A story you will not have heard unless you read the Oban Times or are one of the 146 people who live on the island of Lismore, gives a profound insight into the abuse of state power in Scotland today.
You may recall that back in April 2020 Dr Catherine Calderwood, the Scottish government’s chief medical advisor, was forced to resign after breaking lockdown regulations on a family visit to St Andrews. One week later, it hit the newspapers that, in conflict with Scottish government advice, another key Scottish government figure in dealing with the epidemic, Prof Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, had moved to his holiday home on the island of Lismore. Woolhouse is Professor of Epidemiology and a member of Nicola Sturgeon’s covid-19 advisory committee.
The Daily Record reported that people on Lismore were not happy:
One islander, who didn’t want to be named, said: “It’s just another example of hypocrisy.
“Locals in Lismore are far from happy because coronavirus refugees put the community in danger.
“There’s not even a doctor or nurse on the island.
“Just as Professor Woolhouse came here, various politicians were telling people to stay away from the Highlands and Islands.”
On 22 March Nicola Sturgeon stated:
“Those who do not normally live on the islands and who have traveled there in the last few days will be able to leave to reduce pressure but from now on ferries will be for those who live on our islands, who have an essential need to travel to and from the mainland and for essential supplies or business.”
Other Scottish ministers repeatedly made clear the message that the Highlands were not in a position to cope with any extra strain on health services, so people should not go there to escape the epidemic and if already there, should leave to where they normally lived.
Now Professor Woolhouse had left Edinburgh and taken his family to Lismore a few days before the official advice not to travel to the Highlands. But whether he had official foreknowledge of coming restrictions, or was acting on his own information as an epidemiologist, or it was genuine coincidence as claimed, I do not know. What is true is that Edinburgh University was still operating and teaching when he abandoned Edinburgh for his holiday home. And what is true is that he ignored government advice for non-residents to leave the Islands and return to their permanent homes.
Woolhouse was not pleased with the adverse publicity. He therefore started initiating lawyers to chill any media outlet which criticised his retreat to the island, with some success (though I note the Record report is still there). Four months later he was still on Lismore, and on 31 July 2020 an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel Four News included this extraordinary passage on live TV:
Krishnan Guru-Murthy: “Is that what you did yourself, a personal risk assessment, because you came in yourself for criticism for moving your family out to a remote Scottish island at the beginning of this pandemic”
Prof Woolhouse: “Krishnan that matter is under some legal dispute and if you want Channel 4 to join the legal case you are very welcome to we came for a one week holiday and got caught by lockdown like many thousands of other people around the country”
Krishnan Guru-Murthy: “And you are still there are you?”
Prof Woolhouse: “We are, as it happens. The community has been extremely welcoming and extremely supportive and we are very grateful to them for that.”
Krishnan Guru-Murthy: “So what is the legal sort of confusion, we are obviously not wishing to join litigation but I am wondering what it is you’re threatening when you say that, I mean what’s the confusion around what you have done.”
Prof Woolhouse: “As I have said, the matter, the reports in the press are under legal review…”
Krishnan Guru-Murthy: “So you didn’t move, you just happened to be caught there, is that what you are saying?”
Prof Woolhouse: “Yes, we just happened to be caught there, like thousands of other people”
Krishnan Guru-Murthy: But why haven’t you gone back, because your job is in Edinburgh”
Prof Woolhouse: “Yes, it turns out like many other people that it is entirely able (sic) to carry out this work remotely, thanks to some very fleet-footed work by my ICT team at the University of Edinburgh, for which I am grateful as well.”
Krishnan Guru-Murthy: So what do you say to those people, I am not putting this allegation to you myself, but you have been accused of hypocrisy haven’t you?”
Prof Woolhouse: “As I say, if you want Channel 4 to get involved in the legal action, you are very welcome to continue this line of questioning.”
Krishanan Guru-Murthy: I am asking you, when people accuse you of hypocrisy, what is your answer to that?”
Prof Woolhouse: “My answer is the matter is legal and I am ending this interview now. Sorry Christian (sic).
One thing we can say for certain is that Prof Woolhouse’s claim that he somehow got stuck or stranded on Lismore is a lie. Firstly, the ferries were kept going and non permanent residents were positively instructed to use them and go home. Secondly, a friend of his daughter had arrived with them for a holiday and managed to go home with no problems, as Oban Sheriff Court was to hear last week (of which more later).
Jeremy Gilchrist enters this story. He is a full time resident on Lismore for many years and, I must declare, a friend of my family. At the start of the pandemic, Jeremy along with other Lismore residents was alarmed at the small wave of outsiders coming to holiday homes on the island from cities and potentially bringing the virus with them. They started a facebook group on the subject, and Jeremy went so far as to make a report to the police of potential breaches of lockdown regulations. The reply from Oban police station was that the lockdown regulations were not, in March 2020, legally enforceable.
[I might make it clear at this stage that I do not really approve of this kind of Covid vigilantism, but can understand it in an island environment and I have no sympathy at all for those who own second homes in the Highlands and Islands, like Prof Woolhouse – or Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg.]
Islanders also started to make clear to the pandemic incomers they were not entirely welcome, simply by politely telling them so. Jeremy, who is 70 years old, on 30 May 2020 waved to Prof Woolhouse’s wife, who then stopped as she passed his home. He asked her “Why are you still here?” She claims that he added she should “go home”, which Jeremy denies saying, though it is not an unfair implication.
Some weeks thereafter, Oban police came to the island to see Jeremy Gilchrist and he thought that finally they were taking seriously the question of people coming to holiday homes on the island in breach of lockdown rules. He was astonished to find that the police were launching a high-powered investigation – into Jeremy Gilchrist.
That was the start of over six months of nightmare. Normally getting the police to come investigate a crime on the island is a difficult pull on limited resources, but suddenly there was unlimited police time available to go all over the island, interviewing residents and asking them if they had ever seen Jeremy Gilchrist act aggressively, and if he had ever been heard to say anything racist.
Think about that – you live on a small island and suddenly the police are asking all your neighbours if they know you for a violent racist. The strain was appalling. Jeremy Gilchrist was to learn from Oban police that the instruction to devote all these police resources was coming directly from the Crown Office. This is Scotland 2021, and Jeremy Gilchrist is, in the eyes of the Crown Office, just some pleb islander. Whereas Professor Mark Woolhouse, Order of the British Empire, is a member of the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Covid-19. Woolhouse is therefore within the charmed Scottish Government circle of those whose enemies get persecuted at unlimited Police Scotland and Crown Office expense. Especially as the whole story of the dubious adherence to lockdown advice of its own adviser was potentially politically embarrassing to the Scottish Government.
Jeremy Gilchrist therefore found himself charged by the Crown Office with “acting in a racially aggravated manner intended to cause alarm or distress”. Because Prof Woolhouse’s wife, Prof Francisca Mutapi, is a black Zimbabwean. She claimed in court that she had believed Gilchrist wanted her to leave the island because she was black, not because of Covid, and that he had wanted her to go back to Zimbabwe, not go back to Edinburgh.
There was no claim made that Jeremy Gilchrist had said anything about her being black or about Zimbabwe. Gilchrist had, as the court heard, been campaigning for all holiday home dwellers to leave the island, in accordance with official Scottish government Covid advice, with no reference to anybody’s ethnic origin. Prof Mutapi is a highly intelligent woman and herself a Professor of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh. The idea that – after the controversy over her family being on the island had been in the national newspapers – she genuinely did not understand why some people including Gilchrist wanted the family to leave the island, is a nonsense. It appears to be a very transparent attempt at hiding bad behaviour – deciding to live on the island during a pandemic – behind a protected characteristic. Astonishingly, this behaviour was then promoted by the Crown Office and Police Scotland.
Here is an extract of the report of the trial last week from the Oban Times:
Ms Mutapi told the court that as she jogged by she became aware of him ‘gesticulating’ and when she stopped to say hello, he had told her to ‘go back home’.
When she replied it was her home, she said he began shouting: ‘This is not your home, you don’t belong here.’
Ms Mutapi described her ethnicity as ‘black Zimbabwean’ and regarded his comments as meaning either go back to the cottage or go back home to Africa.
She said she felt ‘angry, attacked, sad and shocked’ as Scotland had been her home for the past 25 years and the holiday home had been in her husband’s family for 40 years.
She said Gilchrist had never made such remarks when he had seen her with her husband, so she decided to report it to police as he had singled her out as a woman on her own, she said.
But Gilchrist’s advocate Alan Gravelle said Gilchrist had simply meant go back to Edinburgh.
Mr Gravelle also asked Ms Mutapi why she had not told police that her daughter’s friend had travelled to Lismore but then left during lockdown to return to her parents.
‘I didn’t think the friend’s presence was relevant,’ replied Ms Mutapi.
She further denied Mr Gravelle’s suggestion that the racism complaint had been made to ‘silence legitimate criticism’ about their visit which had intensified after a national newspaper report in April slammed her husband for being on Lismore.
Gilchrist, a retired fruit grower, was subsequently charged by police with acting in a racially aggravated manner intended to cause alarm or distress – which he denied.
Giving evidence, the court was told that due to Covid, a neighbour of his with cancer had NHS treatment cancelled and subsequently died.
Gilchrist, who also has type-1 diabetes and a partner with disabilities, insisted his comments were not about the complainant’s ethnicity and denied being racist.
He disputed having used the words: ‘this is not your home’ and claimed he had simply asked her: ‘Why are you still here?’
‘They shouldn’t have been there and I had a right to ask why they were there,’ Gilchrist told the court. ‘I was concerned about the virus being brought to the island. It was about keeping people off the island for our safety.’
Prior to the incident, Gilchrist had also had reported a different second home owner to the police but was told there was ‘nothing’ officers could do.
He had consistently raised his concerns with the island’s Covid group, posted on Facebook and raised them face-to-face with other second home owners who had ‘not enjoyed’ hearing it, Gilchrist admitted.
Mr Gravelle said his concerns represented many on the island about people having fled the cities to holiday homes and the risk of introducing coronavirus to remote communities. Home to under 200 permanent residents, fears were rife about food shortages and the absence of NHS staff for its elderly population, while Lismore community leaders had also been warned to prepare for fatalities, the court heard.
However, Procurator Fiscal James Dunbar said Gilchrist had set out to ‘confront’ Ms Mutapi with aggressive behaviour and that she represented ‘one second home owner too many’ for him.
Sheriff Patrick Hughes told Gilchrist the trial had not proved his behaviour had been criminal or racist; it was clear he had become ‘obsessive’ about Covid.
It is important to note that the Procurator Fiscal put no evidence of any kind before the court to back his disgusting and unjustified assertion that Jeremy Gilchrist is a racist. There can be no such evidence as he is not any kind of racist, and the police had wasted much time on a politically motivated wild goose chase through is neighbours, acquaintances and social media.
I am struck by:
Procurator Fiscal James Dunbar said Gilchrist had set out to ‘confront’ Ms Mutapi with aggressive behaviour and that she represented ‘one second home owner too many’ for him.
It won’t come as a shock to many highlanders or islanders, that here the Crown Office explicitly sides with the second home owner over the resident. But note the procurator here demolishes his own argument that Gilchrist’s objection was anything to do with ethnicity. That was plainly a nonsense. In terms of his behaviour in talking to Ms Mutapi being “threatening”, remember he is 70 years old and unwell, and was stood outside his own front door.
Jeremy Gilchrist was acquitted at Oban Crown Court this week. But six months of his life had already been ruined, he lost tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees and he was wrongly labeled a racist by the police to the entire community where he lives.
There is never any shortage of police resources in today’s Scotland to investigate thought crime. Burglaries or riots in George Square, not so much. The Crown Office wasted substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money in large scale police investigation of Jeremy Gilchrist and in prosecution of accusations which were never going to result in conviction because they were plainly – simply – wrong. The politically directed Crown Office did so in order to assist the self-evidently spurious attempt to deflect attention from lockdown hypocrisy by a key Scottish Government adviser. This was another Crown Office decision about politics and media presentation, not about justice.
A final more worrying thought. These kinds of entirely unjustified persecutions in Scotland will become much easier for the Crown Office with the new Hate Crime Law. Ms Mutapi was undoubtedly caused offence by Mr Gilchrist, and belongs to a protected group. In the terms of the new law, I think Jeremy Gilchrist would be guilty, despite having no racist intent whatsoever. Interactions with members of protected groups will be on anything but a footing of equality under the new law, and the capacity for malicious allegation will be enormous and very difficult to refute. Which is why liberal democracies generally avoid such laws.
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