THERE are inconspicuous nooks of Scotland which few people could pinpoint on a map, yet which serve a vital purpose in furthering the nation’s social history. One such locale can be found on the verge of an anonymous stretch of the A814 which clings to the eastern shores of Gare Loch, five miles from Helensburgh. It is home to Britain’s oldest peace settlement, and the only one ever legally recognised by a local authority.
A ramshackle strip of caravans, minibuses, and makeshift huts, Faslane Peace Camp sits in the shadows of HM Naval Base Clyde, guardian of the UK’s Trident-armed nuclear submarine force. To the passer-by, it is a scene of coarse expediency and transience, but look closer beyond the dizzying play of colour and you will see the roots of a long-established community – a waste connection, a landline telephone, even a post box for the steady stream of supportive messages which arrive from the world over.
On the walls of the Tea Room, an askew carbuncle which serves as the kitchen and main communal space, previous inhabitants have scrawled menus on the walls, each grounded in the principles of self-sufficiency. One plats du jours is the Kingdom of Fife pie, hearty fare dating back to the 18th century. The residents know it by another name – Roadkill Rabbit.
With scant comforts, residing full time at the camp may well be a chastening experience, but for more than three decades, it has been like any community forged out of brick and mortar; the roll call of people has ebbed and flowed, lifelong friendships have been forged, and children have been born and raised in its grounds. Life has gone on. But not, it seems, for much longer.
On Friday, I visited the camp with photographer, Robert Perry, to spend some time with those who stay there. The occasion for my trip was an exclusive report in today’s Scotland on Sunday detailing the site’s end of days. Its fortunes have waxed and waned down the years, but it is now at its lowest ebb. The current four-strong collective in situ have been left feeling exhausted and isolated, now little more than curators rather than vanguards of a movement.
Unless their numbers are bolstered between now and June, the few left have resolved to dismantle the site’s humble infrastructure altogether. Angus Chalmers a 20-year-old from Edinburgh who has lived there for the past two years, offered a pragmatic and regretful assessment of what has gone wrong when we met. “I think there has been a failure in the peace movement in general to bring on young people,” he said.
In an open letter circulated to supporters, he and his fellow residents offer a candid view of where things stand. They state: “We believe that maintaining supportive community living here, as well as active campaigning, can only be sustainably achieved with a significant increase in numbers, possibly eight residents. The potential and capacity of the camp is also severely limited by the lack of wider input and practical support for its its inhabitants.
“Throughout our time here we have increasingly felt like caretakers of a souvenir. We have felt a strong and increasing sense of moral support for what we are doing but with this has come mounting pressure of responsibility and expectation coupled with inadequate and dwindling practical support.”
The group add: “In short, we feel that the camp can only have a future if a larger group of people decide they wish to be based here and the wider peace movement assumes a degree of collective responsibility to support these people, emotionally and practically, and take active measures to ensure their welfare.”
Should the plans come to pass, the camp will officially close on 12 June, the 31st anniversary of its founding, to be replaced by a peace garden. The symbolism of such a proposal is not to be underestimated. Its grounds are well kept and amidst the rustic charm revealed on a sunny day, there is genuine poignancy, such as a cherry tree planted in 1985 by two survivors of Hiroshima.
A garden though, is a place of contemplation, not action. Ultimately, the demise of the settlement would signal a bitter blow not just for Scotland’s longstanding anti-nuclear campaign movement, but at a time when our nation has much to discuss, our tradition of political radicalism and non-violent democratic opposition.
FASLANE’s naval ties date back to World War I. During World War II, it became an emergency military port for fear the country’s main harbours would be obliterated. Over the years its scale grew, and by the 1960s, the base was converted to nuclear capability, as officials realised the constant squalls of rain and cloud which bore down on the loch made it an ideal home for Polaris, the first of Britain’s nuclear deterrents. Innumerable protests took place in that era, both at Faslane and Coulport.
It was, however, the advent of Trident and the Vanguard-class submarines during the era of Thatcher and Reagan which turned occasional demonstrations in the grassy hinterlands outside HM Naval Base Clyde into a full-time pursuit. In those early days, a smorgasbord of people were taken into police custody, from politicians and churchmen to Buddhist monks and an eight-week-old baby.
The cause was spearheaded by Bobby and Margaret Harrison, veteran peace campaigners in their sixties who pitched their tent in the shadows of the base one day on 12 June 1982. Their fledgling camp was encouraged by authorities supportive to their cause, with Strathclyde Regional Council granting a lease of the plot for a peppercorn rent of £1-a-month. Though the couple would leave after six months, they returned regularly down the years to support those who picked up the baton and helped a small act of defiance become a thriving movement.
“When we pitched the tent I had no plans to stay,” Mrs Harrison, a retired Sunday school teacher, would recall. “I was 64 and wasn’t tough enough to live in a tent with no water and a lot of midges. Quite a few of the sailors were very friendly at first and the Ministry of Defence even supplied us with wood for our campfires.”
During its early years, the site was envisaged by many as a Scottish equivalent to Greenham Common. In fact, it has outlived it by decades, and numerous seasoned activists from Greenham – which lasted for 17 years – have ventured north to Argyll. At its peak, dozens of people lived there side by side, and it is estimated that more than 10,000 people from around the globe have made similar pilgrimages to undertake a tour of duty, lasting anything from a few days to a few years.
Flashpoints in the camp’s long and colourful history saw Argyll and Bute Council – an administration with markedly different political views to the old Strathclyde sympathisers – go to court in an attempt to close it down and reclaim the roadside. Such was the the opposition, the residents were aided by veterans of the Newbury by-pass and Manchester Airport demonstrations, who dug tunnels and reinforced tree-top fortifications in case the worst case scenario unfolded in the early hours one morning. Only a decade ago, meanwhile, the camp’s 20th anniversary sparked a three day celebratory workshop and protests.
Why, then, at a time when the government has committed £1.5bn to preliminary design work on Trident’s successors, has the camp’s ranks depleted to the extent that it can count open four hardy souls resigned to marking the latest anniversary with the valedictory gesture of upping sticks?
THERE can be no doubt that some of the figureheads who played a pivotal role in raising awareness about Faslane have seen their influence flounder of late. Two notable examples, Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway, have accumulated more baggage that the lost property office in Glasgow Airport’s domestic arrivals hall. Equally, the quantity of issues capable of sufficiently riling individuals to take to the streets, placards in hand, has increased considerably in the past thirty years. These are valid explanations, but they do not address the peace camp’s problems with any specificity.
Some people I spoke to in the wider peace movement while researching the story pointed to voter turnout levels, suggesting that apathy – that great malaise of the 21st century – is to blame. Personally, I do not agree with them. Though representation at national, local, and European elections of late offers a stark warning that increasing numbers of people have become disenfranchised by mainstream parties, it is lazy and disingenuous to simply assume that condition has spread to matters which anger citizens of conviction who happen to be active without aligning themselves with any one party political affiliation.
Few are bigger or more emotive than Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and the vast numbers who attended the year-long Faslane 365 protests are testament to that, and also disproved the notion that the passing of time has somehow lent a tacit acceptance of Trident’s place in our country. Those demonstrations alone resulted in 1,110 arrests (although, by way of an interesting side note, only 33 convictions followed) and while that particular movement gained significant movement and press attention, there are countless smaller demos which have taken place around the camp’s environs, all of which are treated with due concern by the relevant authorities (speak to anyone in the MoD and privately they will tell you the peace camp has done wonders for Faslane’s security measures).
Arthur West, the chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, suggested as much when I spoke with him last week. Warning against those inclined to view the camp’s lingering demise as a blow for the broad church that constitutes the peace and anti-nuclear coalition, he said: “It’s a significant personal sacrifice to stay at the peace camp and I think personally, there is only so long people can do it. There’s been many people involved in it down the years and they remain involved in the peace movement. We don’t think there’s any fragmentation – we’re very united to try and get rid of nuclear weapons.”
The overriding issue, in my eyes, is the fact there is a world of difference between attending a rally or blockade in the dawn hours or co-ordinating a social media campaign to making a pledge to dwell in Faslane Peace Camp for a considerable period of time. The latter proposition represents a distinct commitment. One of most telling lines in the residents’ open letter is the call for the “wider peace movement” to assume a “degree of collective responsibility” for the camp. It points to obligations other than blockades, rallies, and marches; duties which may not spark a rush of adrenaline or herald direct results, but duties nonetheless.
The urgent fears of the Cold War era may have largely rescinded, but just like the peace movement itself, the threat of nuclear strikes has never gone away, it is just that its profile has diminished down the years. It is impossible for peace movements to either succeed entirely, or fail entirely, but that they bear witness is of importance to society. Their demise is surely something to be regretted, especially in an age when successive administrations have strived to curtail the public’s right to assemble and demonstrate against government policy.
In a corner of Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum, the exhibition includes one curio from Faslane Peace Camp, a dilapidated caravan based on the roadside verge during the early 1980s. It was refurbished courtesy of a £3,500 grant from Glasgow City Council and put on display in the old Museum of Transport before being moved to its current location. The sight of it may bring back memories for some, but the perilous state of the camp should not be cause for nostalgia. It is a time to reassess what we mean by protest, and what we as individuals are prepared to do to aid and abet issues which quicken our pulses. These are flames which must not be tended by curators alone.
Photographs courtesy of Robert Perry and copyright of The Scotsman / Scotland on Sunday