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Saturday, 5 July 2014

"Letter From America" - Leith Shipyards and The Proclaimers


This contribution is from our featured writer Jenny Buxton as there is just not enough time to keep contributing to the Blog on a daily basis and this we feel will help to keep the Blog relevant and interesting.

The views expressed are the writers alone and are not necessarily the views of Leith Built Ships (although we do agree with some of them?)
 
 


"Letter From America" - Leith Docks and The Proclaimers
In 1987, Leith Docks were treated to an experience quite unlike anything else it had undergone in its long career – and that’s saying quite something, as all manner of curios passed through the Robbs yard during its lifetime. With a musical accompaniment and a blisteringly poignant set of lyrics, images of the shipyard were broadcast into the living rooms of hundreds. Thanks to Scottish twin duo ‘The Proclaimers’ [1]Henry Robb's shipyard, right at the end of its life, had a brush with pop-stardom.
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Ecomonic Depression
It was used in the video to ‘Letter From America’, a song which speaks of economic migration from Scotland due to unemployment, depression, and even enforced eviction – all experiences with which Scotland has had a long experience. Leith Docks featured heavily in the video as an example of the kind of traditional Scottish industry which was, in the eighties, being lost – necessitating the emigration of former employees. At the time, the shipyard had been closed for four years and was falling derelict. As such, it stood as a painful and marked reminder of all that Scotland had lost and was in the process of losing. This was the era in which “Trainspotting” [2]  - that seminal novel of disaffected Scottish youth – is set. The era of Thatcherism, of job-losses, of clashes between all-powerful money-worshipping capitalists and the working man, of anger, of riots, of growing consumerism and shrinking opportunities. The Herald describe the eighties as an era in which “Scotland’s industrial heartlands were ripped out and thrown on the scrapheap” [3], and a lot of anger remains today at what is still seen as an irrevocable loss to Scotland.
 
 
 
 
Family Connection
Henry Robb’s yard was used in the video to the track partly because the father of Charlie and Craig Reid who make up the Proclaimers had worked in the yard. Indeed, the pair were born in Leith, and thus had a strong association with the yard. The working class, working man’s culture into which they were born, and which was being steadily eroded by the economic policies of the time as they grew up, would strongly influence their music. Much of their tracks are politically motivated, with a strong Scottish-cultural influence, and the depression of the eighties certainly left its mark on the brothers. Craig told the Scotsman in a recent interview, “We know what it’s like to have no money and to be at the mercy of other people….I remember spending the whole day with Charlie at the DSS, queuing for housing benefit, crowded in like cattle, and you had no say, no economic power” [4]. The family moved around in search of work as places like Robb’s closed and evicted their employees, leaving the twins well-placed to pen a track like ‘Letter From America’, which harkens to economically enforced Scots migration.
 Australians
A Deep Scar
The eighties were a period which have left a deep scar upon not only the Scots national consciousness, but also the economic viability of Scotland as a whole. Arguably, the destruction of the shipyards and other manufacturing and industrial enterprises began a process of wholesale denigration which would be furthered twenty years later, with the 2008 recession from which we are only now emerging. Deprived of steady income at dockyards and the like, a whole swathe of society learned instead to rely upon high-interest loans and state handouts for survival. When the credit industry collapsed in 2008, it took with it not only a whole host of jobs and industries which relied upon it for survival, it also pulled the (already threadbare) rug out from beneath the feet of struggling Scots. Austerity measures like benefit cuts rendered the situation yet more desperate. Unable to turn to places like Henry Robb’s shipyard to get work, these people slipped between the cracks, often ending up desperate and homeless. The Scottish Government state that, as of 2014, “recovery in the Scottish economy is progressing and consolidating” [5], and the credit industries are beginning to reach out to people once again, with sites like CompareNI offering “many secured and unsecured loans” [6] to those in need of a cash injection, but for many this comes too little too late. It’s a recovery, furthermore, led almost entirely by consumer activity rather than industrial activity. Instead of pulling itself up through its own industrial infrastructure, Scotland is being wonkily hauled back into the black through patchy and irregular consumer spending patterns. It is not an ideal situation.
 
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Sorely Missed
In its heyday, Robb’s shipbuilding company employed thousands, and left all of those employees with a viable trade which they could ply anywhere in the world, should they so wish. These skilled people were a great boon to whatever country they lived in. Unfortunately, as the Scottish shipyards steadily fell to Thatcher’s onslaught, that country was Scotland less and less. Although many Scots emigrants sent money home - banks lie HSBC [7] which provided international transfer services did particularly well during the eighties - the dearth of opportunities for people to use their skills naturally lead to an evacuation of those skills from Scotland. They have never returned. Places like Robb’s yard at Leith Docks are sorely missed.

Australian Migrant Ships Australian Migrant Ships
In 1945 Arthur Calwell announced a new immigration policy for Australia requiring an influx of 70,000 migrants a year, and it was hoped that all of them would come from Britain. When insufficient Britons applied the Australian government looked to Italy and Greece and then to refugee camps across Europe. This book looks at the ships that brought these migrants to Australia - some that were never designed to carry passengers or to travel great distances - and their place in maritime and Australian history.

[2] Irvine Welsh, "Trainspotting", Random House
[3] Ian MacWhirter, "Can Scotland escape the killer zombies?", Herald Scotland, Feb 2013
[4] Janet Christie, "Interview: The Proclaimers still have miles to walk", The Scotsman, July 2013
[6] Compare, "Compare Loans"

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