Tuesday, 29 April 2014

By-Election Preview: 1 May 2014

Highland Council; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Eddie Hunter, who is moving away from the area.

Glenfinnan Viaduct
Welcome to the Highlands.  The Caol and Mallaig ward sprawls over almost 800 square miles, an area larger than several European countries, of mostly inhospitable mountains.  The ward's population is concentrated along the Atlantic seashore and in the glens along the lines of communication, notably the West Highland railway line.

To describe the population centres (such as they are), Caol is essentially a suburb of Fort William (which forms the centre of a separate ward) at the northern end of the sea inlet of Loch Linnhe.  The eastern half of the ward consists of the southern half of the Great Glen together with Glen Spean; the two valleys meet at Spean Bridge, which is the biggest village in the area.  To the west of Fort William, the ward runs along the northern shore of Loch Eil, up to Glenfinnan (whose viaduct will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Harry Potter films) and then down to the Atlantic coast and the village of Arisaig, home to the UK's most westerly railway station.  The railway terminates at the fishing port of Mallaig, from which there are regular ferries to Armadale on the Isle of Skye (which is not part of this ward), to the Small Isles of Rhum, Eigg, Canna and Muck, and to Knoydart; the last wilderness on the British mainland, Knoydart is accessible only by boat or by a 16-mile hike through some of the most rugged country in Great Britain.  Skye is a ward of its own, but the Small Isles and Knoydart are both covered by Caol and Mallaig ward.  Also in this ward is reliable quiz-question fodder Loch Morar, the UK's deepest inland lake.

The notice of poll shows that over half the ward's 7,087 electors live in Caol and the neighbouring village of Corpach.  The only other settlements with more than 500 electors are Spean Bridge (696) and Mallaig (673).  The Small Isles have a single polling station on Eigg catering for 133 electors (although if I recall correctly the residents of Canna, Rhum and Muck traditionally vote by post), while the ward's smallest polling station is at Inverie, the largest hamlet on Knoydart, with 75 electors.

This was the place where the 1745 Jacobite rebellion started, the Young Pretender landing on the mainland at Loch nan Uamh near Arisaig and raising his standard at Glenfinnan.  Even after the rising was put down the Highlands were essentially bandit country for many years (a young James Wolfe learned how to command a regiment here before finding lasting fame in the hour of his death at Quebec) and there are persistent rumours that the Jacobite treasure is buried somewhere in the vicinity of Loch Arkaig, an offshoot of the Great Glen.

In the modern day, the Highlands is the realm of the independent councillor.  When the modern ward was introduced (along with proportional representation) for the 2007 election 74% of its votes went to independent councillors Bill Clark, Allan Henderson and Eddie Hunter, all of whom were easily re-elected in 2012.  Ballot box counts are available for the 2012 election; they reveal that Hunter narrowly led in Caol (where he lived), Clark in the Corpach polling district (where he lives) and Henderson everywhere else, including the postal votes; Henderson polled 82% of the first preferences in the Mallaig, Small Isles and Knoydart boxes.  The 2012 results showed the strongest challenge to the independents coming from the SNP, who polled 15% (the five independent candidates polled 81% between them, with the remaining 4% shared between the Tories and the Christian Party).

Two independent candidates have come forward to succeed Hunter: they are Ben Thompson and Sandy Watson, both of whom are from the Caol area: Thompson owns a bicycle shop, while Watson is a former local business owner with a background in computing.  The SNP candidate is William Macdonald, who fought his home ward of Fort William and Ardnamurchan in 2012.  The Tories have given up on the ward, but a score of 1.6% last time out hasn't put off the Christian Party's Susan Wallace, who tries again.  Completing the ballot paper is the ward's first UKIP candidate, Liam Simmonds.

Westminster constituency: Ross, Skye and Lochaber (apart from some uninhabited areas)
Holyrood constituency: Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch
Holyrood electoral region: Highlands and Islands
ONS Travel to Work Area: Lochaber

William Macdonald (SNP)
Liam Simmonds (UKIP)
Ben Thompson (Ind)
Susan Wallace (Christian)
Sandy Watson

May 2012 first preferences Inds 905+710+506+71+60 SNP 411 C 66 Chr 45
May 2007 first preferences Inds 975+881+550+188+151+100+64 Lab 473 SNP 389 C 156