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Scottish Parliament Speech: Perth 800 (February 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I pay tribute to Murdo Fraser for his motion, which calls for city status for Perth, 800 years after it was granted its charter. Perth is a fair city and, as Murdo Fraser said, a slow city, which is famous for food and - well - the sort of clothes that I am notorious for liking.

It is also famous for courtesy. I remember that a party of us, including the London journalists Christopher Hitchens and Martin Walker, having dined well at the close of the 1975 Scottish National Party conference, went to the railway station, only to find that our Inverness to Edinburgh train had broken down at Blair Atholl. Owen Dudley Edwards summoned up courage - it was not terribly difficult in the circumstances - and strode off to the stationmaster to demand, Sherlock Holmes-like, a special train. Amazingly, he got one. Two diesel rail cars turned up and five of us travelled to Edinburgh in circumstances that would have made Holmes and Watson green with envy.

Perth figures in music, from Mendelssohn to Bizet and on to Runrig and Perth's MP, Pete Wishart. Bizet made one of Scott's novels, "The Fair Maid of Perth" - not a very good novel - into a much better-known opera. Indeed, the opera is Bizet's best known after "Carmen", albeit with poorer weather. Within Perth's boundaries is Scone, where the kings of the Scots sat themsels doon an' proclaimed themsels king on the magic stane. I went there with my girlfriend in 1979. Virginia was descended from the earls of Dysart and Huntingtower, and, further back, from Malcolm Canmore - but aren't we all - who made Birnam wood walk to Dunsinane, so we scrambled over to Huntingtower and we sort of got engaged there. The place is deeply in my memory.

The Scottish reformation began on 11 May 1559 in St John's kirk, and that is where it took on its democratic character - it was an artisan reformation. It is a pity that Perth did not have city status by the millennium, because that could have led to the commemoration last year of that epochal event. I hope that we do something this year to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the Treaty of Edinburgh, which enabled the reformation Parliament to take place in 1560.

In 1859 there occurred another interesting but not-much-commemorated event, when the German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane moved to Scotland to see the country associated with his beloved Walter Scott and, on looking out over Loch Leven towards Queen Mary's tower, was moved to do for Germany what Scott had done for Scotland. He brought the Scots ballad and the realist novel to Wilhelmine Berlin.

If members want to experience the Perth of its Victorian glory days they should go to the huge and underused station. If we exploited our railways properly, Perth station would be the centre of touristrail Scotland, which would be an enterprise on a Swiss scale. Members should read Fontane's "North of the Tweed", or go to York to see George Earl's massive painting of Perth station in the mid-1890s, "Coming South", which is in the grand style of W P Frith. This is the world of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels. It is the world of politicians and magnates, Etonian lairds, and young folk and ghillies heading north for the glorious twelfth and then back down again, vows exchanged and mobilising telegrams answered.

Members should remember that this is where John Buchan was born and where James Kennaway's "Tunes of Glory" - that great novel of Scots peacetime army life, which was made into a fine film with Alec Guinness and John Mills - was set. I can even remember - I am old enough - the 1963 Kinross and West Perthshire by-election, an amazing confrontation. The Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was schlepped round the vast seat, which had more Etonians per square mile than a Cameron shadow cabinet, like a holy icon to be venerated by Tories - remember them?

We should remember above all the theorist of city and region, Sir Patrick Geddes, who was brought up on the slopes of Kinnoull Hill. He was a sociologist, ecologist and town planner, and "maker, mover, mender" to Chaim Weizmann in Israel, to Ghandi and to Nehru. We can have his cosmopolis, and city status for Perth is a necessary first step. The alternative, alas, could well be a necropolis, and we do not want that, do we?

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