The world may have come to a virtual standstill as populations wait for the coronavirus to wash over them, but Scotland's courtroom melodrama prevailed on Tuesday as Alex Salmond took the stand in Edinburgh.
After six days of prosecution evidence, the former First Minister dismissed several of the complaints made against him at the High Court. He denied sexual intent in several cases where it has been alleged. And in one case, involving a charge of attempted rape, the First Minister admitted that an incident had occurred with a Scottish Government official, known as Woman H, but he insisted that it had been consensual, and on a date 10 months earlier than she had alleged. Mr Salmond said that Woman H had initiated the encounter and that both were in 'a state of undress' when they agreed to stop.
In another case, Mr Salmond confirmed that he had apologised to another woman, known as Woman F, after an incident in the official residence, Bute House. He denied the allegations made by seven other women during the trial. Where one complainer, Woman C, had alleged that Mr Salmond had rested his hand upon her thigh during a car journey while her husband sat up front, he claimed that it would have been impossible to do so without being seen because a fixed mobile phone had been fitted to the rear armrest.
He denied that other incidents involving Women D, G, J and K had occurred in the way described by the complainers or that there had been any sexual intent on his part.
In the case of Woman B, the details of which are below, Mr Salmond said that these took place in the context of some frivolity about a Christmas card image. Again, he denied sexual impropriety. Woman A had alleged several incidents of inappropriate touching and kissing – all of which Mr Salmond said had not taken place. 'Her claims are a fabrication from the start,' he added, describing one of the allegations as 'ludicrous'.
The prosecution case against Alex Salmond closed on Monday, with evidence from a Scottish Government civil servant who recounted an alleged indecent assault by the then First Minister at Bute House in 2010. Woman B told the court that one evening she had participated in a routine meeting at which she and other colleagues had suggested to Mr Salmond that a painting supplied by the artist Jack Vettriano, depicting a young woman in a skimpy outfit reaching to kiss an older man, would be an inappropriate image for a Christmas card.
The First Minister had agreed to drop the idea. Later, when Woman B was left alone in the room with him, she said he grabbed her wrists, suggesting to her that they recreate the Vettriano image. She took this to be a 'sexual approach' and resisted as Mr Salmond pulled her towards him, trying to extricate her hands from his grip. 'He was very persistent – it felt like I was sort of wrestling with an octopus, there was always another hand coming at my wrists,' added Woman B.
Mr Christopher Birt, a private secretary to the First Minister at the time, confirmed that complaints had led to new arrangements intended to ensure that no female staff were left alone with Mr Salmond at Bute House in the evening.
The case is being heard at the High Court in Edinburgh, presided over by Lady Dorrian and before a jury of nine women and six men. Mr Salmond faces 13 charges involving nine women, ranging from indecent assault to sexual assault, a single charge of assault with intent to rape, and another of attempted rape. He was formally acquitted of a 14th charge allegedly involving a 10th woman after the Crown dropped that charge on Monday.
Mr Salmond is accused of sexual assault and assault with intent to rape in two 2013 incidents involving Woman F, a civil servant in the Scottish Government. She told the court that she had been working late one night in December 2013 at the First Minister's private sitting room within Bute House. Mr Salmond had consumed most of a bottle of the Chinese spirit Maotai while they worked, before ordering her to sit on a bed. She told the court she was in fear that he 'wasn't going to stop' as he lay on top of her, forcing his hands under her dress. 'He was murmuring a phrase like "you're irresistible",' she added. She said she managed to move away when he shifted his weight, and left soon afterwards. On her way home, after midnight, she texted a colleague to say she had had 'a memory she would need to forget'.
After she raised the incident with a senior colleague, it was arranged that Woman F meet the First Minister at his office, alone, a week later. 'The First Minister told me he was sorry for what had happened and that it was inappropriate. He said that he had been drinking more than usual, not just that night but in general, due to stress.'
Cross-examined by defence counsel Gordon Jackson QC, Woman F denied that she had made any apology to Mr Salmond, but confirmed that she had accepted his apology and agreed to continue to work for him. Another complainant, Woman G, a Scottish Government official, told the court of two alleged incidents. The first took place at a Glasgow restaurant at the end of a political dinner in 2012, when Mr Salmond smacked her buttocks. 'I was shocked. It felt demeaning. It made me feel like I was a plaything to him.'
A year later, after another dinner in Edinburgh, Woman G said that Mr Salmond insisted that she return to Bute House with him around midnight in order to bring back some official papers. She refused his suggestion that they should drink Limoncello together and began to feel 'intimidated and trapped'. Commenting on her age, Mr Salmond told her 'what I would do to you if I were [younger]'. He attempted to place his arm around her and kiss her. She told the court: 'At that moment I knew that if I didn't get out something might happen. I stood up and said "I have to go"'. The First Minister seemed 'frustrated and somewhat defeated' and said 'fine, go,' she added.
For the defence, Mr Jackson QC, suggested that no-one had seen the incident as 'criminal' at the time. Woman G replied: 'It was serious enough for us to change staffing procedures at the time, so I refute that. It was serious enough that women were not allowed to work with him on their own'.
Earlier, Woman C, an SNP politician and former Yes campaigner, said that during a short journey in a ministerial car from Holyrood to Waverley station late one evening Mr Salmond had rested his hand on her thigh – above the knee. He had kept it there until the end of the journey. The two were in the rear of the car, with the driver and Woman C's husband up front. She had found the incident 'embarrassing' but had not reported it at the time. 'I suppose when you look back at things you realise how much you excuse a person because of who they are. It is so hard to explain how much he meant to our party... I didn't think it was nothing, it was because of who he is and what he was. Who on earth was I going to tell and what on earth were they going to do about it?'
Woman A, a senior official in the Scottish Government, told the court of a series of incidents in June and July 2008 when Mr Salmond had kissed her on the mouth and touched her breasts and buttocks over her clothing. In another incident in an Edinburgh club during 2011, she said he had touched her arm and hips over her clothing, she alleged.
Woman J, an SNP worker, alleged that the former First Minister had enacted an impression of a zombie before attempting to kiss her on the mouth during a late-night session at Bute House shortly before the 2014 independence referendum. The woman was with Mr Salmond as he dealt with a political issue. Having left the room briefly, on her return she was surprised to find him lying on the floor, with speech notes around him. He urged her to join him on the floor so that they might work on editing a speech together. She did so reluctantly, and kept some distance between them.
Then, standing, she said the First Minister asked her 'have you ever seen that zombie movie?' Arms outstretched, she said he took a couple of rigid, zombie-like steps towards her, held her by the shoulders, and kissed her face. 'I raised my arms to break the connection,' she told the court. 'I was in complete shock.' Asked by Mr Prentice if she had felt frightened, she replied: 'Yes'.
Another complainer, Woman K, had been helping to organise a reception at Stirling Castle in 2014, when, she said, Mr Salmond pressed her to participate in a photograph on a balcony. The jury was shown a series of photos taken of the pair during which Mr Salmond had placed his hand 'quite forcefully' and with deliberate intent on her backside, the woman alleged. 'I was mortified. I was being demeaned. It was unprofessional and there was nothing I could do about it,' she added.
The court was told of a series of incidents with another Scottish Government civil servant, Woman D, who said that Mr Salmond touched her face and hair, as well as touching her buttocks over her clothing on several occasions between 2011 and 2013 at Bute House, the Scottish Parliament and in a car. On one occasion in late 2011, in a hotel lift, Mr Salmond reached out to stroke Woman D's face, but a male colleague brushed his hand away. The man, also a civil servant, said he saw Woman D shrink back. 'I said words to the effect of "stop that, behave yourself",' he told the prosecutor.
Last week, the court heard details of an alleged attempted rape involving Woman H, who said that in June 2014 at Bute House Mr Salmond had undressed her and lain on top of her in a bedroom, before rolling over and falling asleep.
Cross-questioned later by defence counsel Shelagh McCall QC, Woman H denied the suggestion that she had not been at Bute House on the night in question. Ms McCall put it to Woman H that in fact she and Mr Salmond had been engaged in a similar situation at the official residence, not in June 2014, but during August the previous year, and that what had occurred had been consensual. 'I've never been a willing participant in Alex Salmond's advances towards me,' replied Woman H.
Particular care is being taken to observe the rules regarding the identities of the women involved. Their names are not being published, in accordance with Scots law on the identification of complainers in any case of this kind. There is an additional requirement that identification should not be enabled by publishing third party information that might lead to names being deduced from evidence.
Media lawyers are watching the case closely, to the extent where the BBC – which is covering the trial extensively and across all platforms – has a lawyer on site to advise on disclosure during everyday reporting.
The trial continues.