The West Highland Line: A Tour Guide’s Guide

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Travellers on Scotland’s world-renowned West Highland Line can look forward to a number of exciting initiatives over the next couple of years. Revamped trains will offer innovations such as see-through windows, flushable toilets and, best of all, on-board “tourism ambassadors” to tell visitors all about the route.

Recently, over a pleasant evening of cocktails, canapés and lounge jazz in the Marine Bar, Mallaig, I got chatting to one of the newly recruited “ambassadors”, who was kind enough to give me an advance copy of their script, which I’m delighted to reproduce here. And I must admit, even to a seasoned traveller like me, it’s remarkably enlightening.

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The Isle of Eigg, viewed from the site of the proposed Isle of Muck Monorail terminus.

Section 1: Mallaig to Fort William

The line to Mallaig was built in 1901 in order to take herring to London, back in an era when fish had much higher disposable incomes than they have today. But the railway soon caught the imaginations of local humans as well, keen to escape the industrial grime of Beasdale and Lochailort for the unspoilt majesty of Dalmuir.

The importance of Mallaig as a port grew following the introduction in 1932 of its first car ferry, the Road to the Isles. To avoid confusion with the vessel’s somewhat unusual name, the nearby A830 trunk road was subsequently renamed the Boat to Fort William. Mallaig’s once mighty fishing industry has declined from its 1960s heyday; but the sea continues to play a vital part in the village’s economy, and species as diverse as prawns, haddock, salmon and mackerel can be found in its Co-op to this day.

Our first stop is Morar, whose “White Sands” were famously featured in the film Local Hero. The movie’s soundtrack was written and performed by jobbing musician Mark Knopfler, who has since fallen on hard times and can often be found hanging around the beach during tourist season, noodling away on his guitar for pennies. A similar fate befell locally-born weather presenter Carol Kirkwood, who now lives in a wheelie bin outside the Morar Hotel, offering speculative long range forecasts in exchange for Special Brew and pork scratchings.

At Arisaig, the line affords spectacular views of the islands of Rum and Eigg, which take their names from the two most popular breakfast items in the West Highlands. The village itself is a pleasant five minute stroll downhill from the station, though the return journey is an arduous three day climb that should only be attempted in the presence of a Sherpa. Arisaig is currently the westernmost railway station in Britain, although it is scheduled to lose this title in 2019 when the Isle of Muck completes its long-awaited monorail network.

Historic Glenfinnan is where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his royal standard to instigate the Jacobite Rising of 1745. As the train crosses the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct, it accelerates to a near-standstill so passengers can admire the famous monument to the Prince on the banks of beautiful Loch Shiel – surely one of the finest views in Scotland.

Of course, none of this is of the slightest interest to the thousands of grown men and women who come here every year with the sole purpose of following in the footsteps of a fictional schoolboy wizard. In this respect, it’s no exaggeration to say that Harry Potter has done for Glenfinnan what Miss Hoolie did for Tobermory. On the station platform, local entrepreneurs rush to sell Harry-themed postcards, keyrings, golf umbrellas and gimp masks to enthusiastic tourists – whose children, meanwhile, remain on the train, staring at their phones, valiantly trying to get Snapchat to work with a one bar mobile signal. They have no idea who Harry Potter is.

From Glenfinnan, the train continues east along the northern bank of Loch Eil, stopping briefly to pick up frostbitten escapees from the loch’s Outward Bound centre, and on to the village of Corpach, which gained its name – meaning “field of corpses” – following a particularly violent shinty match in 1470.

At Banavie, we pass the famous Neptune’s Staircase, a system of locks on which boats ascend 60 feet to the higher section of the Caledonian Canal. You’d do well to take a moment to admire this while you still can, because after almost 200 years in operation, modern accessibility requirements dictate that it will shortly be pulled up and replaced with a state-of-the-art “Neptune’s Travelator”. Banavie is also the home of the signalling centre that controls every train departure on the West Highland Line, from Mallaig all the way to Helensburgh, with the aid of an exceptionally loud whistle.

On the approach to Fort William, the region’s most celebrated landmark finally comes into view, to gasps of delight of locals and tourists alike. No trip to the area is complete without paying it a visit; but once you’ve been to McDonald’s, it’s also worth checking out Ben Nevis. Despite its status as the highest mountain in Britain, the climb to the summit is surprisingly straightforward, attracting visitors in large numbers – partly to admire the stunning views, but mainly so they can bang on about it for years as if they’re Sir Edmund chuffing Hillary.

Section 2: Fort William to Crianlarich

The circuitous nature of this section of line can be traced back to a design meeting at Glasgow engineers Forman & McCall in 1889. Chief engineer James Bulloch, running late and still drunk from the night before, hastily sketched out a route on the back of a beer mat on the tram to work before presenting it to his colleagues. When the practical difficulties of the proposed line were pointed out to him, Bulloch decided to brazen it out, as the minutes of the meeting record:

Mr Forman observed that the intended route would pass over miles of saturated, uninhabitable bogland, rendering its construction almost impossible; but Mr Bulloch demurred, insisting it would “aw be fine” and that “awbody kens trains can float, eh?”. Mr Bulloch then abruptly left the meeting and headed in the direction of a local hostelry, pausing briefly to urinate in the street and swear at a passing horse.

Based on Bulloch’s visionary design, the line heads northeastwards from Fort William to Spean Bridge. It passes close to the Commando Memorial, which honours a local regiment who helped conserve scarce textile resources during World War II by going into battle without any underwear. Their sacrifice became a symbol for British stoicism in wartime, and led to the coining of the term “crack troops”. The highly lifelike Commandos sculpture was completed in 1952, and it’s understood the Queen Mother took enormous pleasure in unveiling it.

Roy Bridge was home to the parents of Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first ever saint, and indeed its only one until the recent canonisation of Dame Edna Everage. North of the village lies the glacial feature now known as the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, although prior to improvement works during the last Ice Age, it was referred to as the Single Track Road of Glen Roy with Passing Places.

From Tulloch station, we head south past beautiful Loch Treig, whose evocative-sounding Gaelic name translates into English as “Loch of Death” – a macabre naming convention shared by nearby Loch Arkaig (“Loch of Indiscriminate Slaughter”) and Loch Ossian (“Loch of Stamping on Little Bunny Rabbits”). Here, the train begins its long climb to the highest station in the UK at Corrour. The steep incline poses a challenge for the ironically-named “Sprinter” trains that operate this route, and it’s relatively common for the guard to ask passengers to get out and push.

The scenery around Corrour may be familiar as the location of the “Great Outdoors” scene in Trainspotting, in which the group get off the West Highland Line train and set out to climb the nearby Leum Uilleim mountain. Rumours that the same train also inspired the film’s “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene remain unconfirmed.

By this point, there are no roads for miles around, and the surrounding countryside is wet and treacherous, as starkly illustrated by the dozens of abandoned, half-submerged rail replacement buses visible from the train window. The train, however, continues serenely across the moor to Rannoch station, its tracks “floating” on a mattress of tree roots, earth and brushwood, which represents something of a triumph for drunken, last minute railway design.

The railway line finally rejoins the main road just before Bridge of Orchy, which consists of a hotel, a church and not much else. In West Highland terms, this is enough to qualify it as a major conurbation. We then round the spectacular horseshoe curve at the base of Beinn Dorain, on which the train will often pass itself coming in the opposite direction, before arriving at Upper Tyndrum. If ever you’re catching the train here, be sure to go to the correct station: the village also has stops at Tyndrum Lower, Tyndrum Even Lower and Tyndrum Subterranean, making it the only settlement in Britain with more railway stations than people.

Finally, after almost two hours’ travel through largely barren wilderness, the scenery changes dramatically. Bright lights, office blocks, multiplex cinemas and retail parks begin to dominate the skyline, which can mean only one thing: we are approaching Crianlarich.

Section 3: Crianlarich to Glasgow Queen Street

Crianlarich is where the Mallaig and Oban lines meet, which means a wait of around ten minutes while the two trains divide, sub-divide, sub-sub-divide and reattach, often all at the same time. As a result, the station is beloved of smokers, who gather on the platform and attempt to consume as many cigarettes as possible before the scheduled departure. The all time record is held by the late Willie “One Lung” Jackson of Locheilside, who on 23 October 2004 managed to puff his way through thirteen filterless roll-ups and a cheroot before being ushered back on to the train.

These days, smoking is officially prohibited even on the open platform, following a successful complaint from a nearby sheep with a slight bronchial condition. Like the rule outlawing on-train drinking after 9pm, this by-law is both warmly endorsed and religiously observed by regular users of the West Highland Line.

The first stop on this final section of the line is at Ardlui, at the north end of Loch Lomond. Traditionally, this is the last northbound stopping point for day-trippers from the central belt who get off here, stop for a few pints in the Ardlui Hotel and get the late train home, which is sufficient for them to claim proudly that they’ve “done” the Highlands.

From Ardlui, the train proceeds south along the west bank of the loch, which despite its proximity to Glasgow, remains an unspoilt oasis of serenity, punctuated only by a few hundred passing speedboats, jet skis, cruise ships and supertankers. The picture postcard view across the loch was largely unobstructed until the past few years, when local practical jokers began planting trees at regular intervals to irritate tourists attempting to take photographs through the window.

The next stop, Arrochar and Tarbet, is situated on the narrow isthmus between two lochs. Arrochar sits at the head of Loch Long, a popular location for diving and fishing – though many old-timers feel these pursuits have lost much of their excitement since the closure of Arrochar’s torpedo testing facility in 1986 – while the village of Tarbet lies on Loch Lomond, a little under two miles away. During the Scottish-Norwegian War of the 13th century, Viking invaders would haul their longboats across the isthmus in order to reach Loch Lomond. Warriors who completed this arduous task were traditionally rewarded with extra pay and rations. This was known as an Isthmus Bonus.

Garelochhead station looks over the naval base at Faslane, which houses the UK’s stockpile of Trident missiles. As at Glenfinnan, locals have been quick to capitalise on the area’s fame, and souvenir hunters are encouraged to visit the pop-up shop on the platform and pick up a fully functioning scale model of a nuclear submarine to entertain the kids.

Helensburgh Upper represents the end of the West Highland Line “proper”, after which the train joins the busy Strathclyde suburban rail network. The remainder of the route is perhaps less spectacular than what has gone before, but still has much to recommend it. As we reach the Clyde Estuary, a number of anonymous but renowned local artworks become visible, including Still Life With Shopping Trolley and a postmodern arrangement of dead pigeons and Tennents cans that is simply entitled Glasgow. The train also provides the ideal perspective – and distance – to view the towns of Greenock and Port Glasgow at their very best.

Finally, after further stops at Dumbarton Central and Dalmuir, we reach our final destination of Glasgow Queen Street. As you disembark, keep an eye out for any West Highlanders who have travelled with you, as they take a moment to absorb the contrast between Scotland’s largest city and the landscape of lochs and mountains from which they’ve come – before swiftly realising their mistake and getting straight back on the train.

[Author’s note: Please note that this is an unofficial draft copy of the tourism ambassadors’ script, and I cannot be held responsible for any minor inaccuracies contained therein. For a more authoritative representation of the line, you might want to check out the Friends of the West Highland Line website and/or this wonderful BBC documentary from 1960, showing a day in the life of the line in the era of steam travel.]

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A Phantom Band is for Christmas, not just for life

[A little off topic, this one, but on a subject close to my heart. In the unlikely event that you’re missing my food-related warblings, check the last few back issues of The Leither magazine, if you haven’t already.]

phantoms strange friend

A few weeks ago, my favourite band in the world had all their instruments and kit stolen from their tour van after a gig in Lille.

This would be a hefty enough hoof to the knackers of any musician, but that it should happen to the Phantom Band seems particularly harsh (and not just because they’re magnificent, although they are). They’re a six-piece band, and a relatively tech-heavy one at that. Every guitar, amp, keyboard and twiddly bit in that van will have been scrimped and saved for, in part from the meagre income that comes with being a non-stratospheric band in 2015, and in much larger part from the day jobs that allow them to make their music in the first place. This photo they posted on their website shows the final, horrible calculation.

phantoms cash

Most cruelly of all, this is the second time in little more than a year that they’ve had all their stuff nicked. The upshot is that they’ve had to pull all their scheduled shows for the rest of this year while they work out what the hell to do next. If they decided to give the whole thing up as a bad job, I’d be gutted, but I’d fully understand it.

If you’re not familiar with the Phantoms, or with the economic realities of making music, none of this may bother you. After all, you might think, if they were really that good, surely they’d be selling enough records to pay for a few new guitars; and if they’re not, then nothing lost. And anyway, what were they thinking, embarking on a tour of Europe without a full time security guard and a comprehensive insurance policy? (If you really want to know the answer to that last question, just ask any skint touring musician – and stand well back.)

And in response to the first point, I’d respectfully suggest that the music business is not, and has never been, a meritocracy. A leg-up from a wealthy record label, influential promoter, prominent critic or X Factor judge will always be thousands of times more effective than years of writing, recording, releasing and touring. As a result, the charts continue to be populated with a largely arbitrary mixture of the good, the average and the irredeemably dreadful; and much of the best music you could ever hear, you probably never will. And unless they’re remarkably resilient, the people who make that brilliant music are only ever a scathing review, sparsely attended gig or cowardly theft away from questioning why they bother.

Yet you’ll never convince me that a band as commercially huge as Radiohead, or as critically worshipped as the Velvet Underground, is anywhere near as good as the Phantoms; because to my ears they’re not, as my iTunes “times played” stats will emphatically testify. And while I’m here, Rozi Plain is better than Kate Bush, Withered Hand is better than Bowie and eagleowl are better than the Beatles. That’s the joy of personal taste: you can disagree with these statements as much as you like, but you can’t disprove them.

When news broke of the Phantoms’ misfortune, the response from their fans was swift and heartfelt: hundreds of messages of support to the band; concerted but fruitless social media appeals to track down the missing equipment; and even talk of a crowdfunding campaign to help replace it. Hopefully the public reaction will have been a source of some solace to them. If nothing else, it might have brought home the point that every time they play, whether that’s to 500 in Glasgow or a few dozen in Weston-super-Mare, there’s someone in the room who truly believes they’re watching the greatest band in the world.

But, gratifying as it may be, knowing you’re loved doesn’t buy you a drum kit. And while the crowdfunding idea has a certain appeal – I’d be more than willing to contribute, given the disproportionate amount of pleasure I’ve had from the 60 quid or so I’ve spent on their albums – I’d imagine the band has mixed feelings about asking loyal fans for what would effectively be a handout.

So as an alternative, here’s a radical idea – a touch retro, I admit, but it might just work. Why not…buy their records? More specifically, why not take away all your Christmas shopping stresses by simply getting everyone Phantom Band records for Christmas?

Buy an LP for your mum, a CD for your big brother, a digital download for your wee cousin who doesn’t really get the concept of a music player that’s larger than the palm of his hand. And when your great auntie Mabel asks why you’ve given her an album of vaguely obscure Scottish indie/folk/electronica/Krautrock, when she’s always been more of a Vera Lynn woman, explain that it’s to broaden her horizons, promote the arts and support a worthy cause (i.e. helping the Phantoms buy a new bass pedal and/or a few well merited pints). If pushed, encourage her to think of it as a musical equivalent of adopting a goat for her through Oxfam.

At worst, you’ll get a few grumbles from confused friends and relatives, and a handful of records gathering dust in a corner before finding their way to a nearby charity shop – which in turn might help some extra folk to discover them. At best, you might just recruit a few new Phantoms fans – and if they could convert a few people, and the people they convert could convert a few more, then the first ever Phantom Band stadium tour might not be too far away. (Well, I can dream, can’t I?)

So head to the Chemikal Underground website or the Phantoms’ online shop, and you can improve the lives of your friends and family, and support a band that more than deserves it, without so much as shifting your arse off the sofa. Or if there are other under-the-radar artists that you’d rather support in the same way, by all means buy everybody their albums instead. Believe me, they’ll appreciate it.

Or, as a cheaper alternative, you could just carry on listening to their music on Spotify instead, secure in the knowledge that if another 10 million people would only do the same thing, they might just about be in a position to buy a couple of new guitars.

Pronouncements on gender

Male female image

Who said there are no good news stories any more?

Whoever it was, he/she might have to revise his/her opinion.

As you surely guessed from that last deliberately clunky sentence, I’m referring to the frankly splendid news that Sweden has added the gender-neutral personal pronoun “hen” to its dictionary.

The Guardian reports that “the pronoun is used to refer to a person without revealing their gender – either because it is unknown, because the person is transgender, or the speaker or writer deems the gender to be superfluous information”.

Far from being “political correctness gone mad”, this is grammatical correctness gone sane. For writers, the lack of such a pronoun in English is a right pain in the non-gender-specific arse. When we want to refer to an unspecified individual, all our options are unsatisfactory. We can attribute a gender to the person; we can find a longwinded way of making clear the gender neutrality (as in the “he/she” example above, or the even more irritating “(s)he”’); or we can opt for the gender-neutral but grammatically incorrect “they”.

In spoken English, almost all of us choose the third option, largely because “he/she” sounds even dafter than it looks. Many of us do so in writing as well; but while I don’t think I’m the most ardent grammar pedant around, I can’t quite bring myself to write something I know to be wrong. I make more than enough grammatical errors by accident without throwing in deliberate ones as well.

Some writers choose to alternate between male and female for their hypothetical examples. Daniel Kahneman does this to good effect in his 2011 masterpiece, Thinking Fast and Slow. But this only really works in longer pieces of writing, where the reader has time to get used to the convention. Use an arbitrary “he” or “she” in isolation, and the reader is unnecessarily distracted by the question of why the author has chosen that particular gender for that particular example.

In many languages, the issue doesn’t arise. In French, every noun in the language is gendered; but the personal pronoun is the same for everyone. For instance, “sa plume” can mean “his pen” or “her pen”; although the pen itself remains resolutely female. Additionally, French-speakers have the option of using the impersonal “on” in their hypotheses, whereas the English equivalent – “one” – has the unfortunate effect of making one sound as if one is talking out of one’s pompous posterior.

So we end up simply muddling through, finding all sorts of elaborate ways to remain readable without being wrong. We make our examples plural so we can use the gender-neutral “they”/”their” without fear of correction, or we reconstruct entire sentences so that the personal pronoun doesn’t feature. Basically, we go to disproportionate lengths to replace one short word that our language has evolved not to have.

As many have noted – including Gary Nunn in this Guardian piece, which itself draws on Denis Baron’s geekily glorious The Web of Language blog – this issue has been rumbling on for 150 years and more, championed by people far more eminent and zealous than me. New pronouns such as ze, ip and thon have been proposed, discussed and roundly ignored.

But I can’t quite bring myself to accept Baron’s conclusion that “after more than 100 attempts to coin a gender-neutral pronoun over the course of more than 150 years, thon and its competitors will remain what they always have been, the words that failed.” After all, if a century of failure were considered reason enough to abandon a cause, Brighton and Hove Albion fans like me wouldn’t exist.

So I’m proposing a modern solution to an age-old problem: online petitions. After all, if the campaign for the BBC to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson after his unfortunate producer-thumping misdemeanour can attract over a million signatures, just imagine how many people would support a petition to transform our language forever?

Oh, hang on. I’ve just checked, and it turns out there already is a petition to add gender-neutral pronouns to dictionaries. At the time of writing, 93 people have signed it.

Ah well – back to the drawing board…

The Ultimate A to Z of Cooking

Amchoor: (1) Spice powder made from unripe mangoes, popular in North Indian cuisine. (2) Geordie expression of complete certainty.

Blanch: (1) Of a vegetable, to boil very briefly so it retains its colour and crunch. (2) Of an older person, his or her reaction when presented with said vegetable

Crepinette: (1) A small flattened sausage wrapped in caul fat. (2) What posh people do when they visit the lavatory.

Dim sum: 2 + 2 = 5

Escalope: To run away to get married while disguised as a wiener schnitzel.

Flageolet: A small French bean with a penchant for S&M.

Guacamole: Popular but violent game in Mexican amusement arcades, in which burrowing animals rise from their holes for the player to hammer to a lurid green pulp.

Harissa: Co-presenter of the Tunisian edition of Two Fat Ladies.

Insalata: A popular uprising led by vegetarians.

Jus: Any gravy in which you can’t taste the Bisto.

Kedgeree: The recipient of a kedger.

Leguminous: Plants such as peas and beans that produce seed pods and glow in the dark.

Marinade: Flavourful concoction used in the restaurant trade to extend the shelf life of meat for up to 6 months.

Nougatine: The highly addictive active ingredient in a Milky Way.

Offal: The edible internal parts and extremities of an animal, whose use was championed by chef Fergus Henderson in his pioneering cookbook From Eyeball to Anus.

Petit Four: Diminutive Beatles tribute band.

Quinoa: Grain secretly developed by UK Government scientists in the 1980s that instantly confers aspirational middle class values on anyone who eats it.

Radicchio: Unique variety of radish that grows longer when it tells a lie.

Skim: To remove fat or other impurities from the surface of a liquid by bouncing a thin, flat stone across it.

Taramasalata: Distinctive and delicious pink dessert, much loved by children as a healthy alternative to ice cream.

Umami: The fifth basic taste after sweet, salt, sour and bitter. Identified by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, who defined it as “a bit like eating all three flavours of Monster Munch at the same time”.

Veal: Delicious but controversial meat, produced by locking one-day-old calves in a broom cupboard, attaching electrodes to their genitals and forcing them to listen to Sting albums.

Well-fired: Marketing term coined by Scottish bakers when sales of their “hideously burnt rolls” proved disappointing.

X: Distinctive spray-painted mark to indicate meat fit only for use in pet food and doner kebabs.

Yam: (1) A brown-skinned tuber of the genus Dioscorea. (2) In south east England, a colloquial expression meaning “my, how perfectly delicious”.

Zucchini: A two-piece swimsuit made entirely from courgettes.

If it’s a yes…

I realise this is supposed to be a blog about cooking. But today, I’m a little preoccupied with something else.

I’ve avoided broadcasting my voting intentions for the referendum for various reasons, the most obvious being that I haven’t been certain which way I’d be voting.

The past months have brought home to me that I’m not cut out to be one of life’s campaigners. I admire, and in some ways envy, those on both sides who’ve been pressing their case on the streets, on social media and in any number of pub and workplace conversations. And I realise that if everyone was like me, consciously standing apart and stubbornly refusing to pick a team and wear its colours, there’d have been next to no useful debate at all.

But for all my admiration for those who reached a firm decision quickly, I was never likely to be one of them. And when I did vote today, it was with some trepidation and regret as well as optimism and excitement. I don’t know – and nor, if you’re honest, do you – exactly what a Yes vote might bring. I’m pretty certain it would bring some economic hardship at first, but I couldn’t say how much or for how long. Nor do I know what additional powers – if any – will be handed to Scotland in the event of a No. I do know that, as an Englishman who has made Scotland his home, I’ll have a different sense of my own identity tomorrow morning if we vote to end the union; but I don’t know quite how that will feel or what my overriding emotions will be.

For life’s switherers and ditherers, voting in a General Election is relatively straightforward. It’s not a binary decision; there’s always an option that offers solace to an uneasy conscience. If you can’t face voting for one of the main contenders, there’s almost certain to be a minority alternative that sits more comfortably with your world view. So you still get the fuzzy feeling that comes from participating in a democratic process, albeit without any realistic prospect of influencing the outcome. (But in a first-past-the-post election, that feels OK too, because most of us live in constituencies that are never going to change hands anyway.)

In a referendum, there’s no such luxury. Once you’ve made the decision to take part, you know that a change of mind will have a double effect: switch sides, and you’re not just handing a vote to one side; you’re withdrawing a vote from the side you supported yesterday.

You’re also forced to share a position with people with whom you vehemently disagree in almost every other respect. If I voted Yes, I’d be standing alongside Brian Souter, as well as the guy who once hounded me out of a pub for being an “English c**t”. If I voted no, I’d be agreeing with the Orange Order and Nigel Farage.

So, for my first and only post about the referendum, I’ve deliberately waited until the polls have closed, so that it’s clear this isn’t a “vote yes” message (though that, ultimately, is what I did).

The reason I’m posting anything at all has less to do with readers in Scotland, most of whom have been engaged with the referendum for a long time, than readers outside it. For the past fortnight – in other words, ever since the shift in the opinion polls prompted a sudden and dramatic twitch in the collective sphincter of London politicians and media – I’ve heard several variations on the same stunned question: “How has it come to this?”

It’s a fair question. For decades, opinion polls have shown a significant majority of Scots to be opposed to independence. The SNP boasts the grand total of 6 MPs in Westminster – in other words, just over 10% of Scotland’s 59 MPs. Only one mainstream newspaper in the UK (the Sunday Herald) has come out in support of independence, and the huge majority of papers have actively opposed it. So how on earth can the referendum result be on a knife-edge on polling day?

Having watched Scottish politics for the past 15 years or so – sometimes from afar, but mainly at close quarters – I’ll try to offer a potted history.

I’ll begin in 1997. By then, we’d already had 18 years of Conservative rule, including the dismantling of heavy industry and the infamous Scottish “dry run” of the Poll Tax. But it wasn’t until ’97 that the Conservative vote finally collapsed, reducing the party from 11 Scottish seats to none and ultimately making “Tory” a dirty word in a historically fairly conservative country. This had the effect of creating a political space for the SNP to fill. But at the time, it still wasn’t enough to turn independence into anything more than a minority concern.

On finally coming to power, Labour proposed, campaigned for and won a referendum on Scottish devolution. The Scottish Parliament was formed – or rather, reformed – in 1999, using an electoral system (the Additional Member System) that was expected to ensure that no single party would ever secure a majority at Holyrood.

This system was primarily intended to ensure that Labour, which had won an overall majority of seats in Scotland at every General Election since 1959, would not have perpetual control of a Scottish Parliament. Such a system was essential for Labour to secure Lib Dem and SNP support in the devolution referendum; but it also suited Labour’s purposes, in that it provided an apparent guarantee against a future referendum on independence. Even if the Nationalists grew in popularity, there would always be a pro-union majority of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories, so no proposal for a referendum would ever be passed. Or so it was thought.

With the independence issue apparently booted into touch for the foreseeable future, almost all of the Labour and Liberal Democrat big guns at Westminster, faced with the choice of forging their careers in London or Edinburgh, chose the former. The main exception – Donald Dewar – sadly died less than 18 months after devolution. And with so few political heavyweights in the Scottish Parliament, and the Holyrood building project spiralling in cost and slipping in timescale, the Parliament and its ruling Lib/Lab executive (it wasn’t officially a “Government” until 2007) became objects of widespread ridicule.

All of this was a tremendous help to the Nationalists; as was the decision of the pro-union parties, fresh from completing one disastrous, overspent, delayed construction project, to launch straight into another: the Edinburgh trams. The SNP opposed the project, announcing its intention to cancel it in its 2007 Scottish election manifesto. Meanwhile, in contrast to Labour and the Lib Dems, it continued to send its big hitters to the now-completed Holyrood, not Westminster, including its newly re-elected leader: Alex Salmond.

At that 2007 election, I was asked by a friend to cast her vote by proxy. To my surprise, she asked me to give her first vote to the SNP; not because she had any great sympathy for the independence cause, but because she felt their politicians in Holyrood would govern Scotland more capably than the existing lot. Apparently, a lot of Scots felt the same way, and the SNP was returned as the largest party, albeit by a single seat.

Over the next four years, the SNP did indeed govern capably. Salmond, to his credit, moulded what was widely perceived as a ragtag, ideologically disparate, single issue group into a largely coherent, left-of-centre, social democratic party. The SNP differentiated itself from the Westminster parties with popular (or, depending on your point of view, populist) policies such as free university tuition and free NHS prescriptions; and it cleverly presented itself as something of a martyr over the Edinburgh tram project, graciously “allowing” the project to progress. In reality, it had no choice but to allow it, as it lacked the required majority to defeat it. But the Scottish people were left in no doubt that it was doing so under protest; and when the project inevitably descended into chaos, the SNP emerged with its credibility further enhanced.

At the UK General Election in 2010, Labour once again won a significant majority of Scottish seats – 41 out of 59. But the Tories became the largest party, and to the horror of many of their supporters, the Lib Dems joined them in coalition. Arguably, that was the decision that allowed today’s referendum to take place.

The immediate (and indeed continuing) upshot of that decision was that support for the Lib Dems plummeted. The Holyrood elections took place a year later, and the Lib Dems lost 12 of their 17 seats, 8 of them to the SNP; and the SNP secured the narrow majority that was never supposed to happen.

At that point, it became a certainty that there would be a referendum on independence. And you’d have thought it would also have been the point at which the pro-Union parties realised the seriousness of their situation and got their act together.

They didn’t – despite the fact that, in Salmond, they were facing a politician they respected and feared; and despite knowing that independence supporters dominated social media almost as effectively as independence opponents dominated traditional media. Instead, the parties reverted to type, directed their rhetoric towards issues that they thought mattered to potential “swing” voters in England – benefits, EU membership and immigration – and paid scant attention to Scotland. When MPs talked of a referendum, you could be 90% sure they were referring to the one about Europe that didn’t actually exist, rather than the one in Scotland that did.

Realising that their collective brand was toxic in Scotland, the Tories and Lib Dems deferred to Labour on much of the campaign, even though Labour’s own image, still tarnished by the Iraq war, was barely any better. Alistair Darling – not exactly a Scottish folk hero – became the figurehead, and Labour was allowed to take the lead on the desperate last-minute pledge to grant more powers to Holyrood, despite the fact that it, as a party, was proposing fewer enhancements than either of the coalition partners.

And the Holyrood leaders of the three main parties were barely seen – perhaps because hardly anybody in Scotland knows who they are. And on that, I refer you back to that decision of so many pro-Union MPs to stay put in Westminster rather than up sticks to Scotland. I understand that, independent or not, Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy are likely to stand at the next Holyrood election. From the No campaign’s point of view, it may be too little, too late.

And the No campaign itself has been almost tragicomically dismal, shifting from indifference, via scaremongering, to blind panic. If that really is down to complacency – and the panicked reaction to the more recent polls suggests little else – then it’s the most extraordinary misjudgement. Because in this referendum, whatever the overall outcome, every vote really does count.

Had the No campaign got its act together, treated Scotland as a priority rather than an afterthought, and committed to increased powers at the outset rather than in the final week of campaigning, it might have won this vote by a distance – something similar to the 2-1 anti-independence majority that was supposed to exist in Scotland all along. That would have put the debate to bed for a generation, or perhaps even more.

Instead, they’ve made a colossal Horlicks of it; with the consequence that hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, have done something they never quite imagined they’d do: placed a cross in the box beside the word “yes”. And so, as I prepare to stay up all night watching the results roll in for perhaps the most significant poll of any of our lifetimes, the vote is – to use a phrase I’ll hear more than once tonight – “too close to call”.

Even if the result turns out to be a narrow no, Cameron and company would be ill-advised to celebrate too wildly. The die has been cast, and the issue will arise again, in Scotland and perhaps elsewhere in the UK. If the main UK parties renege on their pledge for increased powers for Scotland, and try to carry on as if nothing has happened, it will arise again all the sooner. A lot of Yes campaigners will be gutted; but they shouldn’t be disheartened.

And if it’s a yes, it will be a reflection on a number of things: a competent, hard-working Yes campaign; a discernible rise in Scottish self-confidence; but perhaps most of all, a catalogue of cock-ups and misplaced confidence by the pro-union parties, not just over the past few months, but over the best part of two decades.

If it is a yes, it’ll be more than a bit scary. But it’ll be bloody exciting. And, in common with all the countries that have achieved independence from Britain – usually much more bloodily than this – Scotland will never ask to go back.

You’re all right, Jack

Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to lose interest in writers’ and artists’ work, and to doubt its worth or significance, as their success and profile rises.

I’m far happier in a cellar bar among an audience of 50 people, sharing the secret of a brilliant but undiscovered band, than in the arena or football ground they might eventually graduate to playing. Once they do, I tend to leave the adoring masses to watch their gigs – often from 100 yards away, while nursing a £5 pint of piss – and return to my preferred dingy haunts to discover someone new.

It’s an attitude that’s both healthy and unhealthy at once. It’s healthy because it allows me to discover new and potentially exciting artists as a matter of course, and so to maintain a state of near-constant renewal and curiosity.

But it’s unhealthy, not to mention illogical, because there’s absolutely no good reason to turn your back on someone whose work you’ve long enjoyed and admired, simply because other people happen to have noticed it too. That’s nothing more than cultural snobbery, which is hardly an attractive trait. And it’s hard to escape the uneasy feeling that such changes in perspective have relatively little to do with the quality of the artist’s work, and plenty to do with your own tacit resentment of that person’s success.

In the modern world of blogging, social media and instant celebrity, there’s more scope for scorning the successful than ever before. A blog post that happens to go viral, usually by virtue of a well-placed retweet or two, can be the catalyst for turning a virtual unknown into a ubiquitous media personality. And when success really does arrive overnight for a select few, but never at all for the vast majority, it’s little wonder that some of the latter group should come to resent the former.

All of which brings me to one Jack Monroe.

It’s possible, though unlikely, that you haven’t yet heard of Jack Monroe. In case you haven’t, she’s a food writer who rose rapidly to prominence through the frugal, meticulously-costed recipes on her blog, A Girl Called Jack. Now, she’s a Guardian columnist, Labour Party activist and anti-poverty campaigner, with two books and (surely) a TV series on the horizon.

Other than Nigella, I doubt there’s a food writer or broadcaster who has occupied more column inches over the past six months or so – thanks in large part to the Daily Mail and its perennial rent-a-prat columnist Richard Littlejohn, whose ill-researched character assassination (I refuse to link to it, but search it out if you like) was promptly and brilliantly dissected by Monroe herself.

In Monroe’s case, the majority of the backlash has come not from her blogging and tweeting peers but from the reactionary right within the “old media”: those who genuinely seem to believe that anyone who’s ever called on the social security system is, by definition, a workshy scrounger. Given that I believe that view to be complete bollocks, it’s probably unsurprising that I’m inclined to take her side on most things. But there’s a further reason too: I’m convinced she’s doing something that’s not just new but genuinely important.

Now, on the face of it, I don’t cook like Jack Monroe. As regular readers of this blog will know, I believe in shopping without lists and cooking without recipes. So her approach – recipe-driven, measured to the gram and costed to the penny – might appear to be the antithesis of my own.

But in reality, it isn’t; because without a cogent, costed demonstration that home-cooked can be cheaper as well as better than mass-produced frozen filth, the single biggest justification for my way of cooking is removed. All the other reasons for home cooking – recipe or none – are, to me, secondary to the fact that it makes financial sense. With that point proven, cooking for yourself can be seen as a logical lifestyle choice. Without it, a sceptic could reasonably argue that it’s little more than an indulgent hobby.

By breaking down all her recipes into exact unit costs – based, it should be said, on a single supermarket (Sainsbury’s) that she began using, like most of us, purely for reasons of proximity and convenience – Monroe gets us thinking about one of the more important but ambiguous words in the English language: “value”.

Take a look at her latest piece for the Guardian, published online yesterday. It chronicles her attempts to create home-made versions of cheap ready meals for a lower price. In all but one case, she succeeds; but that’s only part of the point.

When we think of value, our first association is likely to be the one I’ve made already: monetary cost. But “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily equate to “better value”. If you were looking to debunk the Jack Monroe rationale – and God knows, enough people have tried – you might observe that it fails to take account of the value of people’s time. After all, no-one could reasonably claim that it’s quicker to make a lasagne from scratch than to microwave a shop-bought one.

But this is where other, less obvious notions of value come in.

Monroe’s lasagne, as well as being cheaper than the bought version, uses free-range meat – whereas most ready-made ones contain unspecified, untraceable mince that, for all we know, could well be somewhat horsey. So if you place value upon the provenance of what you eat, the DIY approach enables you to feed your family with a relatively clear conscience, while still undercutting the frozen food giants. (Try to find a ready-made lasagne that uses free-range meat, and the cost differential will come into far clearer focus.)

And, as the dietitian Sasha Watkins points out in the same Guardian article, going home-made gives you far more control over what goes – and what doesn’t go – into the meal. Excess fat can be poured away and excess salt omitted. So, if you have your eye on another kind of value – nutritional – there’s a further reason to cook for yourself.

The only reason I haven’t cooked any of Monroe’s recipes – though I’ve certainly taken several ideas from them – is the same reason I rarely follow anyone’s recipe to the letter: because it takes the fun out of both shopping and cooking. And one of the things I value about creative cooking is that it’s stimulating and fun; whereas following a recipe, however good it might be, feels like a chore. When I cook, the satisfaction of a job well done – or, more specifically, a set of instructions well followed – isn’t quite enough. I want to be able to say, “I invented that.”

Nonetheless, as I make my way round the supermarket, my thought processes are, I suspect, very similar to Monroe’s own, rooted in the time-honoured principles of home economics.

In other words, if an ingredient is on the cheap, I’m much more likely to buy it. I might fancy some cashew nuts on my stir-fry; but if I can’t find the “value” brand at one-third the price of the regular one, I won’t bother – or, more likely, I’ll seek out an alternative way of delivering the desired crunch. (Fried breadcrumbs – a Monroe favourite garnish – offer a cheap and effective option in this case. Granted, you’ll never find them on a Chinese restaurant menu – but really, what does that matter?)

So, while I’ll leave others to test out Jack Monroe’s recipes, I’ll continue to endorse the principles behind her work – even as she becomes a near-constant presence on our cookery pages and TV screens, as she inevitably will. Should I ever feel any momentary pangs of resentment towards her success, I’ll do my best to dismiss these for what they are: simple jealousy.

And where I fit in – if I fit in – is at the margins of Monroe’s work. She’s doing the measuring, the costing and the testing – and, if I’m honest, taking quite a few of the bullets – so the likes of myself don’t particularly need to. What I’ll continue to do instead is to explore the myriad possibilities that exist beyond the confines of the recipe, and to encourage anyone who appreciates the value (there’s that word again) of her approach to cooking to develop the confidence to take it a step further.

Don’t just make it yourself: make it up for yourself.