Marion Dunn, 56, tells Poppy Watson how she came across a book idea by accident… when she took up boxing in a bid to get fitter

When unfit, middle-aged lab technician Marion Dunn googled “cheap gyms in my area”, she had no idea she was about to become a boxer.

She recalled: “After a long period of work and study combined, I got really unfit in my late 40s. I wanted
to do something about it.”

That “something” turned out to be stumbling into a worn-down youth club doubling as a boxing gym near her home town. 

Glasgow-born Marion added: “I thought, ‘I’ll just give it a go, it’ll get me fit.’ And it did. I was made to feel incredibly welcome.

“At the time, I was the only woman but it didn’t matter at all. The guys were lovely, and encouraging right from the start.”

Marion, 56, signed up for three sessions of intense training per week.

Six exhausting weeks later, she had fallen in love with the sport.

Now, she is an author as well a boxer, and last week saw the publication of her first memoir – The Boxing
Diaries: How I Got Hooked.

A bit like Marion’s boxing endeavours, her book-writing career was also unintentional.

She said: “I kept a training diary to try and remember some of the more complicated boxing moves I had been taught. Then I started putting in little anecdotes from each day.

“After two or three years of doing this, I had 90,000 words. I thought, ‘Wow, perhaps I’ve got the making of a book here.’ The rest just went from there.”

However, the self-confessed “backroom lab nerd” is no stranger when it comes to putting up a fight.

Marion was born at 23 weeks when her mother unexpectedly went into labour while holidaying in Lochcarron in Wester Ross with her husband in June 1963.

The concerned parents were taken to Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary by ambulance, where Marion was born. Fortunately, the infirmary had special expertise in caring for pre-term babies, and she spent the first three months of her life in an incubator.

She said: “I’m lucky to be alive, and I thank Glasgow heartily for my survival. Not only did I survive but I had a very good quality of survival, which was rare at the time.” 

Marion’s mother was born and raised in the east end of Glasgow in the 20s, and her mother’s relatives still live in Scotland.

The enthusiastic boxer, who now lives in the Yorkshire Dales, considers Scotland her second home and declares a lifelong addiction to its mountainous countryside in the memoir’s chapter: “Saved by Scotland”.

She admits taking up a new sport wasn’t without its risks. Marion says a lot of hard graft was required to mitigate against the effects of boxing.

She said: “I think of myself like an old car. One bit breaks down and I have to tinker a bit with it to get it right, then it’s something else.”

After a serious back muscle injury, caused by overusing her favourite move – the jab – Marion was forced to quit boxing for almost 6 months.

She took refuge for a while in the south of Scotland, near Moffat, where views such as the hanging valley waterfall the Grey Mare’s Tail helped take her mind off her injury.

She visited a physiotherapist who specialises in boxing forced to quit boxing for injuries and did two hours of yoga a week, and was soon reunited with her boxing gloves.

However, the aches and pains didn’t put her off. In fact, as Marion nears retirement, she is thinking about becoming a boxing coach for the older generation.

She said: “I’m not giving up boxing anytime soon.”

It seems she is hooked, for the foreseeable future.

● The Boxing Diaries: How I Got Hooked, by Marion Dunn. Published by Saraband, £9.99. Marion Dunn is appearing at Aye Write on March 15. Go to http://www.ayewrite.com for details.

Published in the Daily Record January 2020.

Police said I was to blame for rape

Rape victim on how her ordeal continued when reporting the attack to cops. Here, she tells Poppy Watson her story

WHEN Willow* was raped by her estranged husband, she reported it to the police, believing they would help and protect her.

It never occurred to her that the outdated attitudes of police officers on her case would prove to be as traumatic as the horrific attack itself.

Now one of Scotland’s most senior judges, Lady Dorrian, has proposed a shake up of the justice system that would help women like Willow.

Her proposals, including setting up specialist sex crime courts and allowing the use of pre-recorded evidence, have been welcomed by Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid.

But the proposals are too late for Willow. Two-and-a-half years after her ordeal, she asks: “Why did I even bother?”

It was a Saturday night in 2018 and Willow, now 29, remembers curling upon the sofa with her kids to watch the X Factor. Her husband – who she had left after 12 years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse – was there too. Despite her resistance, he had insisted on coming in after dropping their four children off earlier.

At some point she dozed off. When she woke up, her husband was raping her. Willow called her best friend in floods of tears. It was this friend who accompanied her to the police station in Lanarkshire the next morning to report the rape and undergo a forensic medical examination.

This would be Willow’s first encounter with harmful rape myths that can make reporting an attack as bad as the assault itself.

A recent survey shows that these are on the way out but too many survivors are still suffering because of them.

One police officer asked Willow: “Are you sure you’re telling the truth?”

They claimed that text messages between Willow and her now ex-husband didn’t correspond with her story. The morning after the attack, she talked with him as normal because he was coming over to collect the kids.

“They didn’t realise how dangerous this man is. He had my kids. I couldn’t act any differently because then potentially I was putting them in danger,” she said.

Willow, who has suffered from PTSD and psychological trauma since she was sexually abused as a child, had a complete breakdown and self-harmed in front of the police officers.

But this only strengthened their belief she was a liar.

They went on to suggest she couldn’t remember giving consent because of her mental health problems.

This is a common misconception. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2019 found that eight per cent of Scots agreed “women often lie about rape”, down from 23 per cent in 2014.

Though a step in the right direction, these findings highlight that damaging attitudes towards violence against women still exist. The police investigation continued. Willow’s husband was arrested on suspicion of rape, her phone and clothes were taken away as evidence, and her home become an active crime scene. She and the children moved in with a friend.

Days later, the senior police officer on Willow’s case told her the investigation would go nowhere without a video recording of the attack or witnesses.

Then he uttered the words that Willow still remembers so clearly: “At the end of the day, you put yourself in the position to be raped.”

She said: “Nobody sets out to get raped or sexually assaulted or abused.”

But many consider this to be the case. The Social Attitudes Survey showed that three in 10 Scots believed a woman was “at least partly to blame” for being raped if she was wearing revealing clothing or very drunk. This is compared to four in 10 in 2014.

Six months after Willow was raped, she got a one-line email to say the case had been dropped due to lack of evidence. Her mental health plummeted and social care stepped in to ensure her well-being.

But once again, Willow was accused of fabricating her story.

Willow’s experience has left her determined to campaign for justice and prevent other survivors suffering because of misconceptions around sexual violence.

She is a member of the Survivor Reference Group (SRG) – a Rape Crisis Scotland initiative that brings together rape survivors from across the country who have been let down by the justice system.

By sharing their experiences, they help shape and inform government policies alongside campaign groups such as Zero Tolerance.

Their spokeswoman said: “In recent years we’ve seen the rise of international movements such as #MeToo and more edutainment covering this issue on popular streaming platforms.

“We have also witnessed a number of high-profile rape trials which were widely covered in the media, all of which could have contributed to how people attribute blame for sexual violence.

“There is a lot more to be done for people to understand how this violence is caused by women’s inequality as well as its harmful impact both on women and on society as a whole.”

In the meantime, groups like Rape Crisis Scotland have been a lifeline for Willow.

She said: “That’s the only place I can honestly say that I went and shared my story and felt believed.”

If you have been raped or sexually assaulted and need support, please call the Rape Crisis Scotland helpline, open between 6pm and midnight every day, on 08088 01 03 02.

Sarah’s Story

SARAH* was raped aged 19 at university by an acquaintance.

When she was finally ready to tell her flatmates about it several months later, she was accused of lying.

Sarah said: “I remember one of them saying, ‘No you weren’t, stop lying.’ I froze. It was around that fortnight I tried to commit suicide for the first time.”

Juniper’s Story

JUNIPER* was raped at a house party two years ago. She was left suicidal when her family and friends blamed her for what had happened.

The 24-year-old recalled: “Someone close to me said this clearly wouldn’t have happened if I’d limited my drinks, as if it was my punishment for being drunk. This destroyed my recovery.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Is social media behind the rise in UK vegans?

It is 8pm on a Thursday evening and I am in Stereo; a fairy-light-draped bar and café nestled up a grimy brick lane in the heart of Glasgow. Sitting opposite me is Craig, a member of my University’s Vegan Society who insisted Stereo was the first vegan restaurant I try (and he strongly recommends the quesadillas).

Stereo is just one of Glasgow’s many vegan joints, and business here has shot up in the last couple of years. It’s not difficult to see why. A recent survey has found the number of those opting for a plant-based diet in the UK has increased by 360% in the last decade, jumping from 150,000 to 542,000.

So what has so many Brits ditching the meat and reaching for veggies?

From research, there are a number of likely explanations. The leading causes appear to be an increase in access to information online and of course, the mighty influence of social media.

The animal agriculture business is being exposed in new investigative documentaries, such as ‘What the Health’ and ‘Cowspiracy’ available on Netflix, and as a result, people are more aware of the environmental benefits of not consuming animal products. 

Another key contributor to the rise in vegans in the UK over the past 10 years is the promotion of health benefits that come with the diet. Whilst items such as cigarettes have had clear health warnings attached for years, certain animal products have only recently been highlighted as dangerous foods.

A recent study shows that those under the age of 65 eating a diet high in meat, eggs and dairy increase their chances fourfold of developing cancer, diabetes and obesity. It seems an increasing number of Brits are therefore looking for healthier food alternatives – which often happen to be plant-based.

The role of the internet in the upward trend of veganism cannot be overlooked. Not only has social media acted as a platform for vegan advocates promoting the personal health and environmental benefits of following a plant-based diet, it has also helped entirely transform the vegan stereotype. 

The stylish, health and environment conscious Instagram vegan of 2019 is a far cry from the dreadlocked hippy carrying a ‘meat is murder’ sign brought to mind a decade ago

Kathryn Veroni, owner of newly opened vegan cafe, Kind Crusts, believes social media has been vital in transforming the vegan movement.

“It means more people are provided the information and knowledge to enable them to become vegan, or at least choose to consume less animal products. Without a platform like social media, veganism would not be as wide-spread as it currently is.”

Perhaps this could help explain why 42 per cent of those who identified as vegan in recent surveys were between the ages of 14–34, compared to just 14 per cent who were over the age of 65. Social media is more widely used among young people, after all. 

So could it be that veganism is no longer viewed as an alien concept because our nation has more access to information than ever before? This certainly rings true with many young adults who have chosen to adopt the vegan lifestyle.

Zoe, 20, has been vegan for two years. She explains how information online influenced her: “I changed my eating habits after watching a documentary on Netflix which highlighted how damaging animal products were to the environment.”

21-year-old student Craig also discovered the vegan lifestyle online. He cut animal products from his diet after watching a series of videos on YouTube that highlighted the health benefits of veganism. “It all just made perfect sense to me.” 

He also finds social media extremely helpful for those moments when he lacks imagination in the kitchen: “Online recipes and videos show there are loads of fun and tasty things you can eat as a vegan — I’ve never eaten such a large variety of food before.”

Business at existing vegan restaurants has grown considerably in recent years. According to Chris Amos, there has been a notable increase in vegan business in the city. “The growing popularity of vegan food is clear not just in the traditionally known vegan joints in Glasgow, but even with non-vegan restaurants introducing more vegan options.”

This points towards a clear increase in demand.

More chain restaurants are opening their doors to vegans with a range of animal-free options to choose from. From the traditional pub chain Wetherspoons to the popular Italian restaurant chain Zizzi’s, both of which have recently launched entirely vegan menus. So, why are food and beverage businesses suddenly catering to the one per cent of UK citizens that are vegan?

I asked Umer Malik, owner of coffee shop chain, iCafe, why they are among the many businesses that now offer a wide range of plant-based options on their predominantly non-vegan menu. Malik explained he decided to provide vegan options after noticing it was a trend on social media and in the food and beverage industry. “Most companies will see what the new ‘in’ thing is and go with it.”

The re-invented perception of veganism in recent years also has a lot to do with vegan restaurant owners like David Disbrowe, who runs the 13th Note in Glasgow. 

“From what I have seen, the most successful establishments don’t shout from the rooftop that they are vegan. Many customers are in fact surprised when they realise the menus are free of animal products.” 
This approach has appeared to normalise the concept of a meatless meal.

Back to dinner at Stereo: after much deliberation, I have opted for the hearty chickpea burger with chunky chips, and already posted a picture of it on my Snapchat story. Craig is enjoying his quesadillas, though somewhat guiltily.“I should really try something different next time.”

Hamish Milne spills the tee on club captaincy

Hamish Milne (left) with new club captain Tom Spiers

So far, 2020 has been a year for change.

In just two months we’ve seen the UK exit the EU, Harry and Meghan leave the royal family, and Hamish Milne step down as club captain at Muir of Ord Golf Club.

I meet Hamish in the clubhouse to chat about his two years in the role. It’s a Friday afternoon and several dozen golfers are rounding off the Senior Gent’s competition with a pint of orange-and-lemonade and a bacon roll, including Hamish himself.

It’s nice to see it so busy, particularly as the former inspector soon reveals it hasn’t been easy keeping it that way. 

“I think really the biggest challenge, and it is one facing every golf club, is trying to retain memberships and attract new members. Virtually every golf club in the country is losing membership, for a variety of reasons. It’s not as popular a sport as it once was. 

“Young folks aren’t getting involved so much as they used to… It’s difficult because there are so many things attracting them nowadays – X boxes, computers games and such like.”

Hamish, who stays in Inverness, has been doing all he can to encourage young players into the sport. He was the driving force behind ‘taster sessions’ at six local Primary Schools in April and May last year, which saw 294 pupils try the sport for the first time.   

“Taster sessions are an excellent gateway into golf – once they get a taste for it a lot of them stick to it. Many junior members have progressed on to become champions.”

Club manager John Forbes is an example. 

“It’s just a case of trying to keep them – as they get older, many can end up leaving for further education or a career elsewhere.”

I ask him what advice he has for those considering taking up the sport. 

“Just accept that everybody has to start somewhere, even the likes of Tiger Woods had to start somewhere… Muir of Ord is one of the friendliest clubs I’ve ever known, folk are always assured of a warm welcome.”

Indeed, it’s hard not to feel immediately at home in the cosy clubhouse, (perhaps in-part due to the new heaters installed last year).

So, what’s next for the former club captain?

“It’s a downward spiral from here,” he jokes.

In fact, Hamish remains involved in an effort to encourage more visitors to golf clubs in the Highlands as a board member of Golf Highland and founder of the James Braid Highland Golf Trail. 

But chairing monthly council meetings at Muir of Ord Golf Club will be one less thing on his to-do list as this task now falls to his successor, Tom Speirs. 

Tom, a retired deputy rector of Charleston Academy, joined the golf club in 2002.

“The main advice I would pass on to Tom would be – we as captain don’t have all the good ideas, so you’re always best listening to the membership.” 

Published in Spring 2020 edition of Muir Matters

Stranger’s gifts started months of stalker hell

Credit: Unsplash

When a random man presented Ella with a bag at a bus stop, her life degenerated into a nightmare.

WHEN Ella* was handed a bag of gifts from a stranger at her bus stop last winter, the 23-year-old’s life took a dark turn.

It was 7:20am on a Tuesday in her small Highland town. Ella had just left her house for work and walked ten minutes to the bus stop as usual. No one else was around. 

Only one thing was different – a white BMW sat in the junction opposite the bus stop and the driver was watching her. 
Ella then noticed a black Mercedes appear at the end of the street. As it passed the bus stop, the driver flashed his lights.  

On cue, the BMW pulled out of the junction and parked in front of Ella. 

She said: “I thought I was about to get abducted.” 

A hoodie-wearing stranger got out of the car and handed her a gift bag.

“He just said ‘this is for you’. Then he left.”

Ella didn’t look in the bag until she arrived at work in Inverness. 

Inside were woolly gloves, perfume, plastic flowers, chewing gum, chocolates, and a letter. 

It said: ‘I love you even if you don’t love me back (love at first sight).”

She was initially resistant to calling police as she didn’t think they would take it seriously.

Instead, she got her bus at a different stop where there were more people around. 

A month or two later, Ella returned to her usual bus stop.

Days later, a letter and flowers were left taped to the bus shelter. 

The stalker wrote: ‘I know I said this before and I will say it again, you’re the only one for me.’

Ella said: “That was when I knew he was obviously still looking out for me. I called the police from work and they asked me to come in for an interview.”

Advised to change her routine, she worked from home, a virtual prisoner in her own house.

She locked the doors and closed the windows and wouldn’t walk anywhere by herself.

She said: “I hated being unable to do things I would normally do.”

Ella’s house was put on the high alert list by the police, who took fingerprints from the letter and checked out CCTV in shops where it was believed the gifts has been bought, but the investigation hit a dead end. 

Ella returned to the office weeks later. Her mum drove her to the train station each morning.

When her parents were away one day, the house phone was plagued with calls from a withheld number.

Ella said: “It was a man saying things like, ‘I know where to find you.’ Threatening messages.”

She said a police inspector failed to take the call seriously and said he couldn’t do much.

Feeling unsafe, Ella ended up staying at her gran’s house.

Co-director of Zero Tolerance Laura Tomlinson said: “Stalking is a terrifying crime that is a form of violence against women.  

“Four of five victims of stalking are women and they find it hard to report it because they are scared they won’t be believed, or they’ll be told it is not a big deal, or that they will be blamed for what happened to them.  

“We have to take it seriously when women report it.”

*Name has been changed.

·      If you are concerned you are being stalked, call The National Stalking Helpline on: 0808 802 0300


SNP MSP Rona Mackay argues current legislation does not do enough to protect victims of stalking. 
A study by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust found just 12.7 per cent of recorded stalking cases reached conviction in 2015-2016.

Mackay wants Stalking Protection Orders to protect victims during criminal proceedings.  She said: “This would allow the police to apply for an order, rather than the victim having to apply for one through the civil court, which is expensive and stressful.”

However, her Bill has been paused while the new Domestic Abuse Act is assessed.

The Scottish Government has increased funding for services to protect women and girls from gender-based violence with the launch of a £13 million fund to help supportive organisations. 

Covid-19: Are Highlanders afraid?

Beauly Firth

CORONAVIRUS has now infected 164 people in the UK and 11 in Scotland, but is yet to spread further north than Tayside.

Since the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, three months ago, over 100,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with the infection.

So how are Highlanders feeling about the prospect of a pandemic? Well, it’s a mixed bag, but many feel there is little cause for concern.

It’s wet, windy and wild in Beauly, but calm and cosy inside Café Biagiotti, where David Calder, 71, sits by the fire with a flat white.

He says: “We should maybe be slightly concerned, but not scared. We live in one of the least-populated areas in the country, so I feel quite lucky in that sense. I’d be more worried if I lived in London and had to get around on the underground with hundreds of others.”

Cameron Mackay, 22, is home from Dundee University for the weekend. He is confident coronavirus does not pose a threat.

He says: “I’m young, so the chances of me dying are slim. I have faith in the government to handle the situation before it becomes anything like an epidemic in the UK.”

His mother Karen Mackay, 59, is equally unconcerned.

She says: “I’m not scared, although if I had an underlying health problem, I may feel differently. I think it’s important to just keep it all in perspective – the everyday flu kills thousands of people in the UK every year.”

Not all Highlanders are so nonchalant about the prospect of a coronavirus pandemic though, including Dougie Watson, a 58-year-old professional bagpiper.

He says: “My wife and I just cancelled a four-week holiday to Thailand. We’ve been looking forward to it for months but decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

“Although we are healthy and it would probably be fine, the idea of bringing it home and potentially passing it on to our elderly parents stopped us.”

Joan Munro, 73, who runs a local jogging group, is also wary.

She says: “I’m anxious as my husband Alan and I are in our mid-seventies, so we fall into a vulnerable group. Alan also suffers from asthma. I would think a major outbreak in Scotland is now inevitable.”

Kelsey Macdonald, a 23-year-old graphic designer, is on edge too.

She says: “It’s not something I lose sleep over, but I am quite concerned about the possibility of any of my loved ones catching it. With the incubation period, so many people can spread it without knowing.”

For now; cafes are crowded, classrooms are full, and train carriages are packed.

It is clear the climate of fear and isolation in China and parts of Europe is not present in the drizzly Scottish Highlands.

Originally published in February 2020

European step for young Mackenzie

A local youngster will play in the U.S. Kids Golf European Championship in East Lothian this May. 

Scott Mackenzie, 13, was invited to compete in the tournament after reaching the Grand Final of the Wee Wonders British Championships last year.

A junior member at Muir of Ord Golf Club – where he hit a hole-in-one at the fifth hole last week – he has been golfing for nine years and playing in competitions for three.

He said: “I first picked up a golf club when I was four years old – I learned from my dad, that’s how it all started.”

The premier European golf competition will see 650 of the world’s best young golfers aged between 5-18 travel to Scotland.

It will last for three days from 26 May, and those who reach the Final will go on to compete in the U.S. Kids World Tournament.

Golf is more than just a hobby for Scott, who would like to be a professional golfer one day. 

He said: “It’s fun. It’s addictive. It’s great exercise, and it gets you out and about. I’ve travelled all over the Highlands.”

His mum Tonia said: “He has played on courses his father will never have the chance to play on – Carnoustie, Gleneagles, Gullane, North District, Brora… The diary is full up from Easter to October this year too.”

Father Andy will be by Scott’s side during the tournament. 

He said: “Parents are allowed for the first time to help out, so I will be carrying his golf clubs for him. It will be nice to help the kids relax.”

Muir of Ord Golf Club manager John Forbes said: “It is great to hear that Scott is involved in the U.S. Kids European Championships in May and will be representing Muir of Ord Golf Club.  Scott’s enthusiasm and passion for golf at such a young age is great to see.  We wish him all the best in the competition.”

Scott and his family are on tenterhooks as the spread of coronavirus gradually cancels sporting events around the world. But as the Ross-Shire Journal went to print, it was still set to go ahead.

Published in the Ross-Shire Journal March 2020 

Alan Fraser reflects on the end of an era

The Muir of Ord Gala has been a renowned annual event in Muir of Ord for decades. If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’ve either visited it, performed at it, or helped run it at some point. 

That’s why, after its five-year-absence, locals were delighted to see Garry Clark orchestrate a Gala comeback in 2011. Though a great success, he wasn’t in the position to organise it again the following year.

Enter: Alan Fraser. 

“It became apparent there was still a real thirst for the Gala in the village,” he says. As secretary of the Muir of Ord Community Association at the time, the born and bred local decided to step in.

For eight years, Alan has led the Gala group and seen the summer fete expand, modernise and become a sell-out success. But 2020 will mark the end of an era for Alan as he has recently moved to Rosemarkie and decided to let go of the reigns.

I catch up with the 39-year-old LifeScan employee to discuss the highs and lows of his voluntary work in Muir of Ord over the years.

“The highlight for me every year is the float parade. Getting the floats organised to leave on time is quite stressful but when the parade starts and the pipe band march round the corner at the police station I still get the same buzz that I got when I was a kid watching the floats.

“The High Street is always heaving with people and each year the crowd gets bigger. The months of work put in by those on the floats is incredible and it’s great to see everyone really enjoying them.

“One evening an elderly lady grabbed my arm and said that I was bringing it back to what it used to be. That’s when I knew we were doing something great here.”

Jim and Maureen Thompson, who moved to the village in 1974, have been involved in the galas for almost 50 years.

“We would never miss it,” says Jim, who played in ‘The pipes and drams of Muir of Ord’ pipe band, who marched in the Gala parade many moons ago.

“Alan, quite rightly, has changed it. He inherited the Gala and he reinvented it. And the work he has done is remarkable.”

Maureen, who used to work with Alan on the Muir Matters committee, adds: “When Alan took over it was important to him that he catered to each age group, which is why we still enjoy it.”

The couple speak fondly of the Gala Tea Dance, an event Alan introduced in which tea and cakes are served to “all us oldies” in the village hall. It is reminiscent of the WRI ladies’ baked goods served at the Galas in the 70s they still remember so well.

Organising the week-long affair isn’t without its challenges though. Alan remembers one occasion particularly well.

“In 2018 we had another sold out gala dance lined up. 30 minutes before the event was due to begin I found out our door stewards weren’t coming. It’s a license stipulation that you must have licensed door stewards, so I had to think on my feet. A few of us put our heads together and started making phone calls.

“Eventually I was lucky enough to get hold of a friend’s brother-in-law who manages a company that provide door stewards. Within 30 minutes we had licensed stewards! Up until this point we were about 15 minutes from having to cancel the whole event! The crowd didn’t know a thing, and everything went as planned after that.”

Brian Thom, who was chairman of The Community Association for six years and assisted Alan with the organisation of the Gala, explains how the main objective for Alan was always giving back to the community.

“Alan was very interested in the community and interested in everyone in it. He is trusted and respected, which is why there were so many volunteers willing to help.”

He adds: “The question now is: who is going to take on such a role? They have big shoes to fill.”

Though it’s difficult for him to walk away, Alan believes it’s the right time.

“I think it’s good I’m stepping back for now and letting fresh faces take over. There will no doubt be some interesting changes made.

“Muir of Ord has an amazing community spirit, and it is this that makes the Gala such a great success!”

For now, Alan is busy renovating his new home in Rosemarkie with partner Barry and enjoying walks along the beach with his golden retriever Brooke. It’s safe to say he’s earned the break.

No doubt he is looking forward to attending the Muir of Ord Gala next summer, for the first time in a long time, off-duty. Just don’t be surprised if you see him sticking around at the end, with a bin bag in hand…

Published in Muir Matters in December 2019.

Violence against women in politics

Credit: Unsplash

Earlier this month, along with millions of others, I ditched sleep in favour of the CNN news channel and watched as the US presidential election results poured in. Witnessing Biden’s win was well-worth the sleep deprivation, as was seeing the election of not only America’s first woman, but first woman of colour, vice president-elect Kamala Harris. Her victory is a triumph for women, but it begs the question – what took so long?

Harris’ election serves to remind us how far women have come in politics in the last century, and yet how far we still have to go before equal representation is reached in parliaments worldwide. Currently, just 21 women sit as the head of state or government in 193 countries, while as of February 2019, only 24.3% of all national parliamentarians were women. In Scotland, there is an illusion of more parity. We have a woman First Minister, and her government is gender equal. But the national statistics tell another story. Women, despite making up 52% of the Scottish population, account for just 36.4% of MSPs and 29.1% of local councillors. Until these figures are representative, the people in power cannot make decisions that reflect society.

There are a number of reasons why women are less likely than men to stand for election. To name a few; they must overcome gender stereotypes, tend to have more childcare responsibilities, and are more likely to experience under-confidence in their abilities than men. But a major impediment standing between women and a career in politics is the sheer amount of abuse female parliamentarians face for doing nothing other than their jobs. Abuse in public, parliament, and most prevalently of all, online.

Forms of violence against women in politics (VAWIP) are highly gendered in their motives, forms, and impacts. Such violence can target women specifically because of their gender, demonstrated by sexist threats and sexual violence. It can also aim to uphold gender norms and be motivated by a wish to discourage women from being or becoming active in politics. The United Nations Office of the High Commission on Human Rights asserts that violence against women in politics “consists of any act of gender-based violence, or threat of such acts, that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering and is directed against a woman in politics because she is a woman, or affects women disproportionately.”

The most predominant form of VAWIP is psychological, which encompasses everything from online harassment to verbal comments or gestures that cause psychological harm or suffering. The Inter-Parliamentary Union collected data from women politicians around the world and found psychological abuse affected 81.8% of the respondents. Among the types of psychological violence, 44.4% said they had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction. VAWP is a breach of human rights, and the impact can be devastating both personally and professionally. The cause is clear: gender inequality.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s research also shows that social media is the number one place in which psychological violence is committed against women in politics. For instance, research from the UK, USA, Chile and South Africa suggests that leading female politicians are over 300% more likely to experience derogatory comments related to their gender on Twitter compared to their male equivalents.

However, it’s important that any analysis of VAWP should consider factors other than gender. Research carried out by Amnesty International for their Toxic Twitter report took an intersectional approach and found, for example, that an individual’s religion or race can have a significant impact on how they are treated online. In particular, women from ethnic or religious minorities, lesbian, bisexual or transgender women and women with disabilities receive a disproportionate amount of abuse on Twitter.

For instance, Diane Abbot, the first black female MP in the UK, has experienced a staggering amount of racist and sexist online violence. She was the target of almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets to women MPs in the six weeks leading up to the snap general election in 2017. Speaking to Amnesty International, Abbot said: “[The online abuse I get] is highly racialized and it’s also gendered because people talk about rape and they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man. I get a double whammy. I‘m abused as a female politician and I’m abused as a black politician.”

And Scottish MP Mhari Black, an openly lesbian woman, has received great amounts of homophobic and misogynistic violence online. Speaking at a Westminster Hall debate about the need to class misogyny as a hate crime, she said: “I struggle to see any joke in being systematically called a dyke, a rug muncher, a slut, a whore, a scruffy bint… I’ve been assured multiple times that I don’t have to worry because I am so ugly that no one would want to rape me. All of these insults have been tailored to me because I am a woman.”

Why should any person, regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation, be expected to put up with this because they work in the public domain? And what message does this send to women who are considering a career in politics? That’s exactly what many who work in politics are concerned about, including Kezia Dugdale, former Scottish Labour leader. Dugdale, who is now a director at the John Smith Centre – an organisation working to improve representation in politics – believes online abuse is the “single biggest turn off” for qualified women contemplating running for office. She would know, having experienced death threats on social media during her six-year tenure as an elected politician. Research in Australia found 60% of women aged 18 – 21 and 80% of women over 31 said they were less likely to stand for election after seeing how badly former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was treated in the press.

For some women who work in politics, the violence can be relentless and accumulative in nature, having an extreme psychological impact over time. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s study, it can limit their free speech, hamper their ability to fulfil their mandates, and even prevent them from running for additional terms. Ultimately, every time a woman politician’s ability to do her job is hindered by online abuse, so is the entire representative basis of democracy.

So, why can’t politicians just delete their social media and ignore the abuse? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For many, online platforms are important tools that allow them to communicate and listen to their constituents. Besides, women want to be on social media. When they aren’t being abused, it is a great way to exchange information and engage with others.

To help end online abuse of women politicians, we must acknowledge the issue and bring it to light. Social media companies should actually enforce their user guidelines and improve their reporting systems to ensure victims of violence are not ignored. They must also be more transparent about the number of reports of violence against women they deal with, and how they deal with them. If women politicians don’t trust that platforms like Twitter will take care of their complaints effectively, why would they bother reporting the abuse at all? Many don’t. There’s also no doubt that legislation designed to penalise cyber violence against women is necessary. It is not currently covered by a specific law in the UK.

Ultimately, to end all forms of violence against women in politics we must end gender inequality. It’s proving to be a long and slow journey, but the election of vice president-elect Kamala Harris indicates we’re on the right path.

Published on http://www.zerotolerance.org.uk – 01/12/20

New group gives pupils a voice during pandemic

A student-run council has been set up at Dingwall Academy to ensure young people have their say amid Covid chaos.

The group, Pupil Voice, has been designed to give students a platform to raise their views where coronavirus is concerned.

Dingwall Academy’s Head Girl, Kirsty Arnaud, runs Pupil Voice with the Head Boy and school captains.

The 17-year-old said: “We need to hear from the pupils this year more than ever. Our priority is pupil wellbeing and ensuring the kids feel positive about coming to school and they don’t feel anxious and they know that there is support. School should be a safe and comfortable place to learn.”

Pupil Voice brings together almost 20 students from S1 to S5 at regular meetings to discuss student concerns and brainstorm ideas in response to coronavirus restrictions.

There is a support system of teachers who then help implement the group’s suggestions.

Kirsty said: “Obviously we can’t have big events this year like our Social, we can’t do fundraising events or bake sales… so we’re like, how do we ensure fun is still in the school curriculum?”

In lieu of discos and bake sales the group have introduced a monthly Dress-down Day, which also aims to raise money for charity and increase awareness of their new Wellbeing Buddy system.

The Wellbeing Buddy system matches each class from S1-S3 with a prefect who they can then contact if something is worrying them that they would rather not discuss with a teacher.

As well as Pupil Voice’s efforts to improve the mental health of students, they want to make sure everyone is aware of the coronavirus regulations and what is expected of them.

A concern they often hear from pupils is a fear of “people who are not following the guidelines.”

The group is currently working on an information board to help students better understand how to protect themselves and others.

Pupils must follow a one-way system, wear face masks between classes and sanitize their desks and chairs with disinfectant before each lesson.

Head teacher Mrs Karen Cormack said: “The Pupil Voice was set up to give an opportunity for pupils to have their views and opinions heard.  

“Given the current crisis, this is more important than ever as we need to make sure pupils feel safe and supported in school.”

Published in the 2020 winter edition of Muir Matters