The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service logged 123 calls between 9 p.m. last Monday and 1 a.m. on Tuesday, of which 42 were related to the annual Eleventh Night bonfires. The fire engines were ready and waiting when a pyre of wooden crates about seven storeys high was set alight in a cordoned off car park in Sandy Row at midnight. There were loud cheers as the flames engulfed a large Irish tricolour with ‘KAT’ (‘Kill All Taigs’) scrawled in pen across the flag’s white third. (A Taig is a derogatory term for a Catholic. The white is meant symbolise peace between the Protestant Orange and the Catholic Green.) The heat was so intense I found myself squinting. Beyond the car park railings, firemen hosed down windows to cool the glass, but it wasn’t enough. A Bangladeshi family in a flat overlooking the bonfire watched on as their window shattered.
At 5 p.m. on 18 September 2014 the Scottish National Party had 25,642 members. Last Saturday afternoon Nicola Sturgeon announced that membership was 102,143 and rising. After the referendum, it was thought that the new intake – widely assumed to be more leftwing – might undermine the nationalists’ discipline. But there was little discord among the 3000 people at Glasgow’s SECC last weekend for the SNP spring conference. Resolutions on all-women shortlists, land reform and the Chagos Islands passed almost unanimously. Sturgeon pledged that her party would block David Cameron’s attempts to return to Downing Street. She said that the SNP would supply the ‘backbone and guts’ needed to force Labour to construct a radical post-election government. Trident would go; austerity would slow; the minimum wage would rise by £2. The loudest cheer came for a call to scrap the House of Lords.
'I came down here to support Tommy,' the man said when I asked why he'd given over his Sunday to stand in the middle of George Square and listen to a stream of speeches, mainly about the perfidy of Albion. 'I think he's had a raw deal.' Tommy Sheridan was on stage in a Yes T-shirt. Between the bronchial sound system and us was a sea of Saltires and homemade signs. A trio of mocked-up heads with the faces of Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Alistair Darling bobbed above the crowd, with a placard labelling them the '3 stooges' and 'traitors'.
On Friday evening, hundreds of loyalists congregated in George Square. Some bought union flags from hawkers; most brought their own. Women in red, white and blue wraparound skirts sang 'you can stuff your independence up your arse.' Expensive cars disgorged burly men from Ayrshire and Fife onto the square. A Rangers banner was attached to the metal railings in front of the city's cenotaph. Sections of the crowd chanted 'Rule Britannia' and 'No Surrender'. Some gave Hitler salutes. In the gloaming, pro-independence supporters and non-aligned passers-by were attacked. So far eleven people have been arrested.
On Saturday, with only days to go before the independence referendum, thousands of Yes supporters gathered on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, waving Saltires and singing ‘Flower of Scotland’. At around the same time, more than ten thousand Orangemen staged a pro-union march in Edinburgh. The standards at the head of the flute bands hailed from Portadown and Coatbridge, London and Liverpool, Leeds and Stockport.
At eight o’clock yesterday evening, Alan Titchmarsh: Love Your Garden aired on ITV in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish TV broadcast a two-hour live debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow. Billed as an evening that would decide the future of the United Kingdom, the first televised debate ahead of next month’s independence referendum was available only to viewers in Scotland. (The STV live stream, accessible throughout the union, reportedly crashed early on.)
I had coffee with Sudbin, a human rights activist, in northern Bosnia last month. We met at a roadside bar called Sidro ('anchor') in the village of Carakovo, and talked about the difficulties facing Bosniaks who returned to Republika Srpska after the war. Heavy rain was falling. The River Sana was seeping over its banks. Dark brown water swirled around the wooden stilts that supported a two-storey house beside the river. 'I've never seen it like this,' Sudbin said. 'Nobody, not the government, has done anything to stop it, to make defences.'
'I like heckling, polite heckling,’ George Galloway told me over a cup of tea in an Edinburgh hotel yesterday afternoon. A couple of hours later, the MP for Bradford West prowled onto the stage at the Assembly Rooms dressed like a white soul singer – black fedora, black jacket, white shirt pinned with portcullis cufflinks – to the sound of Stealers Wheel's ‘Stuckin the Middle with You’. Outside, a dozen or so members of the far-right Scottish Defence League shouted ‘George Galloway betrays his own country’ and waved Union flags. When I tried to take a photograph one rushed towards me bawling ‘Next time there’ll be violence.’ A larger counterdemonstration chanted ‘Master race, you’re having a laugh.’
John F. Kennedy is supposed to have been able to read 2000 words per minute. Alistair Darling must be nearly as quick: the Scottish government published its 670-page White Paper on independence at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. By midday the former chancellor had reached his verdict: ‘a work of fiction, thick with false promises and meaningless assertions’. Alistair Carmichael was lagging behind; it was the early afternoon before the Scottish secretary declared of the White Paper: ‘Rarely have so many words been used to answer so little.’
The Scottish National Party conference used to flit around Scotland: Dunoon, Oban, Dundee, even Rothesay have hosted it. Nowadays Perth concert hall, a glass-fronted building near what remains of the old city walls, is one of the few places large enough to hold everyone. ‘It’s got bigger,’ two white-haired women from Moray answered in unison when I asked what has changed since their first SNP conference more than three decades ago. ‘But it’s still lots of fun, especially in the evening.’