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 Fall of the Braigh Wall

15 11 2009

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in the Eastern Europe. Many events have taken place to commemorate this occasion and the worlds media have focused on the various concerts, speeches and Coffee Mornings taking place throughout the former Soviet territories.

It’s sad that a little known local event connected with the fall of communism has been overlooked by the worlds media. Even Isles FM has hardly commented on it and Bono never mentioned it once in his 10 hour-long ‘in between song’ speech in Berlin.

Very few people remember about the ‘Fall of the Braigh Wall’ , which took place in 1975, and set the scene for the reunification of Point with the rest of Lewis.

Following the cessation of hostilities at the end of the Second World War, the whole of Europe was divided up between the  Allies. Russia was quick to stake a claim on the majority of Eastern Europe and to set up a series of puppet states . However, due to a bureaucratic oversight in the Allied Headquarters, the Point district of Lewis was unexpectedly allocated to the Eastern Bloc.

It was thought this was due to the traditional high levels of socialist Rudhachs voting Labour in General Elections and the in-bred ‘Bolshie’ tendencies displayed by most inhabitants of the Eye Peninsula.

So it came to pass that late in 1945, under secret orders from the Kremlin, the Peoples Democratic Republic of Point (PDRP) was established and all diplomatic ties with the rest of Lewis were cut off. A Soviet style political structure was created and a communist way of life was imposed on everyone, even the sheep. Huge collective crofts were established across the district and bronze Stalinist statues started to appear in every village. People were forbidden to go into Stornoway for the messages and songs by Calum Kennedy were outlawed. (The Lochies were still permissible).

To reinforce this new Soviet ideal, and to keep Communism pure in Point, a huge wall was constructed across the Braigh isthmus,  effectively leaving Point isolated and alone. (A situation which suited most people in Stornoway and the rest of Lewis).

The imposing Braigh Wall was located more or less where the car park and toilets are now located and if you look closely enough you can see the last remaining piece of the wall just behind where the toilet portacabin is.

The Wall was patrolled 24/7 (except on Sundays) by armed guards, supported by a series of watch towers with search lights and machine guns. There was only one ‘official’ crossing place on the Wall, called ‘Check Point Chrissie’, where it was occasionally possible to cross over into the Eastern Bloc – if you had the correct permits or were doing a delivery from Hughie Matheson’s Bakery.

It was Check Point Chrissy which came to symbolise the conflict between East and West. The barriers and barbed wire, coupled with the spy scandals and intrigue,  lent an air of mystery to the border post and the secretive Soviet state of Point.

The power of this Soviet style state was reinforced by the infamous Secret Police. Based on the East German ‘Staszi’, the Secret Police was chosen from the membership of the various Grazing’s Committees  (the most secretive and terrifying organisations known in Point) and were known as the ‘Grazzi’. The Grazzi were all-powerful and kept files on almost everybody. Nothing was overlooked and no-one was above suspicion of being a ‘Capitalist Spy’. Annual sheep subsidy claims were recorded in great detail and even how much people put in the Church collection plate.

A number of imposing Soviet style buildings were constructed in Point including Bayble School and the Point Orthodox Free Church building in Garrabost.

All of the villages were renamed to reflect the new regime, such as  Garrabostograd, Shulistalin and Chernknockle. All tractors had to be Trabant Tractors imported by visiting Klondikers from East Germany, and all school children had to learn Russian (however, Point Gaelic is so hard to decipher, visiting officials from the USSR were none the wiser that it wasn’t Russian being spoken).

Every year, on the first of May, the Point Politburo declared that there had to be a May Day Parade, going through the streets of Garrabostograd, to show off the might of the Point military. However, as this was traditionally the day everyone in Point took the peats home, these parades were usually sparsely attended. Many people recall the year Leonid Brezhnev was invited to Point to take the salute of the Rudhach Guard and ended up helping load a trailer of peats instead.  This was marginally better than the previous year, when the Point Politburo had mistakenly invited Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek.

It was only in 1975 when Local Government reorganisation was taking place that the British Government realised that Point was part of the Eastern Bloc and a member of the Warsaw Pact. As this could have caused immense embarrassment to NATO, it was thought prudent to try and resolve the situation as quickly and quietly as possibly. Local Government reorganisation in Scotland was chosen as the most effective way to save face all round.

As the new Comhairle Nan Eilean took control of the islands, representations were made to the Russian Embassy in Garrabostograd (which still exists to this day) to release Point from the shackles of Communism. The Russians were only too glad to get shot of the truculent Rudhachs and gave orders for the Point Politburo to stand down.

As the news spread of the collapse of Communism, and as the dreaded Grazzi disappeared into the night, the people of Point made their way to the Braigh and amidst scenes of rejoicing started tearing down the Wall. Many of the bricks in the wall were snaffled by Rudhachs eager to build new houses, as they now had access to the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme.

Within days, no trace was left of the Wall. Statues of Stalin and Grazings Committee Chairmen were swiftly toppled over and sign posts were hastily altered. Soviet ID cards were torn up and Grazzi surveillance records were soon going up in smoke at a big bonfire on Bayble Hill.

The event that came to symbolise the fall of Point Communism was the image of the first Point bus to leave Stornoway at 11.30pm on  Saturday night for almost 30 years, making its way unhindered across the Braigh, carrying a cargo of drunk Rudhachs, chicken suppers and half bottles.