ARGYLL AND BUTE, SCOTLAND — On the banks of Gare Loch, just 40 miles from Glasgow, a fierce debate rages on inside the caravan-turned-common room of the world’s longest surviving active peace camp: where to find the best kilts.
A kilt was the first sight to greet me upon arrival at Faslane Peace Camp on a sub-zero Saturday morning in December, when a camp resident, kilted and bravely barefooted, stumbled out of his sleeping quarters across the frozen mud to say hello. All while brushing his teeth, of course.
For some in the cramped room, normally a den of political, cultural and all-round rebellious conversation, it’s quality over price. One English-born visitor to Faslane had paid hundreds just to secure a ‘proper’, bona fide kilt which is often the all-important prerequisite to proving one’s Scottishness, while my new anarchist pal is an advocate for scouring every charity shop known to man in search of an authentic, thick wool kilt at a more reasonable cost.
The common Scottish kilt, genuine or imitation, stands for everything I’ve come to Faslane in pursuit of. It’s an icon of continuity, of defiance, of Braveheart-inspired independence and Scottish culture.
“I think [the peace camp] is a symbolic thing,” Isobel Lindsay, vice-chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), told me prior to my visit to Faslane Peace Camp. “It’s maybe more important for the wider movement in its symbolism.”
Occupied since 1982 in protest against the Faslane nuclear base, the site celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with a three-day gathering of anti-nuclear festivities. While it may be an emblem of the campaign against nuclear weapons, the camp is also a “community” for its small band of part-time and permanent lodgers, according to occasional resident, organiser and activist Margaret Ferguson Burns.
Located at the side of the A814 between Shandon and Garelochhead, the small patch of land that is Faslane Peace Camp features a dozen caravans, an allotment, campfire area, functional toilet and shower hut, solar panelled communal space with charging points, kitchen and bike shed. It’s the full shebang and more for group living, set against the backdrop of an idyllic yet potentially deadly rural landscape.
“People make this movement,” says the peace camp’s on-site handyman, as if lifting me out of my amazement at the facilities, while cobbling together a wooden support frame to upgrade the tool shed. It’s certainly a sentiment shared amongst the group’s leading members in order to transcend the lazy external image of a dirty hippie camp.
The number of active camp members has dropped from at least 40 at its peak in the 1980s to a dozen in 2022, with only a handful of permanent occupiers living lochside all year round – who, as expected, are all well-showered.
Nevertheless, such statistics are quickly batted away by Burns, who cheerfully describes the value of the camp’s persistence in protest and close-knit group living: “It’s trying to do things as a group because that’s team building in a way, in a very flexible interpretation of the word ‘team’.
“It’s not individual people sitting in their caravans, it’s what you’ve done together,” she adds.
The evidence is here and now. Today, the peace camp are walking from their flower powered headquarters to the gates of Faslane Naval Base, alongside members of the Glasgow Women’s Library and a random assortment of visitors for the day.
Four decades’ worth of protestors have trooped along this route. Each with their own motivation, and all united by an opposition to nuclear weapons.
“We’re in a very important place,” Burns says. “This is where it’s actually going out and happening – we’re threatening the world with annihilation including ourselves.”
This afternoon’s ‘vigil’ followed the busy A814 road to the North Gate of Faslane Naval Base. We then looped around the loch on a number 316 bus – packed with a mixture of intrigued and sulking local punters – all the way to the Coulport depot, another military eyesore on Scotland’s west coast which provides ‘care and maintenance services’ for the nuclear warheads.
It’s a journey my late grandmother, Elizabeth Willis, took in the mid-1960s, just as the UK’s nuclear programme first set up shop in Argyll & Bute almost 20 years prior to the establishment of Faslane Peace Camp. As a 17-year-old first-year student at Aberdeen University, she joined Aberdeen’s division of the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (YCND) and hopped on the CND bus to demonstrations at Faslane, Hyde Park and other key locations when “it was all kicking off” for the anti-nuclear movement.
The image of both my grandparents as ‘crazy hippies’ was always the subject of some amusement during my childhood, and shamefully enough, remained completely misunderstood until I flicked through her diary of 1964-1965 the night I returned from Faslane. In between a mass of notes on her meetings, court hearings and Marxist-socialist events, she wrote that the Aberdonian student campaign against nuclear weapons was “a phenomenon worthy of being written up in its own right”.
I was well aware that she had dragged my dad, as a toddler nonetheless, along to large scale CND marches in late-1970s London after moving down south, but it’s safe to say that the anti-nuclear anarchist bug hadn’t exactly passed down the generations to me. And yet, incredulously, here I am on a sickeningly stuffy, bumpy bus journey holding a basket of protest materials for a bunch of hippies I’d only met that morning.
My own experiences are probably symptomatic of a wider trend within Scotland’s anti-nuclear movement, which now struggles to attract as many teenage university students as my granny’s era of widespread freedom fighting in the name of world peace.
As if to disprove that theory, a student steps off a passing bus from Helensburgh to join the walk. Wide-eyed and ready to learn, it’s her first time at the camp – she’s never done anything like this before.
Everyone has a reason to trek up and down the base’s perimeter fence, whether unwittingly retracing your rebel grandmother’s footsteps or simply exploring an historic site of peace protest. It could be fate, or just a feeling.
For Marian Pallister, chair of the Scottish branch of the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi and regular protestor at Faslane, that motive is faith. Her organisation participates in several joint or special occasion protests at the base throughout the year, with a “jolly good banner” to add to the bargain.
“It’s what it says on the tin, pax Christi: peace of Christ,” she said. “So we aim to create a non-violent society, we aim to bring in people from the margins, to support people who are the subject of violence throughout the world.
“And one of the aims obviously would be to bring an end to nuclear weapons.”
Pallister, a schoolgirl during the Cuban missile crisis, was jolted by the idea of immediate nuclear destruction – a concern which became intertwined with her belief in God. As such, she views the campaign for nuclear disarmament as “integral” to Catholicism – citing support from the Vatican since 1955 – provided that the protest is peaceful.
“I think that public protest is very useful,” she said, “and we have seen that through the years.
“The more people that you can get out there on the streets, marching through whatever cities.”
That who, what, why, where, when and how of civil disobedience has been the perennial debate within movements of social or political change since the beginning of time, from the differing methodology of protest between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the American civil rights campaign to the ‘antagonising’ direct action of Just Stop Oil today. Perhaps everyone has a simple or deep-rooted reason to protest, but how should we do it?
With a warm bowl of camp-made soup each, fifteen of us are packed into Faslane Peace Camp’s common room to end an enjoyable day of non-violent troublemaking on the shores of Gare Loch.
“They never arrest me!” one protestor and resident of four years, Willemien Hoogendoorn, whines over the hubbub of anarchic chatter. It’s quietly explained to me that the local police attempt to avoid arrests of any kind, thus hoping to avoid headlines for the activists.
In England, Just Stop Oil members have been arrested on almost 2,000 occasions since April 2022, while another controversial environmental protest movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR), claimed to have been mentioned in over 70,000 online articles in a single month of 2019.
At the same time, successive polls have shown an extremely low level of public approval for the methods used by these groups, choosing to disrupt everyday life to communicate their message to the population.
After demolishing the soup, I’m stood behind one of the caravans at the back of the camp for a catch-up with Margaret Ferguson Burns. Illuminated only by the light of my smartphone, breath rising up into the ice-cold air, she mentions a need to “tap into” the support bases of groups like XR whilst resonating with the average shop worker, bus driver or local resident.
“It is seminars and discussions so that they actually understand,” she says. “And then after that, worry about how you’re going to demo against it because you’ve got a real understanding and you can talk to people about it.”
Speaking over the phone a week before I ventured out to Faslane, the Scottish CND’s Isobel Lindsay credited half a century of protests at bases like Faslane with providing the “culture of protest” for today’s major demonstrations of civil disobedience.
“These techniques, and the direct action and civil disobedience approaches, are really ones that were developed during the sixties wave, the eighties wave [of anti-nuclear campaigning],” she said. “And many of those who were involved there were looking to Gandhi and the Suffragettes, so there is a history.”
Lindsay continued: “It spreads over time historically and it spreads spatially over different countries, so Extinction Rebellion is nothing new except the focus.”
After spending a day with the Faslane Peace Camp community, it’s obvious they might have broken the law once or twice to protest against the lethal nuclear warheads which lie just down the road from Scotland’s largest urban population – but at no inconvenience to the general public.
Unlike XR and Just Stop Oil, there is a clear, tangible and popular solution to the focus of the peace camp’s protests: Scottish independence.
Vote Yes – the straightforward message is interspersed in the very design of Faslane Peace Camp.
It’s on the banners which line every caravan and cabin. It’s in the graffiti, visible to any passer-by. It’s on the pin badges worn by the site’s occupants. It’s even in the bathroom.
“It is one route, but literally all you can do,” says Burns, “is hope.”
Hope has always driven this small group of people, never demoralised when the chance to achieve their aim is always so close. The case for independence, which crucially includes the SNP’s pledge to rid Scotland of its nuclear threat, certainly isn’t lost on the group.
Political change is a driving force behind the anti-nuclear movement, and with the Labour Party’s long-standing withdrawal of support, independence has been the official policy of the Scottish CND since 2012.
“The reason was quite clear,” Lindsay begins, “we’re not pronouncing on independence for economic reasons or any other reasons.
“We’re saying that the UK’s only nuclear delivery system and base is in Scotland and since the independence movement as a whole is strongly anti-nuclear, the logical and most effective way for it to go is to campaign for independence as well.”
Every camp constituent would subscribe to the same argument, and yet that debate feels a million miles away from the chopping of wood, the crackle of campfire and the collective spirit to be found just off the A814. As I’m continually told throughout my trip, this is where the battle is fought on a daily basis.
This is reality for the dozen comrades at Faslane Peace Camp and illustrating that reality to the general public is the first, immediate objective.
While my grandmother was joined by many thousands of young people in her loud, direct opposition to nuclear weapons, the movement in 2022 does need “bigger numbers” of student involvement to thrive once more.
Smiling, Burns guiltily admits to holding up queues in local shops and causing complete strangers to miss their bus stops in her mission to get people thinking about what actually happens at Faslane. Quite simply, it’s the power of a quick chat.
“You’re explaining it in a generally straightforward way,” she says, “and encouraging more people to think about the situation that we have in Scotland with the UK’s nuclear weapons.”
When the 316 back to Helensburgh finally trundles along, the driver asks me “so what was going on down at the base today?”. It’s been the question on everyone’s lips in Argyll & Bute since the 1960s.
It’s time someone reminded them, and the rest of the country while they’re at it.