This piece was first published in SR in 2011
My abiding childhood memory of the little towns of Ayrshire was the variable speeds at which my father drove through them. There would be sudden and unannounced bursts of acceleration. Then, a few miles further on, the car would slow to what passed in the 1950s for cruising speed.
'Got a cousin back there,' he would tersely announce, in a tone that brooked no further questions. My father was never one for visiting relations. We never knew who his cousins and nephews were, or what they did – just that demonic burst of speed. Most, we surmised, were tenant farmers, or the offspring of farmer families – a world from which my father had escaped by education.
Most of East Ayrshire was poor. Auchinleck was not at all exceptional, or only in one respect. We drove through it very quickly indeed. The recent football derby mayhem and the shootings did not come as much of a surprise to me. And certainly not nearly as much of a surprise as the plans by Prince Charles to build a brand new model eco-village of Knockroon just a few miles away.
I have never been other than proud that I was born and bred in East Ayrshire. My home was the Irvine Valley town of Newmilns. Back in the 1950s, it still had lace, coal mining, shops – and a great school.
Hope was shared to varying degrees in similar towns along the A71 running east out of Kilmarnock. There was Hurlford, Galston, Newmilns, Darvel (the 'lang toon') and Priestland, then the volcanic plug of Loudoun Hill where the Covenanters stood against bloody Claverhouse.
Newmilns was struck by three devastating blows. A flood in 1954 carried the entire contents of the town coup in an eight-foot wall of mud through the lace factories and down the main street. The bobbins from the lace mills kept turning up for months afterwards. Then the fine school was burnt to the ground.
The third catastrophe was less an event than a process: the remorseless decline of industries and jobs – coal mining, lace and, on the outskirts of Kilmarnock, light engineering. As the jobs went, so did the shops and the young people and the pride. Out of what was once a popular Co-op store and dance hall above, wild buddleia grew out of the windows.
I do not wish to strike up a lament for my home town, or the other struggling towns and parishes of East Ayrshire. The decline has been neither uniform nor linear. There have been fightbacks and regeneration schemes, townscape tidy-up and brave attempts to start and sustain new businesses.
And the valley still has a natural beauty. Last Christmas, 'Cabbie' Drennan, a friend from the radical, Bohemian teenage days in Kilmarnock, sent me a deeply depressing photograph of Newmilns. I fired it back, raging that socialist realism still had him gripped by the throat. Could he not find a pleasing pastoral scene, some area of the town that nature had clawed back? And sure enough, he sent by return some lovely photographs that would have graced an exhibition.
They reminded me of the fresh jaunty watercolours by the artist Glen Scouller whose farmhouse studio is in the lee of Loudoun Hill and whose paintings once graced the offices of Sir Fred Goodwin at the RBS headquarters in Gogarburn. Perhaps it was Scouller's cheerful canvasses that had distracted him and caused him to crash the bank. But it is Scouller's paintings of the valley – bright, cheerful, full of sunlight – that hang on the walls of my house in Lochearnhead and which to me are as true and faithful reminders of my childhood as the damp and dank and monochrome decline of valley life.
But the seepage of hope and opportunity has been hard to staunch. The cars and lorries on the A71 now thunder through relentlessly with fewer reasons than ever to stop.
This is an experience by no means confined to the valley or to the other villages of East Ayrshire. They are to be found across the country, across into the bleak, miserable drive-through towns of North Lanarkshire and the old mining villages of Fife. Here is this other Scotland, far flung from Holyrood, where devolution has not touched, indeed, where it elicits little more than a wan smile and defeated shrug. Official Scotland may think it has made a difference. But not here, not in these towns.
And whatever inspiration will be drawn – can possibly be drawn – from Prince Charles' proposed new eco-village a few miles south of blighted Auchinleck – the model Cotswold hamlet of Knockroon, or, as it is already better known, Knockdoon?
The architect's drawings of the tree-lined main street show the perfectly formed village pub, the organic greengrocer, the unbust little bank. Just out of range are surely the village cobbler and the smithy. In no way can this possibly be said to conform to the Ayrshire vernacular: the open-all-hours betting shop; the grim Clansman pub straight out of Still Game
; the bust and boarded-up Woolworths, the off-licence with its heavy metal grilles over the windows and security alarms. And where are the Poundstretcher store and the social enterprise charity shop from hell? Oh, and closed circuit TV cameras trained on that huddle of neds, and the Sky satellite dishes sprouting from every building?
Auchinleck and Knockroon: how well they mock each other. Perhaps East Ayrshire Council could organise a mutual twinning, with visits of local officials and cultural exchanges, if not quite a football derby between the two. It's certainly hard to envisage a football riot in Knockroon, or a blazing school, or the desultory rat-tat-tat of airgun fire in the haze of an afternoon. Then again, I doubt if the architects have planned in a schemie or anything as inconvenient as unemployment, or factored in the possibility, so remote in idyllic Dorset, of a chronic, draining, crushing shortage of money.
Had some of this resource and imagination been put into a facelift of the existing towns nearby where jobs and projects are desperately needed, I might feel less of the burning anger this project has ignited in me. Worrying disturbances in Auchinleck? I rather think we have got off lightly.