I’ve written from time to time on the issue of Scots independence and of the prince who came riding to lead the challenge, Alex Salmond.

Neil Oliver at the commencement of a series on the history of Scotland, recounts a tale concerning one of the Roman Emperors who ventured into Scotland.   I’m not certain which one it was – more than one made the attempt – but in this tale as you will see it matters little.   The natives were employing guerrilla tactics, harrying the army in lightning raids, using their knowledge of the terrain and the weather, and avoiding head on conflict (which they were bound to lose.)    One day, emerging out of the mist to stand in a beacon of sunshine on a rock before them – but out of reach of their weapons, a warrior appeared.   He hailed the Roman Emperor by name, raising his voice so that the entire army could hear him.   He informed them that he was the flower of his tribe’s  manhood, their principal warrior, and he had been concealed in these mountains by the gods for the express purpose of defeating the tyrant (naming the Emperor) and stopping his cruelty and greed.   Though all the world was conquered by Rome, his country would never surrender, and the Emperor would be well advised to take his miserable lackeys back to wherever they came from before he and the gods dealt them a worse fate.    Then he disappeared again into the mists before they could get at him.   As we all know, the Romans never succeeded in conquering Scotland, and if the Emperor was Septimus Severus it is said his incursion into Scotland cost 50,000 men and nothing to show for it.

However, it was largely Rome who wrote the history of the world, and their historians denounced this account as merely  an ornamentation, an exaggeration by the historian several centuries later, who, they alleged, was actually a Celt and therefore biased, unlike Roman historians who, as we all know, only dealt in truths.

So there is no proof that this taunt was ever made:  but it sounds highly probable to me.   The use of guerrilla tactics, the Never Surrender attitude, the physical courage, the celtic oratory, the clever PR, the exploitation of the drama, the personal vanity, the aspiring to a heroic vision, the wit and the derision, the bold assumption of equality and disdain of rank, the sheer glorious effrontery of it,  makes it sound very like many of my countrymen to me.   Of course the Roman historians would deny it.     It makes the so called glory of their conquests seem tawdry and grasping and enslaving, instead of as they prefer to present it, the bringing of civilisation to the world.

Returning however to our modern-day hero…

I had the privilege of meeting Alex Salmond and exchanging a few words with him while we were in Scotland.   e was taking part in a Por-Am Golf Day on the golf course at Culloden, prior to tH

He was taking part in a Pro-Am golf event on the golf course at Culloden, prior to the Scottish Open.   John and I attended.   I sat reading in the shade of the hospitality area for much of the morning (it was a very hot day) while John followed Salmond’s party (which included Phil Mickelson, who went on to win the Scottish Open.)   John saw that the players would have to pass through a very narrow passage in the sand-dunes on their way to the 13th, and he took me there in advance of the golfers coming through in the afternoon.

I always find that famous people look much less impressive in the flesh.    We saw Padraig Harrison (small, like an amiable leprauchaun), Graham McDowell (shorter than I expected), Phil Mickelson, (an impressive and courteous figure) and finally, the man himself.

Alex Salmond is one of those rare people whose appearance is absolutely neutral.    That is to say neither positive nor negative values can be applied to his looks.   He is not handsome;  neither is he unattractive.   There is nothing about the look of him that would cause him to lodge in your memory.   His face was one you would never notice in the first place, and secondly would never recall.   Of his Machiavellian intelligence, his brilliant strategy, his long term planning, his well thought out plans, his knowledge, his intuitive understanding of people, his cunning – nothing at all showed on his face.

John asked for his autograph in order to stop him (he was too polite to assume that the crowd was interested in him, though in general it was him  they were following).  He asked where we were from.  We said, Sussex, and I added that I found myself all the time in a position where I had to defend his position.   Then he looked at us swiftly.   He did not appear to discount support as being of no value because it was not accompanied by a vote.   He knew that we were not interested in him as either a golfer or a celebrity, but as a politician.   He explained that he was having to attend meetings over the course of the golf weekend.  Were we there all weekend?   We assented (in fact we were going on to scatter my mother’s ashes but we were not going to burden him with so time-consuming a conversation.)    Then he looked forward to seeing us again on Sunday, he said, taking my hand and adding what a pleasure it had been to meet us.   Then he went on his way.

I thought, what hard work that must be.   He was playing tolerable golf;  he was exchanging with everyone who wished to exchange with him on whatever level they chose;  and he was keeping to the timetable.   He seemed able to judge exactly how to pitch each exchange.   He had as I said a bland, pleasant, unremarkable face but he had great charm.   He did not seem either arrogant or distant, but warm and accessible (although this must be in part an illusion.)   Although we are quite  sophisticated enough to understand that our cordial exchange is one he has with many people all the time, he never the less gave the impression that he would genuinely have liked to talk with us for longer and see us again.   Since this is unlikely, given the pressure on his time, one has to conclude that his mastery of a politician’s necessary skills is first class.

I recalled his dismissal of George the Sneerer on Question Time some years ago over the incident of Osbourne’s visit to some oligarch’s yacht in  the Meditteranean and the  ensuing bad publicity.   (I paraphrase.)   “If George”, he began with deceptive mildness, “wishes to be mistaken for a man of the people, he should not  be a guest on a Russian oligarch’s yacht, and in particular not at the same time as Peter Mandelson, who is a master of  the black art of politics vastly superior to himself.”   Salmond himself is evidently a master of all the  arts politic second to none.

It would be my guess that a man as clever as Salmond, who seems to have  a well thought out position on any question laid before him, must spend quite a lot of time actively thinking.   By this I do not mean meandering idly through the meadows of memory, but the hard work of considering and concluding about issues and problems.   This needs solitude, or at the very least, an absence of other demands on the intellect for a period.   For such a man, I would presume that these exchanges are undertaken by him as a necessary part of his job-  that he is not naturally extraverted.   Such skill, though apparently effortless, must cost him an expenditure of energy.

An interesting man, I thought, and all the more so because so much  about him is hidden.    Here’s a man who has gambled his entire career on one throw of the dice.    Yet, in my judgement, he, as an individual,  can afford to lose.   His personal resources would be sufficient to withstand the disappointment.

The question is, can Scotland afford to lose him?

Photograph courtesy of John Armstrong