Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

At Rory Stewart’s Cairn

“We’re looking for the cairn.”  The woman behind the counter in the Cadbury’s outlet store in the Gretna Gateway shopping centre looks slightly bemused.  All around her, piled precariously high, are clear plastic bags filled to bursting with ‘Roses’ chocolates and mini-Wispas.  “Any 2 for £6” declare signs in red dotted across the shop.

“We’re looking for the cairn,” I try again.  “Rory Stewart’s cairn.”  There’s a flicker of recognition. “Oh yeah, that.” The directions aren’t great, but they are good enough.

After wandering through the sprawling Gretna Gateway car park – past Ulsterbus coaches half full of visitors clutching Ralph Lauren shopping bags – myself and my companion, a hirsute Greenie from Edinburgh, finally spot a homemade sign on the edge of the road: ‘The Cairn”. An arrow points into a field.

When Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, opened “the Auld Acquaintances Cairn” in July he said that the independence debate has “been too much about politicians and celebrities and not enough about giving ordinary people the chance to show how they feel.”  Stewart’s answer – a pile of rocks and scree behind a car park on the border – certainly owes more to Father Ted than Question Times.

Visitors are invited to add a fresh stone to the pile.  (“If you are feeling strong spend 10 minutes taking handfuls of rocks to the cairn,” suggests a sign.)  You can even paint your lump of rock, if you like.  Open tins of paint – red, white and blue – stand adjacent to a plastic bag filled with used gloves.  On the ground, an orgy of spilt paint bears a passing resemblance to A-level student’s pastiche of Jaspar Johns.

Stewart has said he hopes that the cairn will reach 9ft tall; at present it is not much more than half that.  We spend half an hour wandering around the site.  If I said we didn’t laugh quite a lot, I’d be lying.

There is a gazebo in blue and white with Stewart’s name above it and a pair of empty deck chairs.  No one else comes to visit but there are signs of previous life.  “DONT GO” (sic) implores a brick in white and blue.  “Better Together” says one rock.  “Let’s Stay As One”, another.  The menacing “All One Blood All One Nation” is more the exception than the rule.

One particularly ornate slab of drystone, decorated with the union flag and the Scottish Saltire, declares “Proud to be Scottish Proud to Be British Please Let’s Stay Together”.  “Please” is underlined, as if to emphasis the essential politeness of all this.

What indeed could be more civilised than the hope that a mound stones in Gretna can help pull the nations together?  Where the campaign in Glasgow and Fife, Edinburgh and Dundee, has at times been heated (and,dare I say, it “over-egged”), the cairn has all the reserve for which the Borders are renowned.  Even the “yes to independence” scrawled in the well-thumbed guest book seems more mischievous than malicious.

The Auld Acquaintances cairn is meant to symbolise the joyous connection between Scotland and England, to hark back to a time when Britain was really great, as David Cameron might say.  But there is something doleful, pathetic even about this empty field with its hill of stones and half full tins of paint.  I find myself feeling sorry for the people who have taken the time to come here, to park their cars and carry their stones. Do they know that nobody is making a case for their union?

Traffic whirrs by; the flags of the union flutter in the breeze coming in off the Solway Coast.  But the reality is that this brand of unionism – of four nations, and four peoples united – seems mortally wounded, possibly killed off by the very campaign that has sought to save Britain.

During the final televised debate a week or so ago, I listened out for an emotional argument for the union, a case for why Scotland and England are existentially better together.  All I, and the rest of Scotland, heard from Alastair Darling was currency, jobs, welfare. Where is the heart? Who speaks for Ken Moses, when he writes ‘Never Apart’ in the cairn guest book?

Unionism has become a baldly instrumental creed. As a Better Together campaigner in Peebles told me at the weekend, ‘It is like a business transaction for me. I look at the sums, they don’t add up so you don’t do it.’

Rory Stewart is no idiot. Earlier this year, he gave possibly the most perspicacious political interviewI’ve ever read, in which he talked about powerless faced by modern politicians.  But in reducing the union to pounds, shillings and pence the campaign to save Britain might end up killing it, regardless of the result in a couple of week’s time.

From Sark Bridge, overlooking the cairn, there is a great view into England, the hills of Cumbria rise up in the distance.  Down the road, at Burgh Marsh, is a monument to King Edward I who died attempting to invade and conquer Scotland in 1307.  The English got a measure of revenge at Solway Moss, near Gretna Junction, in 1542 when they routed a Scottish army.

Before we left the cairn, my Greenie friend and I walked across a molehill-filled field to the River Sark. ‘So this is the border?’ I asked.  ‘I believe so, yeah.’ We stood staring in silence at an inert stretch of water, about ten feet wide. It felt very peaceful.

This piece originally appeared on Newsnet Scotland.

At Rory Stewart’s Cairn
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