed to go down quite well, especially when the top-table candles almost ignited my script – a Boswellian moment, that one. Sure enough, I was not invited back.

I remember thinking that night how odd and sad it was that the annual dinner, a splendid affair attended by many lawyers and a few descendants of Boswell himself, was being held in a posh Alloway hotel – more Burns territory than Boswell – and not in Auchinleck, where he is buried in the family vault. When I said as much to one of the organisers, he gave me a sardonic look – signifying astonishment at the bizarre notion of having dinner in Auchinleck. Yet there must be a meeting place of some description there, if only the masonic one. The locals could have been invited along and, in the event of a riot or a shooting, the sheriff would have been on hand to dispense summary justice.

In its tiny way, the holding of the dinner in the large town 12 miles distant was a symbol of the centralising pull of Scottish civic life, away from the small, dour, self-sustaining settlements on which our society was once largely based.

The second example is current. The heir to the throne is building a new village, not far from Auchinleck, founded on ecological principles in which he will indulge his passion for all things architecturally retro. It is an admirable scheme and should inject new life and energy into a desperately stagnant part of the country. But it is interesting that Prince Charles has taken the less brave route of a greenfield development rather than attempting to facilitate the physical and economic rejuvenation of an established community. It is always easier to create something from scratch than it is to save Auchinleck.

The 20,000-acre estate of Auchinleck, and the mansion built by his father, ‘inspired all of Boswell’s Scottish pride’ according to one of his biographers. Boswell wrote that he ‘felt a classic enthusiasm in the romantic shades of our family’s seat in the country’. By all accounts he was kind to the tenants and attended to the estate with some diligence. ‘I must be as long at Auchinleck as I can,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and do the estate and the people as much good as may be in my power’. But the truth is that Boswell found Auchinleck incurably boring and intellectually dead. He escaped as often as possible to the fleshpots of London or Edinburgh, to stimulating company, the excessive consumption of brandy, and young prostitutes.

Few such consolations are open to the dispossessed people of present-day Auchinleck. Agricultural labouring was succeeded by mining, mining by soft drinks, soft drinks by nothing very much that matters, except junior football. ‘It’s all they’ve got’, replied my friend Willie Hunter when he was asked to explain the Scottish working-class addiction to the game.

Last year I attempted rather half-heartedly to instigate a discussion – debate would be pushing it – on what should be done about the national tragedy of small-town Scotland. I called for ideas. None was forthcoming, except the quixotic suggestion that we should restore the burghs. It is possible that there is no way of saving Auchinleck: that it will simply sit there idly and gloomily as long as there remains a Scotland, its torpor interrupted occasionally by the sound of gunfire.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.