Maggie Thatcher: The Portvoller Years.

13 04 2013

In all the publicity surrounding the demise of Margaret Thatcher (as she was officially known), little has been said about the true beginnings of her political career, right here on the Isle of Lewis.

This isn’t surprising; Her rise up the ranks of the Conservative party in the 1970s, fuelled by a potent cocktail of free market economics and little Englanderism, would have stalled instantly if it had been revealed that she was no grocer’s daughter from Grantham at all – but was born a Rubhach and served throughout the 30s and 40s as the Portvoller councillor for the Point Socialist Liberation Front, a hard-left Trosgyist party.

Margaret Thatcher was born Magaidh Macsween in a leaky black house on the road to Tiumpan Head lighthouse. The custom in these days was to remove the sooty straw from the roof every year for compost and replace it anew, but Magaidh’s old man was a lazy bleigeard who never bothered. The house was usually several inches deep in rainwater, and the family and livestock were permanently stained black by sooty water running through what was left of the roof.

Thus did Magaidh’s father acquire the ironic nickname “Thatcher”, which was duly passed on to the rest of the family, along with a deep-seated hatred of all things wet.

Magaidh’s interest in politics began at an early age, and after studying chemistry at the window of Kenny Froggan’s she got elected to Ross & Cromarty County Council’s Portvoller seat in 1929. At that time the Point Socialist Liberation Front was led by music-loving bachelor sailor and non-churchgoer Tormod Heathen. Thatcher despised Heathen’s centrist politics and his decision to take Point into the Communion Market – a trans-village agreement that allowed the free movement of scones and caorans between districts during the orduighean, but gave all Portvoller’s fishing rights away to the Scalpachs.

Thatcher soon engineered Heathen’s overthrow and took over as Chairman of the Central Committee of the PSLF. Almost immediately she began to privatise Portvoller’s ailing state-run industries and make massive cuts in government spending. Inflation and interest rates rocketed, the economy nosedived, and she looked certain to lose the 1933 elections.

But then came the invasion of Bayble Island by forces from Achmore. The Achmoreteenians had always wanted a coastline like other villages, and had been making claims on various islets and bits of shore for years, which nobody ever took seriously. But now their economy was on the verge of collapse due to the failure of their fishing fleet and their shipbuilding industry, and the populace were discontented. The Achmoreteenian dictator General Leodhaspoldo Garynahinetieri decided to distract the people with an invasion, certain that the Rubhachs would back down and leave him looking tough as fleek.

But Thatcher wasn’t so easily intimidated. A task force of three fleekeen hard coves from Seaview Knock and an angry ram was assembled and dispatched from Bayble pier in a rowing boat, After several minutes of heavy fighting the Achmoreteenians surrendered and the Point flag was raised once more over the island. The war boosted Thatcher’s popularity immensely and the Point Socialist Liberation Front won the 1933 election against a divided and ineffectual Liberation Socialist Front of Point (Continuing) and its ageing duffel-coated leader D*nny Foot.

Thatcher’s next target was Portvoller’s powerful National Union of Peatcutters and their demagogic leader Arthur Suardail. In the face of Thatcher’s plans to close a large number of the village’s peat banks, Suardail called the union out on a strike that lasted for fleekin ages. Suardail hoped to bring Point to its knees and overthrow Magaidh by cutting off the supply of peat, the main source of power for the Lewisian economy (and in some parts of Point, the main currency).

Suardail organised gangs of peatcutters to stand in a line at the end of every peat-track to stop tractors taking the peats home. This strategy proved to be an effective tool, as many tractor drivers took one look at the line and thought ‘Fleek it’ it and went off to the Macs. This ‘Fleek it line’ eventually became a common sight in industrial disputes across the land.

Unfortunately for Suardail, Magaidh had arranged for cheap peats to be rowed across Broadbay from Tolsta, so the anticipated peat shortage never materialised. The strike slowly fizzled out and the Peatcutters returned to work. Sadly the Point peat industry never regained its share of the market and the union movement lost its best darts players.

Magaidh was also renowned for her strong opposition to a broader union of Maws. For many years, the various villages and districts of Lewis had been trying to co-operate more closely in order to produce better football players to compete against the Stornoway teams. Magaidh felt that Point had no need of closer links, especially with Lochs, and so always stated that she would never sign the Mawstrict Treaty. This stubborn position led to confrontation with many of her party colleagues and ultimately led to her downfall, as a whispering campaign started in the Crit.

Even her formerly staunch allies in the Common Grazings committee began to turn against her, especially after she vetoed their plans for an extension to the fank. The Committee had spent months coming up with a proposed a new layout that would save money on gates by routing the dipped sheep back out the way they’d come in. But Thatcher dismissed their idea out of hand. Ars ise : “There will be no ewe turns”.

The final nail in the coffin was seen to be Thatcher’s insistence on introducing a wildly unpopular system of local income tax. She set her sights on raising badly needed spondoolacs by introducing a tax on electricity. The ‘electric’ was just arriving in many of the rural parts of Lewis, carried from the Power Station on Ropework Rd in Stornoway, by hundreds of ‘hydro’ poles dotted across the countryside. Magaidh saw an opportunity to charge homeowners for getting power depending on how many hydro poles it took to reach their houses. This ‘Pole Tax’ resulted in riots, refusals to pay and widespread discontent.

Taking advantage of Magaidh’s low ratings in a Stornoway Gazette poll (Who had the nicest Church Hat), her Cabinet members contrived a Vote of No Confidence. Two prominent local teachers of the day – T*rz*n and M*j*r – stood for the leadership and eventually M*j*r won. Thatcher’s political career (on Lewis at any rate) was over.

Once out of elected office, everyone expected Thatcher to take the well-worn path trodden by many ex-councillors before and since – get the cuiream and take up a seat in the House of (the) Lord.

But Magaidh had other plans. Walking home from the party meeting where she’d been fired, she was passed by local slaughterer Domhnall as a’ Chiall in his bloodstained tractor, towing a trailer full of recently terminated livestock. Taking his attention off the road to point at Magaidh and laugh at her misfortune, Domnhall failed to spot a massive pothole (the result of cuts in the roads budget) and crashed. The contents of the trailer were catapulted in all directions, and Magaidh was knocked into a ditch by the flying carcass of a freshly slaughtered molt.

This was the last straw. “Savaged by a dead sheep!”, she said to herself, as she sat in the peaty ditchwater and brushed fragments of mutton off her beannag and overall. “Well, fleek the Party, fleek the Rubhachs, and fleek this island. I’m going somewhere civilised. Somewhere people will appreciate me. Somewhere where this kind of sh*te will neffer happen to me again!”

Magaidh Macsween was never seen in Portvoller from that day to this. But not long afterwards, much further South, an unknown “grocer’s daughter from Grantham” appeared as if from nowhere at a meeting of the Colchester Conservative Association.

The rest (unlike all this ruppish) is history.

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The Hebridaneans

2 04 2013

The forthcoming Independence Referendum in 2014 won’t be the first time the Outer Hebrides has had to decide what country it pretends to belongs to.

In late 1955, a similar Referendum (now sadly long forgotten) was held to decide if the people of the Outer Hebrides wished to become a Protectorate of Denmark. This situation came about due to the neglect shown to the islands by Westminster over many years, and the post war economic downturn, but mainly from a chance encounter with the crew of a passing Faroese trawler.

There had always been strong cultural and economic connections between the Hebrides and Denmark, going back as far as Viking Times. The herring industry helped strengthen these connections in the late 19th and early 20th century, and up until the 1950’s, the weekly ‘mailboat’ to the Faroes used to call in at Stornoway to pick up the Gazette.

During a darts match in the Legion (the Stornoway and District Church Elders Annual Darts Competition), the Faroese crew happened to mention how good life was as part of Denmark. This caught the attention of those watching the darts and someone jokingly suggested that the Danes should come back and take charge of the islands.  Very soon this piece of gossip had travelled from pub to pub, and then from church to church, until it eventually reached the Council Chamber via Charlie Barleys. However, by the time the gossip reached the Chamber it was a fully fledged proposal and a motion was passed to make representations to Denmark.

A delegation from the Stornoway Town Council visited the Danish capital Copenhagen the next day. The delegates brought all sorts of presents – exotic foodstuffs like guga & marags, and indigenous crafts like Arnish Boots & church hats – to show the Danes what they could be getting their hands on. However, it was the promise of getting a go of the Callanish Stones that really swung the deal.

After intense bargaining, the Danes agreed to take on the Outer Hebrides, if the majority of inhabitants voted in favour of the proposal. After a short campaign the ‘Heng Aye’ side emerged victorious with 92% of the vote. The ‘Fleek Off’ campaign were suitably disappointed, but gracious in defeat.

Much of the success of the campaign was due to the strong cultural links which already existed between Denmark and Stornoway. As previously mentioned, the Viking influence had set the scene and various cultural exchanges over the years helped strengthen the bonds.
Hans Christian Anderson, the famous Danish writer, used to come on his holidays to Stornoway in the 1840’s. Back then, he was just known as Hans Anderson, but after prolonged exposure to Free Church services, he took Communion and became a fervent member of the faith. He was so staunch a church-goer that he campaigned widely to get not only the swings padlocked on Sundays, but the whole town. In Stornoway, due to this fervor, he was known as Hans ‘Curam’ Anderson. This translated into Hans ‘Christian’ Anderson when he moved back to Denmark.

Hans Christian Anderson was best known for his story The Little Maw Maid. This story has touched the hearts of millions and has been turned into film adaptations on many occasions.

A short synopsis is provided below.

The Little Maw Maid is the daughter of the King of the Maws.  She lives ‘beyond the cattle grid’ with her family in Ranish and dreams of becoming a townie. She loves to visit the hills over looking Stornoway and watching the townies, with their posh and refined accents. She ignores the concerns of her father King Tractor and spends all her time watching the town with her friend Sgudal the Seagull.

One day she notices a handsome townie Prince, called Prince Derek, on a bike going through Marybank. The bike bursts a tyre and the Prince is thrown to the ground & knocked unconscious. The Little Maw Maid runs to help and drags him to the cattle grid at the County Hospital. A passing nurse finds the Prince and takes him in to the hospital.

The Little Maw Maid watches the Prince as he recovers and falls in love with him. She visits a witch in Tolsta and asked how she could become a Townie. The witch gave her a magic potion that would transform her accent into a posh townie one, but there was a catch- her new accent would only work in Church.

The Little Maw Maid drank the potion and walked into town the next Sunday, being careful not to speak to anyone until she reached the Church.

There she met the handsome townie prince and fascinated him with the way she pronounced ‘j’ as ‘ch’ and ended every sentence with ‘fleekin’ right man’.

However, it turned out the handsome townie prince was only Church of Scotland & was just there for a christening, so the Little Maw Maid ran off with a Free Church Elder instead.

A famous musical about Anderson’s life was also made in the 1950’s staring Danny Cromwell-St-Quay. This film featured musical adaptations of many of his fairy tales including The Ugly Guga.

The Ugly Guga
There once was an ugly guga
With feathers all singed and a mess
And the other birds said in so many words
Haoidh! Get out of Ness!

The famous statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen Harbour is also a lasting symbol of.the links between Denmark and Stornoway, in particular the herring industry. Originally the sculptor was told to make a statue of a ‘herring girl’, but he thought that meant a girl who was half herring/half blone. By the time the mistake was noticed it was too late -the statue was in place and had become one of the cities most popular landmarks.

The Danish control of the Hebrides ended in 1959 when Copenhagen decided that the Stornoway Gazette wasn’t covering Danish events in enough detail, or indeed in any detail. A passing Faroese trawler dropped off the Title Deeds and so ended the era of the Hebridaneans.

(Thanks to Ange for her research into Hebridanea).