Argyll and Bute covers nearly 7000 square kilometres of land and sea. It includes twenty six islands, Britain’s fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, Macbeth’s (or Mac Bethad mac Findlaích‘s) burial ground, and a religious community. Its economy is based on tourism, farming, fishing and energy. It’s also a four-way marginal, which has been held by the Liberal Democrats since 1987.
An iconic starting place for our roadtrip, then — though there, the travel was largely by rail and sea. On a misty morning, we struck out from the port in Oban for a trip that took us between the mainland and Kerrera, home to a ruined castle and 34 residents.
Our guide, now based in Oban, had worked on Kerrera before; surprisingly, as a parrot keeper. The majority of the land on the island, only 2km wide and 7km long, is owned by a handful of old families. Sheep and cattle bring in most of the business there, though benefitting from its proximity to Oban, tourism is a draw as well.
After a spell at the aviary, our guide is — obviously — now back at sea. He spent most of his working life variously as a diver and a fisherman, from Whitehaven on the West coast of Cumbria, up round the Highlands and eventually to Western Scotland.
He followed in his father’s footsteps in that respect, he tells us. “He was a fisherman — Cornish, actually — who came up to Scotland when he was about 25, and stayed”.
With the change in scene came a change in politics; again, a theme which his son again carried on. “He always voted Conservative down in Cornwall, but he was SNP when he moved up here”.
An SNP supporter who hasn’t yet voted, but now plans to in 2015, our guide seemed cheered by the prospect of an SNP-Conservative deal after the election. It’s an eventuality which the SNP leadership have spoken strongly against, but a rare one which would reflect his political heritage.
Among his friends at the port, SNP support seemed strong: one was unwilling to talk politics beyond a raised hand, and a shout of “the SNP — power to the workers!”, while another told us it was “a shame” that many of the islands in the constituency voted against independence in the referendum.
Argyll and Bute rejected independence with a margin of 10,819 votes; though Oban does have its own pro-independence cafe, Grassroots, which evolved from the area’s Yes shop in the referendum.
Held by the Liberal Democrats in 2010 with margin of 3,431 votes, it’s nowhere close to the most marginal of our 50 chosen seats. But with almost equally strong Conservative and Labour support in third and fourth place — winning 10861 and 10274 votes respectively — the constituency has a more even split than most. Genuine four way marginals are rare, but Argyll and Bute’s voting track record, especially considering the wider Scottish themes at this general election, justifies the label.
Speaking to some other locals underlined that the referendum hasn’t yet faded, for good or for bad. One lady who we started to chat to fled the scene as it turned to politics: “not again, not after the independence thing!” Others, though, were happy to debate: with national turnout at 84.5% and local turnout here at 88.2% the referendum engaged voters more than most general elections do.
Aside from the ordinary challenges of engaging voters, the challenges of living, voting and campaigning in such a remote and sparsely populated area are manifold. Though Oban is thriving when we visit, at the start of spring and the end of a bank holiday, it empties out in the winter, described by our sea guide as a “depressing” period.
In past votes, be it elections or the referendum, the ballot slips have been returned by post, boat and even helicopter. Getting out to homes right across the constituency, when some are miles by sea and host tiny numbers of residents, would be cost intensive and incredibly time consuming for candidates.
Yet, Alan Reid, the Liberal Democrat MP in the 2010 parliament, undertook annual ‘Summer Tours’ in which he would hold surgeries in each part of the constituency. And the SNP candidate, Brendan O’Hara, has crowdfunded just under £6500 for the campaign
Meanwhile Mary Galbraith, the Labour candidate, has been campaigning for the last 18 months across the constituency. And Conservative candidate Alastair Redman, is, as a local postmaster, no doubt familiar with the terrain — and lists visiting “every corner” of the constituency as the first pledge on his website.
The leading candidates are all evidently taking steps to meet the challenges of campaigning here; but predicting the likely outcome is a fairly futile exercise. With no recent constituency-level polling data, such a diverse track record, and a 58% No vote, Argyll and Bute is one of the outlying Scottish constituencies in which it’s difficult to tell if national trends apply. Hardly a surprise in such a huge and far-flung seat.
Some aspects of the area seem to have followed the tracks of modern developments — its swing-vote politics, its role in renewables, even on a smaller scale the prevalence of free wifi in Oban town centre. Others, though, seem as old and unchanged as its hills — ancient landowning families, traditional methods of farming, and tiny, isolated communities. It remains to be seen if the Lib Dems here will fall with the national vote, or weather the storm.