SO how was the Lights On rally and torchlight procession?

Well, the wee river of light circling down the side of Arthur’s Seat in the dark was an amazing sight to behold. Especially since high winds made lighting those torches far trickier than anyone expected.

Aye, never mind that – how many folk were there?

The presence of Lorna Slater as a speaker – Scottish Greens co-convenor and Minister for the Circular Economy – meant a contingent of Greens with banners were prominent in the crowd. And Alyn Smith drew an SNP crowd (and most of the headlines with his “no way to polish the Brexit jobby” remark).

But some of the most memorable, emotional speeches came from Europeans living here, like French citizen and National columnist Assa Samaké-Roman, Portuguese-born Edinburgh councillor Martha Mattos Coelho and the heroes of the night, Europe for Scotland founders, Italian-born Andrea Pisauro and German-born Janina Jetter who headed north from Oxford after three cancelled trains and a redirection via Glasgow.

Nina’s heartfelt talk of Scotland being an inspiration to progressives in England and across Europe prompted a massive roar from the crowd.

Aye, but how many folk turned up?

I’ll be honest – there was no-one there at 5pm when I arrived at the Scottish Parliament except the resolute and exceptional stage team led by Bruno Celini. But smack on 6pm, the torchlit procession arrived and suddenly the arena was full of banners, fairylight-strewn posters, Saltires, Green banners and EU flags.

Aye, but how many people were there?

Three hundred. Yip, just 300. But it was still a success.


Because the rally was covered by 11 newspapers excluding this paper – including titles in England and the USA; two broadcasters had coverage and via IndyLive the rally was live-streamed to 40+ Facebook pages, YouTube, Twitter, Twitch, TikTok and Instagram accounts.

That doesn’t change the world, it doesn’t reverse Brexit but it did get Scotland’s unique Brexit experience discussed, did give more experience to the team of activists who also organised the Supreme Court Verdict Day rally and – given the atrocious weather conditions – did give the beat bobbies something to talk about.

As Orkney Ferries were completely cancelled for the evening, they were astonished that anyone cared enough to turn up. And that’s a result.

Because the size of a protest is no guarantee of visibility or news coverage. If the rally or procession was 10 times larger or a hundred times larger would that have gained grudging respect from Unionists, generated more TV headlines, produced more column inches?

I hae ma doots.

READ MORE: Stephen Flynn: UK anti-strike bill a 'blatant attack' on Scottish devolution

Sure, the good old days with 200,000 people in Glasgow walking peacefully (and dancing joyously in the rain) were remarkable – but also often ignored by the media for political and logistical reasons – papers, TV stations and radio channels aren’t fully staffed at weekends because there are far fewer news bulletins.

That’s why Time For Scotland is trying a different tack – picking dates that are already significant to the news media and making sure the Yes movement is visible and impactful, even in small numbers.

Of course, it was disconcerting to read Unionist mockery later on social media – deriding the relatively small numbers. But that’s a sure sign that the persistent activism of the Yes movement is a massive, latent strength and a rattled opposition knows it.

As Mahatma Gandhi apparently said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

So, laugh away – it’s a real backhanded compliment – because activism is all that ever changes lives.

It pushes politicians. It challenges ideas about apathy. It demonstrates commitment and develops capacity. And camaraderie. After decades working in a fully-funded BBC, I was speechless with admiration on Tuesday night for the professionalism of Time for Scotland volunteers who pieced a complicated event together – liaising with multiple authorities, and generating faster responses than teams of paid staff could process.

They organised the awkward things – like 200 torches lit safely and successfully halfway up a mountain amidst a yellow alert for wind warning. They organising last minute things – like temporary arc lights illuminating the field area to which we were shifted because last time – despite great stewarding – some folk tripped into the ponds.

And they remembered wee things – like mugs produced by Yes businessman Stewart Wright as prizes in our daft but highly enjoyable competition for the best lit banner.

And there was coordination – without a clipboard, paid producer, or hierarchy of “command” anywhere in sight.

Almost the whole team was working without the cash of a political party – thank God yet again for the Scottish Independence Foundation – or the formal training and journalistic surround of working in a newsroom.

To suggest that this growing confidence and competence means nothing without 300,000 people on the streets is to misunderstand how change actually happens. Methinks.

Some of the most shared images from the Supreme Court Verdict Day solidarity rallies organised in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Munich and Dublin had just five folk, along with three Saltires and the most perfect symbolic positioning in front of the Coliseum and Brandenburg Gate.

READ MORE: Michelle Mone's yacht 'renamed pandemic profiteer' in protest

And one – a beautiful image sent in from Finland – had no people at all. Just a pearly illuminated Saltire, flanked by the blue and white of the Finnish flag against the backdrop of a lake at dusk. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then maybe small but perfectly formed gatherings punch well above their weight too.

Of course, the Yes movement does long for the kind of street muscle that brought two million people together, holding hands along the 230kms between the capital cities of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in 1989.

The Baltic Chain remains one of the most moving, powerful and ultimately successful examples of non-violent protest in European history.

But Scots aren’t living under Russian occupation and besides, the Baltic Chain was partly so successful because it marked a pivotal anniversary – the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, when eastern Europe was essentially given to Russia.

That history-changing demonstration was the culmination of long years of smaller effort – including the cultural reaffirmation that came from a nationwide network of small choirs keeping language and customs alive.

READ MORE: Right-wing agitator Andy Ngo intervenes in Scotland's gender debate

So yes, it is maddening that some of the biggest dates in the Scottish calendar happen in the darkest, coldest months which are least conducive to street action. But unfortunately them’s the breaks.

Brexit happened on January 31, 2020 – and so, on that very day, there will always be a heightened media and public interest in all things Brexit-related.

The EU as a subject doesn’t set every Yes heart racing – so there was a small turnout. But it was all we needed.

And on a day when millions of working people were on the streets to safeguard their livelihoods – not bad. But since activism has now become totally normal in Broken Britain – there is a consequence. The independence movement must get active or become invisible.

That doesn’t necessarily mean 100,000 people at marches. It does means getting organised, connected, visible and impactful.

Is that really so difficult?