Former Moderator recalls 100 hour Holyrood referendum minibus tour

The first woman Moderator of the General Assembly has recalled how she toured the country in a minibus for the last 100 hours of a campaign to reconvene the Scottish Parliament after 292 years.

Dr Alison Elliot was part of the so-called Bus Party ahead of the historic referendum vote exactly 20 years ago today.

Voters who took part in the ballot on September 11, 1997 voted overwhelmingly in support of a Scottish Parliament with tax varying powers.

Parliament
The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament which reconvened in 1999.

Dr Elliot said: “We set off from Calton Hill in Edinburgh to travel round Scotland encouraging people to use their vote.

“We were a group of church people, academics, journalists and entertainers and our mode of transport was a simple minibus.

“We headed for Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness, then swooped down to the Borders and ended up at Calton Hill again at midnight on the 10 September.

“Each evening, we held an event celebrating Scottish culture and discussing the momentous opportunity and challenge that devolution would pose.”

Debate

Dr Elliot said songs were sung, poems were read and the air was filled with conversation about the nation’s future.

“By day, we visited schools, leafleted people in high streets, held a barbecue in a peripheral housing estate and listened to people’s views,” she recalled.

Dr Elliot, who was Moderator in 2004, said it was glorious autumn weather and today every time she sees harvested fields with a low sun she thinks of the Bus Party.

“People came and went but the core group included William MacIlvaney, Neal Ascherson, William Storrar, Margaret MacIntosh and myself,” she said.

“Probably everyone in the bus was going to vote in favour of devolution but the point was not to campaign but to get the vote out.

“At the time, I was convener of the General Assembly’s Church and Nation Committee and the Assembly had given us permission to support the movement for a Scottish Parliament.

“What we remembered were the occasions when people were not enthusiastic about that prospect, such as those for whom life was too much of a struggle to worry about whether the Parliament was in Edinburgh or London.”

Alison Elliot
Dr Alison Elliot

Dr Elliot, the first Church of Scotland elder to hold the post of Moderator since 1567, said the Bus Party campaign was well worth it.

“Twenty-four hours later, the results were in,” added the academic.

“I remember coming across a leading trade unionist in a corner of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre quietly trying to take it in.

“We’ve done it’ he said, in disbelief.”

Dr Elliot said the Scottish Parliament, which reconvened in 1999 and has 129 seats, is open and accessible at its best and MSPs and government ministers are much easier to contact than before.

“When things are not going well, we can remind our representatives of the agreed aims of transparency and listening to members of the public who want to play their part in developing policy,” she added.

“What these policies are is, of course, the responsibility of all of us.”

Excitement

Karen Gillon, former Labour MSP for Clydesdale, is the Associate Secretary of the Church of Scotland Guild.

“I was campaigning in Airdie and Shotts and it was a time of huge excitement,” she recalled.

“We were a bit wary, having had a bad experience in 1979 when a referendum for a Scottish Parliament did not go our way, but as you went round the doors, speaking to people, it was clear there was a change in mood.

“When the votes were coming in across Scotland, there was a bit of apprehension but a huge sense of expectation and excitement.

“The euphoria of the General Election result in May 1997 travelled through quickly into September so that hope and expection carried though.”

Karen Gillon
Associate Secretary of the Guild Karen Gillon was a MSP between 1999-2011.

Mrs Gillon, who served as an MSP from 1999 until 2011, said there was no doubt that Scotland had benefited from its own devolved parliament.

“The law is being made closer to the people that are relevant,” she said.

“For me, devolutionis about making the right decisions in the right places.

“Landmark legislation has been passed.

“My children have only ever known a Scottish Parliament and a country where you don’t smoke on a bus or a cinema.

“For their health, that is a huge change.”