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Abbey backdrop to bowling but no Saltire in the sky

THERE was a terrible failure by the set designers as the First Minister and his Cabinet descended on Arbroath to mark a month to go until polling day in the independence referendum.

They got most of it right. There was our new national sport, bowling, in which having beaten the Sassenachs in a Commonwealth Games final, Tattie Marshall gave his famous "up yours" salute to an English heckler.

So we got a bowling club which has as its backdrop the ruins of Arbroath Abbey, where the eponymous declaration of 1320 was signed, a declaration which Hollywood thinks was made by Mel Gibson, thus disrespecting a seminal document which their own US Declaration of Independence borrowed from, so it is said.

But we didn't just get Arbroath Abbey, with its declaratory undercurrent of independence, and bowling, but we got an actual Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Darren Burnett, who agreed to bowl a couple of ends with Alex Salmond.

Our cup was full, presumably with Irn-Bru, but the icing on the Tunnock's Tea Cake would have been the clearing of the gray clouds over the abbey ruins and the appearance of a white Saltire in the sky as the First Minister triumphed over the gold medallist. This didn't happen. Heads will no doubt roll.

Actually, the first Salmond bowl was spectacular, finely weighted to within two feet of the jack. "Beginner's luck," suggested Sports Minister Shona Robison, in an unaccustomed show of disloyalty, but in fairness her boss agreed.

The FM's next two efforts "were not given enough grass" - the polite bowling term for falling well short, and Ms Robison's followed suit. At the second end she performed better than her boss who couldn't get the bowl to turn his way. Metaphor alert.

At that point bowling club officials were radiating angst as television crews tramped on the precious turf, all asking the same two questions. Are you still refusing to outline Plan B? And are you scaremongering on the NHS?

The Salmond answers, distilled from many Q&As, are, respectively, a bit of waffle on his fiscal commission, refusal to talk about even the idea of a separate currency, a firm belief that the Scottish People are behind his currency union plan (as if this is relevant to rUK negotiators), and an insistence that on these twin issues his scaremongering is better than theirs (which may be true).

He would later make a strong argument about Labour's campaigning in England and Wales against the Tory/LibDem privatisation of the NHS, and their blithe assurance that there can be no knock-on consequences for Scotland. Confident that this was now the key theme, he insisted that the currency question had gone from "ace to joker".

Once the bowling was over and more suitably FM-style attire was donned, Mr Salmond moved next door to the abbey to peruse a copy of the famous 14th Century letter to the Pope. He said that as one of history's earliest statements of popular sovereignty it is a worthy point of comparison with our own exercise in popular sovereignty next month.

From there it was off to the council estate in Demondale where some new homes are being built and others refurbished, a record of which the SNP Government is proud. As he dished out cuddly Clyde mascots to one household he was keeping the themes of the day going, as were his Cabinet Ministers swarming around town hailing the virtues of smoked haddock and local schools.

At last night's public meeting Mr Salmond made his "Declaration of Opportunity" outlining the three strands - NHS, poverty and youth opportunity - which he will seek to make dominant themes of the next month.

Out on the streets of Arbroath most folk seemed up for Yes, but at the bowling club, with an older demographic, the picture had been different.

And there are local critics such as independent Councillor David Fairweather, who said: "I find it quite sad that he has to come to Arbroath to do this.

"He should not be putting forward an independence case for Scotland based on something that happened 900 years ago given that we are now more than 600 years after the Union was put in place - both things done by noblemen without the agreement of ordinary people.

"Now we have a vote it is sheer opportunism. It's a disrespectful stunt that's not benefitting the people of Arbroath."

It's an argument, but not one found much among his fellow Red Lichties yesterday. Most appeared to like being the centre of attention for the day. As the Cabinet members swarmed around the town there were no flash-mobs of Yes supporters, but as the First Minister said, come next Friday when parliament rises it will be "jaickets off."

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