The Battle of Auchterarder

Dominic Hilton
20 June 2005

Picture the scene. July 2004, Downing Street. A shirtsleeved Tony Blair and his court are conducting the business of government from the sofa. “So where are we going to host next year’s explosive G8 summit?” Tony says as he pretends to strum his guitar.

Someone gets out a map of Britain, looks for the remotest area, and points their finger into the Scottish highlands. “How about Auchterarder

Everyone laughs and agrees it sounds ideal. “Isn’t the ‘world-famous five-star Gleneagles Hotel’ near there?” adds Tony.

Since 2001, when the disastrous pow-wow at Genoa was symbolised by violent, fatal street clashes, all G8 summits have been hosted in markedly far-flung locations. In two weeks’ time, the much-anticipated 2005 clambake kicks off in Gleneagles in the achingly beautiful surroundings of Perthshire, Scotland. The agenda is set: save Africa, round of golf, save the planet.

If you plan to attend proceedings in the ancient Royal Burgh of Auchterarder – either as a cosseted leader of one of the globe’s wealthiest territories or as a crusty-haired protestor – I recommend the pancakes in “the Tearoom” on the High Street with a pot of “granny’s traditional but secret recipe” coffee, which I assure you is without rival.

Not that you’ll be spoilt for choice. Auchterarder is the epitome of a one-street whistlestop. “No-one can pronounce it anyway,” Douglas Alexander, a local financial services consultant, observed. They call Auchterarder “The Lang Toon” as it boasts the longest High Street in Scotland, but the cafés total three and the rest is houses. The locals are as friendly a people as you could wish to meet. Their quiet lives are about to be hit by a global hurricane and everyone from the police chief to the pub drunk is doe-eyed with puzzlement. “It feels like a dream at the moment,” said one. “We’re just a sleepy town,” explained Andrew in the Auchterarder gift shop. “I can’t see a Geneva happening here.”

Confusion and curiosity abound. The summit “is all people talk about around here,” I was told, seeing no evidence to the contrary. “God knows what people are going to talk about afterwards.” But the Auchterarder and District Community News Magazine fails to list the summit in the “forthcoming events” section, opting instead for the “Game Conservancy Fair”.

If you’re the type who’s enraged by globalisation, capitalism and golf, you’ll be bitterly disappointed by Auchterarder. There’s no McDonald’s or Starbucks to smash. The only symbols of capitalist exploitation are a couple of decent tweed stores, a traditional barbers, a garden sundries outlet, “Catherine’s” ladies’ frocks, a small fruit & veg stall, and James Urquhart, Ironmongers. Your best bet might be an old church converted into a furniture store. Though, as Robin Bell, the Bard of Auchterarder, put it to me, it might be “inappropriate to attack family businesses.”

The Gleneagles Empire, wherein Bush, Blair and co. will be camped, is more likely to get your back up. The hotel is owned by the corporate giant Diageo and is a superb set-up. Its 850 acres feel notably American in comfort, wealth and ambition, though the place never loses its Scottish charm. A round on one of the four magnificent championship golf courses sets you back about £100 – well worth increasing the budget deficit for, Mr President. The facilities are top-notch – shooting, equestrian, falconry, a spot of shopping at Mappin & Webb. As the poet Robin Bell points out, some people even visit the Scottish highlands to sit on an exercise bike in the gym and stare at a TV screen.

Not that any protestor is going to get within a mile of the place – literally. An awkward five-kilometre double-braided security fence costing £1 million surrounds the exquisitely craggy landscape, a long way from the room in which I took my tea. The hotel staff, most of whom appear not to be British (are they vetted?), are already inspecting the carpets, airing the ballroom, refusing to talk to journalists and taking an age to serve non-presidents their chocolate cake. A team of interior designers is up from London to remodel the gents’ toilets.

Auchterarder is gearing up. Mysterious planes are hovering overhead at night. As I talked to the delightful Maureen in the excellent tourist information office, four police cars swung past. “That’s never happened before,” she frowned, worriedly. “They might think you’re a terrorist, Maureen,” the genial Sandra quipped.

Maureen was busy thinking of the children. “The young teenagers are terrified, petrified,” she insisted. “It’s the fear of the unknown,” agreed Sandra. “People around here have never even seen mounted policemen, let alone all those guns.”

Not that the ragamuffins seemed soft to me. I’ve rarely seen such a dishevelled bunch of schoolkids, shirts out, ties untied. An exception was the adorable Samantha Scott from the Community School, who was flushed with excitement. “A difference can be made, and it’s here! ” she enthused. “I might go to the Make Poverty History rally – if my parents allow me.”

It’s the threat of riotous protestors (Samantha excepted) that most worries the locals. The hairdressers is boarding up. A lot of folk are evacuating town for the duration. Police and council chiefs have controversially banned a 20,000 strong march and demanded insurance cover of £37,000 for any protest. 4,500 “shit-stirrers” (as the landlady at my B&B; called them) are expected to mobilise in Auchterarder’s public park, which is roughly one and half miles from the hotel. They plan to camp in a field in Stirling, twenty miles to the south.

Even if they make the trek, it will look silly. Auchterarder public park is next to “John Smith & Son Funeral Directors” (a temporary mortuary will be set up, in case). It consists of a football pitch, a kids’ playground, and a skatebowl. I suppose as they scream refrains at the Youth Community Centre, protestors can take comfort in how, even on a glorious day, the place is muddy as the Old Miss.

“Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned,” Alec McNoughton, the Auchterarder lollipop man (crossing guard), said to me, “but I think the protestors should have better things to do with their day than hang about protesting.”

“They’re meeting for the good of the world, aren’t they?” believed Andrew in the gift shop. “What’s to protest against?”

“What bothers me is professional anarchism,” Douglas added.

Nobody is sure what to expect. And that includes the police. I interrogated PC John Fairley at the G8 police office. “The whole thing is a melting-pot, hypothetical,” he said, looking exceptionally relaxed. “In all honesty, I don’t know how we will accommodate it all. Auchterarder is not exactly crime city.”

I heard there’ll be 40,000 police officers guarding the summit. I counted four of them in the G8 police office.

Everyone has a story: a friend who was asked to hire out her balcony for a sniper; a plumber who will be forced to take the bus with his toolkit; the local church is organising a seven-day fast from 25 June-1 July; the landlord at my B&B; wrote to Tony Blair and asked if he needed somewhere to stay. The whole shebang might go smoothly. On the other hand, the protestors may block the A9 and stop anyone but the jet-carried leaders getting to and from the event. Then they might go on the rampage again.

Margaret Brown, the attendant at Auchterarder’s only public toilets is concerned the summit will be bad for business if they erect new portaloos. I sympathised, paid my 20p and tested the facilities. Now there’s something to protest about.

The Auchterarder Heritage Centre (a small creaky room above Tourist Information) explains the town’s ancient status: “to increase Royal revenues … [and] act as political counterweight to our powerful landowners … The most important rights were the right to hold a market and the right to regulate trade”.

Seems like a pretty appropriate location to me. There’s even a Roman road – “the Romans were here before George W Bush,” smirked Robin the poet.

“Nobody’s going to remember Auchterarder afterwards, are they?” ran one poignant small-town philosophy, and on the whole the locals just want to be left alone. “They never asked us,” is a popular dirge. Drowning his sorrows at the bar, a disconsolate chap who works at the Gleneagles Hotel put it best: “They should’ve held the summit on an aircraft carrier.”

The security barrier has already been breached by three children – aged 10, 8 and 6 – who crawled under it. As I exited Auchterarder, the police were inspecting the bridge and sealing the drains.

Further Links:

G8 Alternatives

Official Government G8 website

Make Poverty History

Perthshire G8 website

Guide to Auchterarder


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