Bathgate no more, Linwood no more
- 13 October 2013
- From the section Scotland business
"Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more..."
The lyrics from The Proclaimers first hit song, quarter of a century ago, continue as an anthem to the 1980s.
As the duo brought a two-year touring schedule to a close at Glasgow's new Hydro arena on Saturday night, they still resonate as part of Scotland's story about its modern self.
They drew a parallel with the poetry and paintings of the 18th and 19th Highland Clearances. To the theme of "Lochaber no more", the Proclaimers added Skye, Sutherland and Lewis.
So I've been on a journey across central Scotland and through the past quarter century to find out what happened next for the towns that were supposed to be "...no more".
There are some who never recovered from the blight of unemployment in that decade. A generation was scarred by losing jobs, without skills to take on the new opportunities. There's evidence that the next generation who left school into the teeth of the Eighties recession continue to suffer some consequences still.
But the main theme I've found is what is quite a positive story about resilience and flexibility.
Scots are more skilled, and perhaps more resourceful. Having given up on supporting old industries, government has made a difference through building infrastructure for new ones. People have become much more mobile around the country.
Whereas the Proclaimers were singing in 'Letter from America' about emigration and "all the blood that flowed away", the past 15 years have seen that flow reversed, with the arrival of immigrants, particularly from Poland and the Baltic states.
As I heard from the duo, Charlie and Craig Reid, the song didn't say it was bad or good, but that it happens. "It was unthinkable there would be an influx of eastern Europeans before the Iron Curtain came down. That has changed Scotland for the good".
The economy has continued to bring major plant closures, though on a lesser scale to the giant ones of the 1980s. Thirteen years ago, it included Motorola at Easter Inch, near Bathgate. More recently, it has been at the Hall's of Broxburn meat processing plant, ten miles from Bathgate.
It's notable that the impact on single communities has been less clear and less harsh for the communities around them than when coal mines and the previous generation of industries closed. Workers have been more dispersed, and a combination of improved transport options and more flexible skills have taken them to jobs in other places and in other sectors.
Charlie and Craig Reid, while giving up some rehearsal time ahead of their Glasgow gig, told me Letter from America now seems dated. They weren't to know that net emigration would be reversed, before the Iron Curtain came down.
They know it speaks to a particular generation, and that it plays best when they are performing in Britain, Ireland and Canada. But Charlie Reid also reflects that his children's generation are in a weaker bargaining position with employers, backed by multi-national clout, than used to be the case, as they're "ground down" on pay and conditions, and struggle to turn part-time opportunities into full-time employment.
The writers of the lyrics say the towns could as easily have been Kilmarnock, Cowdenbeath and Cumnock, but the ones they chose worked with the song. So that's where I went for my journey across Scotland, and across the past quarter century.
Bathgate no more?
The Leyland plant built trucks and tractors until work started to be moved elsewhere from 1982, and it finally closed in 1986. There was a work-in during that time, with a parallel dispute with the nearby Plessey workers, making telephone components.
Jim Swan was convener of Leyland's joint shop stewards, and recalls: "It was difficult times; the pit closing, Plessey and us closing at the same time. It was devastating and the unemployment rate went up to 25 per cent in some areas.
"I always remember Gavin McCone, the civil servant, saying to me at that time: 'Mr Swan, I can't save your workers, but what I can do is set up an infrastructure which will try to get more inward investment and work which will probably employ your sons and daughters.' And that's what happened, but it took about 15 years to balance the economy out again."
During that time, Silicon Glen brought thousands of electronics jobs to West Lothian, but many left again. This time, though, the big closures, such as Motorola at Easter Inch, had workforces which were dispersed, so the impact was not so severe on any one town.
West Lothian now has the fastest population growth of any council area in Scotland, which explains why the old Leyland plant has a housing estate on it, where many commute to work at some distance. It's become part of greater Edinburgh.
Harry Cartmill, representing Bathgate for Labour on the council, says the opening of the rail line to the capital in the same year that Leyland closed was the biggest single element of turning around the town. Only two years ago, the line west to Airdrie and on to Glasgow re-opened as well, making it more of a dormitory town for both cities.
Linwood no more?
Where once they built Hillman cars at the Renfrewshire site, they now sell them. A lot of them. John McGuire, managing director of Phoenix Car Company, says there are 18 dealerships alongside an Asda superstore, restaurants and leisure.
His father worked at Linwood, and when it closed, his first year of unemployment saw him age by more than 10 years "going from a relatively young man to a relatively old man"
"When I was wanting to start my own business, and we had an opportunity to buy land here, I wasn't sure if this was where I wanted to come, because of the damage done to the local community. But I'm very glad that I did."
He reckons that there are now nearly 4000 jobs in the area, which is getting close to the number of jobs lost when the car plant closed.
"I wanted to employ people, because I saw the dignity that gave to people and I wanted to have my own business so that I'd be in control of my destiny and also that I'd look after a team of people and make sure they didn't have to go through what we saw happening in the Eighties in this country."
The nearby village of Linwood hasn't fared so well. It won the unwanted Carbuncle Award for poor design, which provoked some in the community to treat it not as an insult but a challenge to improve. The Community Development Trust is keen to see change in the area done with people in the area, rather than to them.
Methil no more?
There's lots more to Methil, but it's been a rocky time. The Fife town's fabrication yard, under various ownership, was still building big oil platforms for the North Sea oil in the 1980s, but decline and closure was on the way. The fabrication was shut for seven years, until BiFab expanded from Burntisland, along the Fife coast.
The company now has 800 people on site, and 1,100 if you include Burntisland and Arnish near Stornoway. It's hiring apprentices, but for welding skills, it had to go to Poland.
It's working to capacity, much of that on a platform for Premier Oil's Solan field west of Shetland, scheduled for float-out next April. That will go in 140 metres of water, and while it will have 35 berths for offshore workers, the intention is to remove it after a year, and to operate it remotely.
The big prospect, though, is in renewable energy. Samsung is constructing a huge, 7 megawatt wind turbine, just off the Methil quayside, and Scottish Enterprise, which owns the land, has a site cleared for the Korean giant to build turbines there - so long as the market conditions become clearer.
BiFab's managing director John Robertson says the yard has built 42 jackets for offshore wind turbines. It has plans to invest in new production capacity up to 150 per year, if demand comes through.
And as he said, there's a lot of uncertainty in the wind, while the industry awaits the guaranteed minimum prices that will underpin it in the UK government's Electricity Market Reforms, and a decision on how long that regime will last.
He also said the uncertainty extended to the outcome of next year's independence referendum - a 'hurdle' that he wants to get over, so that the investment outlook becomes clearer.
Irvine no more?
There was no signature plant or plant closure that defined Irvine's. And it's less clear that the town has found a way back from the hard times of the 1980s. The Irvine Bay regeneration plan aims to improve the new town and others nearby in North Ayrshire.
The problem a quarter century ago was as much about young people leaving as businesses doing so. One of those to do so was Nicola Sturgeon, who grew up in Dreghorn, the village that became part of Irvine.
She recalls a social life built around the path-breaking Magnum Centre and a political awareness that took her, as a teenager, into the Scottish National Party.
She recalls the threat and reality of unemployment at that time feeling like it was "terminal" - there seemed no way back. And for her, there was only one thing she planned to do when she left school, which was studying law at Glasgow University.
There is now more flexibility about people returning to work after redundancy. And what of her nephew who is around the age of the Deputy First Minister when she first heard the Proclaimers' Letter from America, and he's soon to leave school in Irvine?
His interest in science may be well suited to the science opportunities in North Ayrshire's pharmaceutical industry.
And while she thinks young people should have the opportunity to spread their wings and leave, she believes the important thing is to ensure they can come back to those opportunities.
You can hear Douglas Fraser's full report on BBC Radio Scotland's Business Scotland programme.