Monday, 9 October 2017

The Australian Parliament and Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Whilst on a genealogy talks tour of Australia in August, I was able to take time out to visit the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia (, located in the city of Canberra, within the Australian Capital Territory. Similar to Westminster, the federal parliament has a two chamber system, with a House of Representatives and a Senate, although neither was in session when I visited.

Whilst I was in Canberra the main political story happening at the time was a crisis concerning the rights of some elected members to be able to hold onto their seats, as incredibly several had been revealed to hold dual nationality, which is forbidden under the country's constitution - there's a summary of all those affected at!

The exterior, and the main entrance lobby:

 The House of Representatives chamber:

 The Senate:

There was a museum display between the chambers, with several interesting documents, including a copy of England's Magna Carta, an Apology to Australia's Indignous Peoples, and an Apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants:

Just down the road from the current parliament is the site of Old Parliament House, which was the institution's original home for some 61 years, and which now hosts the Museum of Australian Democracy ( Outside the museum is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (, founded in 1972 to originally protest about land rights for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Amusingly, upon approaching the camp, I was asked by one of the folk in the embassy where I was from. When I mentioned Scotland, he yelled out "Yes!", fully aware of our efforts to secure independence here, so I had to get a selfie! Some pictures from the embassy...


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The 2017 General Election

Ye see yon birkies, in a twirl,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at their word,
They're but coofs for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their ribband stars, an' a' that:
The Scots o' independent mind
We look an' laugh at a' that.

Keep the faith Scotland. Strong and stable is but a myth...

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Fighting, losing, but still winning an election

This year I attempted to get elected to local government on behalf of the SNP ( for the North Ayrshire based ward of Stevenston. Despite putting absolutely everything into it, and essentially suspending my self-employed day job activities for four months along the way, I was unfortunately unable to get past the hurdles imposed by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used for the election, and narrowly failed to get elected.

In the STV system, voters are asked to list their preferences in order for as many or as few candidates as they wish, with the idea of producing a more proportionate election result than the 'first past the post' system used in the General Election. In this, candidates have to be elected by reaching a 'quota' of votes, decided on by the number of votes cast divided by the number of seats available plus one. If you reach the quota at the first stage, you are automatically elected; if not, subsequent preferences are then taken into account, and low polling candidates eliminated in stages, until the quota is reached and all the available seats are won.

For those standing on behalf of a political party, this provides something of a headache if more than one party candidate is standing in the ward, in that the alphabetical order of the candidate listing on the ballot paper provides a disadvantage to those listed further down the slip. If asked to vote for your party of choice, the natural inclination is to go down the list and give preferences in the order in which you find the two candidates (unless you perhaps happen to know one of the candidates). In this case my colleague's surname began with the letter M, placing her third on the ballot of eight candidates, whilst I was placed sixth with the surname of Paton. The disadvantage can be overcome partially by canvassing and asking folk in parts of the ward to vote the other way, 2 and 1 (i.e. with my colleague second, and myself first), instead of 1 and 2 – something I spent several months doing, speaking to almost 1500 people on their doorsteps along the way. This worked to a degree in that we ended up with a difference of only 180 votes between us in the first preferences as decided on by the electorate, and with both of us in the top three places, which would have guaranteed election in a first past the post scenario. Neither of us reached the quota, however, with the first preference.

This was also not a normal election. Half way through the campaign, the UK's Prime Minister suddenly called a snap general election, to take place just a month after the local elections, which with its obsession on the issue of Brexit influenced the latter part of the campaign. The Scottish constitutional question on independence, tied in with what many of us see to be the only way to avoid the perils and obscenity of Brexit, was also at play, as it has been for the last five years, making it very difficult to stick to talking about local issues, such as sorting out schools, potholes on the roads, and getting the litter bins collected. As much as we tried to make it about local issues, the opposing parties wanted to make it about avoiding an independence referendum, which councillors actually cannot call.

Tactically, one of the other things that seemed to help my two Labour opponents (both of whom were subsequently elected) was the fact that a sitting Labour councillor had stood as an independent candidate in the campaign. Unfortunately, when he was eliminated in the fourth round, his transfers went almost exclusively to the Labour candidates, and their fellow unionist colleague in the Conservative Party, pushing me below one of the Labour men by just six votes, and the Conservative candidate by just one vote. This led to my own elimination from the contest at the fifth round, which ironically then allowed my SNP colleague to dramatically sail past the quota line – needing just 86 votes to reach the quota, I was able to secure her an additional 547 votes! But that was it for my campaign.

Whilst disappointed not to get in, I have no regrets about having participated. The campaign was a lot of fun, I met some wonderful people and had some great experiences throughout. I was part of a candidates team that worked brilliantly together, with a wonderful election agent, and I was gladdened to see so many colleagues elected on the day, though saddened for those who did not get in. On the day of the election itself, my main opponents were courteous. I had a good election campaign.

My overall thought though is that we live in a democracy, and I'm of the mind that whilst there are plenty of informed armchair commentators out there, ready to complain about the slightest thing, there are not enough political foot-soldiers seeking to make a change within the society in which they live. If you want to see change in your society, no matter what your political conviction is, you have to get off your backside and seek to be a part of that change. At the count, a candidate (I won't say from which party!) spoke to me and said that he was glad to see that even with the effort that he knew I had put in, it had not been enough, which made him feel better about not having done so much campaigning himself (he having not also been elected). Given the chance to run the same campaign, with the benefit of hindsight, I would do it all exactly the same way again. Being elected is not an entitlement, it is an honour to be worked for - and my most cherished memory from the last few months is of the many folk who told me that I was the first candidate they had seen on their doorsteps in decades, which they appreciated. As consolation, although not elected to the ward, I did help to push our vote up by 5% higher than it had been in 2012, and that effort will help my colleagues in future elections, not least the impending General Election. Oh, and nationally, we won the election! :)

So instead of sitting around and moping, I am already back on the horse, out canvassing to help get our local MP re-elected to Westminster. I'll continue to fight for the change I want to see in our country.

Why don't you also?! :)


UPDATE 11 MAY 2017: An interesting development in the Scottish Parliament. It turns out that 78% of those who were elected as councillors benefitted by being top in alphabetical order, with reform of the system being called for - see



If interested, the full results from Stevenston (Ward 4) are available at

Sunday, 5 February 2017

An Immortal Memory

Last night I attended my first ever formal Burns supper event, hosted by the Cunninghame North constituency of the SNP, where I was asked to give the Immortal Memory to Robert Burns. A couple of folk have asked me to publish what I recited, as a bewildered Ulsterman taking it all in for the first time, so here goes!

Hello everyone,

For those of you who don't know me, my name is Chris Paton, I'm a member of the Largs branch of the SNP, and as you can probably hear I am not originally from this parish. I come from a wee island just off Scotland – it's called Ireland, which at its closest is about 12 miles off the coast. In fact, I'm delighted to say that I come from the same town that God comes from in Northern Ireland, a wee place called Carrickfergus, although I might have to have a word with him about the rugby result earlier today! Just for good measure, this is the first time I have ever attended a formal Burns Supper, so I'm honoured to be asked to speak to the immortal memory of Robert Burns – this is definitely one to tick off my bucket list later!

So, after Googling “immortal memory” and after watching a few speeches on YouTube, what can I tell you about Robert Burns the man? As an Ulsterman, what possible interest could I have in Robert Burns? Well I have to tell you that until a few years ago, I had none whatsoever. In fact, I would go so far as to say I was deeply suspicious about the man, but for all the wrong reasons. So let me tell you where I once was on that, how I have now come to admire and respect the world's greatest poet, and why I as a Johnny Foreigner think he should be remembered and celebrated.

As I mentioned, I was born in, and for most of my childhood was raised in, Northern Ireland. Now the province of Ulster, as you may be aware, was colonised by thousands of Presbyterian Scots some four hundred years ago, in an event known as the Plantations. As a child though, I didn't know any of this. In a period when we lived through the Troubles, you were either a Catholic or a Protestant, or Irish or British, with people often defining themselves not by who they were, but by who they weren't. As a consequence, I had no idea that I had a deep Scottish ancestry, despite the fact that when growing up many of the words I used were good auld fashioned Ulster Scots words

When I misbehaved as a wean and a bad word came from my bake I was scolded for being a cheeky wee hallion, when the pokey van came to our estate I'd buy a 99 poke, it was a place where my wee brother used to be a clipe for squealing on me, where I could go for a walk up the Red Brae, and where I could point to this table, that wall and thon hill thonder. But I didn't know that these were Scots words, I just thought that was how we spoke English. We also had some Scottish traditions, but again, I didn't know that they were Scottish. One New Years Eve, my dad asked me to take a lump of coal up to my Granny Graham's house in our estate and to wish her a happy new year. Terrified that my granny was somehow freezing to death on her own, I ended up filling a carrier bag with coal and took that up instead! I got a clout around the ear for that one! I had no idea about my Scottishness – my Ulster Scottishness – because we were never allowed to define ourselves in that way.

Even today I get wound up by what has happened to Ulster's Scottish culture. I gave a talk in Largs a few years ago about how to research Irish ancestry, and a wee man approached me and told me he was setting up a local non-sectarian Ulster Scots heritage group – would I be interested in going along? He handed me a leaflet, at which point I had to ask him – if this is a non-sectarian group, why have you printed your leaflet on orange paper? I wanted nothing to do with them. My notions of Ulster Scottishness tie into my Presbyterian ancestors from Islandmagee and Antrim, who fought with the radical United Irishmen in 1798. Now I'm not saying all my lot were successful. Never mind the fact that the rebellion failed – as a fifteen year old lad my four times great grandfather John Montgomery accidentally shot his hand off with one of the rebels' rifles in the midst of it. My family's been regularly winning the Darwin award on occasion ever since.

So then there's Robert Burns himself. As a child in Northern Ireland, all I knew about Robert Burns was he was Scottish, and had written that Hogmanay song. Even as an adult, I still had no idea about what half of Auld Lang Syne meant - “we'll tak a right guid willie waught”, for example. I used to work in television, and as a one time researcher on a BBC2 series of short films on men's health, I could never quite understand what a right good willy wart was – that certainly wasn't what my research was telling me, I filmed many a grown man with tears in his eyes complaining about how sore they were – until the time when I twigged that it wasn't quite what it sounded like! It's actually a hearty swig of ale or some other alcoholic drink, and I'll happily tak one of those. Especially if it is Laphroaig, which is God's official whisky.

And everywhere I came across Burns as a child, it was the same image of the man on a tea towel, or a shortbread tin, the portrait that became an icon, a bit like Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now I was raised as a Presbyterian, and the one thing we were taught in Ulster's Presbyterian churches was that idolatry was a bad thing. In fact, on another TV series I once made about the history of the Church in Scotland, I had to visit the Free Church College on The Mound in Edinburgh, where the Scottish Parliament first met after it was reconvened. When I got there, it amused me no end, because when you go through the arch into its main courtyard, the first thing you come across is a statue of John Knox on a plinth – the very man who tore down the statues at the Reformation. I still don't get why the Kirk doesn't see the irony of this! But the point is I was raised not to believe in the idea of celebrity – I can make my own mind up about whether someone should be celebrated.

So how did I first begin to develop an understanding of Burns? Well, when I left the BBC in 2006, I started to work professionally as a family historian. Now as a genealogical researcher, I get a lot of folk contacting me, especially from the States, who tell me that they are descended from William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, the Stewarts – you name it, I've heard it, they're usually always wrong, and they've usually bought the wrong tartan! However, about four years ago, I had a client who claimed she thought there was a family story of some possible connection to Burns, could I take a look?

In fact, it transpired that she was spot on. I discovered that her five times great grandfather was a merchant from Kilmarnock called John AIRD, who, with his wife Anna CAMPBELL, had a granddaughter called Jean BRECKENRIDGE, who in 1791 married a young man by the name of Gilbert BURNS – the poet's brother. It was through this connection that I first looked into the story of the Burns lads, and I learned that Robert and Gilbert had together taken on the lease of Mossgiel Farm, near Mauchline, in 1784. Three years later, Robert withdrew from the farm, and from the sale of his second edition of poems he granted Gilbert a loan of £180 to pay off his debts and to invest in his business. So this was the first time I had ever come across Robert Burns in a guise other than as this foreign icon, not as a poet, but as a big brother looking out for his wee brother. Fair play to you Rabbie, I thought, and all due respect – as the eldest in my family I've helped my own siblings out from time to time in the past, this was something I could relate to.

And then we had the referendum. At this point there was an argument in the sainted Scottish press about whether Burns was a unionist or a nationalist. Well as we say back in Northern Ireland, you can't kid a kidder, and give my head peace! To Johnny Foreigner here this was an absolute nonsense. By now I knew that Burns was a bit of a complex man, and that in rebellious times such as the 1790s he had to be careful how he expressed his loyalties. But it was obvious that he had been disgusted by the Treaty of Union in 1707, for which he condemned the Scottish nobility:

What force or guile could not subdue
Thro' many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor's wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station:
But English gold has been our bane
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

His contempt for the upper class, and his belief that all people are in fact equal very much reflected the thinkers of the Enlightenment at that time, as expressed through works such as The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. Burns expressed his belief in, and solidarity with, the common man when he penned A Man's a Man for a' That:

Ye see yon birkie ca’d ‘a lord’,
Wha struts an’ stares, an’ a’ that?
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a cuif for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His riband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that. 

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Now you're talking! This is definitely a man I can respect. And he wasn't just drawing inspiration from the nonsense he was encountering in Scotland, or in Britain, he knew that education and the revolution of the mind could unlock a strength that no imperial power could ever thwart. In his Ode to General Washington's Birthday he stated:

Here's freedom to them that would read.
Here's freedom to them that would write!
There's nane ever fear'd that the truth should be heard
But they wham the truth would indite!

A short and sweet quote there. Robert Burns would have been great on Twitter!

So I began to pick up on a lot of this throughout the Referendum, and in its aftermath. Now I struggle with poetry, and am not a great one for songs and lyrics. When I sing, it sounds like a chicken farting, and I don't do romance awfully well – I proposed to my wife by waking up one morning and saying “should we get married then?!” Romantic songs, and love poems – was Burns really someone I should be trying to come to grips with? But last year, having by now grasped that there really was something to engage with when it came to Robert Burns, I decided to challenge my final prejudices about him. I visited the Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, thinking I was a going to be accosted by people dressed in 18th century outfits looking for wee sleekit mousies and hunting haggis. In fact, I was – but I don't think I've ever been to better museum in my life. It wasn't about Burns the industry, it was about Burns the man. The excise man, the farmer, the nationalist, the poet. The interpretative panels were all written in Scots, written as a real living language.

So it turned out from this exhibition that Burns was a great poet, but rather endearingly, he wasn't a perfect man – who amongst us is? He loved his words, and he also loved his women. My God, did Burns love his women! My wee brother, who was actually born in Scotland and now lives in Dubai, is now with his third wife, but I haven't the heart to tell him about Burns' tally with women, in case he gets competitive. As a genealogist, one of the things I regularly come across in old kirk session records are cases of what was referred to as 'antenuptial fornication', basically doing the dirty deed before a wedding ring was put on – well I think in the 18th century the Kirk must have had an entire department working on Robert Burns. I can imagine all these ministers of the cloth having minor heart palpitations every time he walked into a room which had a woman someone near within a five mile radius! One article I read noted that Burns was a 'philanderer, fornicator and a father of bastart bairns'. Actually, it could be argued that if he wasn't, he might not have written so many of his great love songs. But Burns also believed in the equality of women, and in 1792 wrote:

While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

Even with the things he didn't agree with, he did try to see the opposing view and to understand why others held their views, for example, with religion. Now again, being Irish and being raised on an island that makes religion still seem like a growth industry, the one thing I can tell you for a fact that is that I am not in anyway religious, because whilst Northern Ireland tried to knock religion into me, it also knocked it right back out of me. But I will absolutely to my dying breath defend the right of folk to have religious beliefs, and to continue to argue that we need to keep fighting against the likes of Donald Trump and his disgusting Muslim ban. Well Burns held very similar views. In a letter to a Mrs Dunlop in December 1794, just eighteen months before he died, he commented on the delight that he gained from seeing people gain comfort from something he himself could not be reconciled to. This is what he wrote:

What a transient business is life! Very lately I was a boy; but t'other day I was a young man; and I already begin to feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of Old Age coming fast o'er my frame. With all my follies of youth, and I fear, a few vices of manhood, still I congratulate myself on having had in early days religion strongly impressed on my mind. I have nothing to say to any body, as, to which Sect they belong, or what Creed they believe; but I look on the Man who is firmly persuaded of Infinite Wisdom and Goodness superintending and directing every circumstance that can happen in his lot - I felicitate such a man as having a solid foundation for his mental enjoyment; a firm prop and sure stay, in the hour of difficulty, trouble and distress: and a never-failing anchor of hope, when he looks beyond the grave.

Unlike most of you in this room, Robert Burns to me has become an acquired taste worth acquiring. I was not raised to revere the man, I did not take to him because I was taught about him at school, I wasn't raised to eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns nights, I instead took the scenic route to come to terms with the Bard. When I read Burns now – and believe me, I am reading Burns now – I see a reflection in many of the things that he writes that I believe in, and that I have believed in my whole life. His words on equality, on national identity, on internationalism, on all the things he has celebrated and railed against, these are words that are easily understood - whether written in Scots or in English - because at their heart lies a truth about who we are and what we aspire to be. They are the same things that Burns believed over two hundred years ago, they are the wisdom of ages immortalised in verse. When we gather and quote his thoughts and share his stories, we celebrate the fact that we remain wed to those words and that ideology. On a personal level, whilst I have spent years trying to uncover and reclaim my Ulster Scottishness, through the words of one man here in Scotland I have been able to find the words that help to define my values as a civic Scot. They are the values I share with each and every one of you here tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, you'll be delighted to know that I have come to the end, but that also, when it comes to appreciating Robert Burns, I finally got there in the end! So I'd like you all, if you would be so good, to stand now as I raise a glass - a right guid willie waught - to the immortal memory of the one and only Robert Burns.

COMMENT: I should add that it was a great event, at which the guest speaker was Joanna Cherry QC MP who gave the toast to Scotland, and with many other great speakers and entertainment. I'll definitely be going to another Burns supper at some point!