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G8-topmøde - Gleneagles, Scotland:
Where is Auchterarder?
Robin Bell, 5. juli 2005
The small Scots town that hosts the G8 circus is no stranger to world-historical events; they happen there once every century, writes poet Robin Bell.
History has a habit of lying in wait for politicians where they least expect it.
The location for this summer’s G8 summit is Auchterarder. It was chosen because it has a splendid hotel, Gleneagles, and because, from a London point of view, it lies in the middle of nowhere.
To find Auchterarder, draw a cross on a map of Scotland. Yes, it has to be a St Andrew’s cross. Draw a line from the north-easternmost point, Peterhead, to Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre in the southwest. Then draw a line from the “Wee-Free” Isle of Lewis in the northwest to debatable Berwick-on-Tweed in the southeast. The lines intersect in the middle of Scotland at Auchterarder.
It is a pleasant little town, bypassed by the main route north, the A9. You could be forgiven for thinking it has been bypassed by everything else. Not so. Once every century, something happens in Auchterarder that dramatically influences world events. I don’t know why. It just does. Take a look at its track record.
In 1559, Europe was balanced on a knife-edge. The Reformation had lined up Catholic France, Spain and Italy against mainly Protestant northern Europe. In England, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I had just succeeded her Catholic sister, Mary. The French had a power-base in Scotland, making England vulnerable on all her borders. At Auchterarder in May 1559, the Scottish Catholic government army was set to do battle with John Knox’s Protestant rebels. There was, unusually for wars of religion, a sudden reality check. The two sides parleyed and “the peace of Auchterarder” was signed. The pincer-movement Catholic invasion of England never happened. The new balance of power defined the evolution of Europe and growth of empires.
In 1650, Puritan extremists who had seized control of the Scottish parliament executed Scotland’s great cavalier poet, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. His castle in Auchterarder was pounded to rubble, and his judicial murder sparked a backlash against the Puritans.
A decade later the great and good of Edinburgh, who had been too timid to follow him in life, dressed up in their finery to troop behind his coffin in a belated state funeral. Montrose, briefly lieutenant-governor of Scotland, was an architect of redefining the relationship between a people and its rulers. He emphasised the need for a constitutionally limited government that respected local differences.
In Europe he achieved mythic status. Voltaire cited him as a hero. And what did the people of Auchterarder do next? In a typical triumph of practicality over sentimentality, they commemorated his achievement by helping themselves to the rubble of his castle and built a sturdy new kirk.
In 1717, Auchterarder saw the first flickerings of the Scottish Enlightenment. The “Auchterarder creed” spelled out that sinners were welcome to come to church. Why did this matter? Because the concept of an unchallengeable self-appointed elect had again begun to dominate both politics and religious belief, excluding ordinary people.
The “Auchterarder creed” was about the individual’s right to a dialogue with authority. Within a few decades, the philosopher David Hume and Adam Smith, with his Wealth of Nations (1776), joined the debate. The stage was set for the American and French revolutions. Incidentally, this is where the expression “high-flier” comes from. Next time you see a high-flier, think of a passionate preacher soaring on the clouds of his own rhetoric.
In 1834, Auchterarder woke up again. This time the issue was patronage. Parishes had long complained about having useless or unacceptable ministers imposed upon them by local landowners. Auchterarder was the first to reject a laird’s choice. The case went as far as parliament, which predictably took the side of patronage. Auchterarder’s response was simple and dramatic. The people walked out and set up their own establishment, outside parliamentary control. This “great disruption” was cited worldwide as an encouragement to freedom of political and religious thought. Auchterarder, having made its point, got on with another century of quiet rural life.
In 1977, the leaders of thirty-five Commonwealth countries met at Gleneagles Hotel, exactly where this year’s G8 will meet. The “Gleneagles agreement” condemned racism in sport. Decades of discontent, that had never been coherently addressed, came to a head. Yet again, something happened in Auchterarder that had a global impact.
Now in 2005 the G8 meets in Auchterarder. Africa, world poverty and climate change are top of the agenda. We already know that reams of official paper will express sympathetic concern. But sympathy without action means nothing. If the G8 leaders are serious about tackling real problems, change has to start somewhere. Once per century, it starts in Auchterarder.