Thank you, convener. Good afternoon, gentlemen and—as there are ladies present—ladies. I open my short statement by thanking the committee for the invitation to appear before it today.
Over the past 60 years, I have sailed under the red ensign as a yachtsman, under a defaced red ensign as a sea scout officer and under the white ensign as an officer of Clyde division of the Royal Naval reserve, but in the past 25 years I have noticed an increasing number of vessels wearing the Scottish red ensign around our coasts, to the extent that five vessels in Bute, including mine, now regularly fly the flag. It has become widely available through intemet flag retail outlets based mainly in England and Northern Ireland, and the Glasgow flag maker James Stevenson said that there is a steady demand for it. Despite its increasing popularity, it is an improper ensign and, under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, it is technically illegal to wear or fly it on a British vessel.
Little did I realise that I would end up appearing in front of a parliamentary committee when, in late 2010, I was asked by a close friend to suggest a suitable nautical gift that her aunt Dr Winnie Ewing could present to the representatives of the former Scottish staple of Veere in the Netherlands to mark her retiral as the conservator of the Scots privileges at Veere. Veere was Scotland’s main trading port in the low countries from 1488 to 1789. I immediately suggested that a Scottish red ensign would be more than appropriate, for that would have been the flag flown by the merchant vessels from Scotland that traded throughout the 300 years for which Veere was the Scottish staple.
At a ceremony at Holyrood in January 2011, the ensign was presented by Winnie, to the delight of the Dutch delegation and the representatives of the political parties of the Scottish Parliament present, including the First Minister. It was that spontaneous reaction, coupled with an article I had read about the States of Jersey attaining its own voluntary or informal red ensign and a recent sighting in the Greek islands of a yacht flying a Scottish red ensign with no apparent problems from the maritime authorities, that encouraged me to find out whether and how the Scottish ensign could be legalised as an informal or voluntary ensign for Scottish vessels. That initiated the process that has led to today’s hearing.
Although my petition details the officials and authorities with whom I have corresponded, I point out that at no time during that correspondence have I received advice that a warrant application was not possible or would fail, and the only delay in the process so far has been a deferral of the issue for two years because of a recent referendum. Additionally, given that British ship registration is a reserved matter and vested with the United Kingdom’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency, I stress that my petition does not seek to replace or supersede the red ensign. If a warrant were to be granted, Scottish vessels would have the option of legally wearing either the red ensign or the Scottish red ensign.
This country has, for its size, had a major effect on the world’s maritime history. As one who was born and brought up in Glasgow beside the River Clyde, I can recall when the words “Clyde built” were held in highest regard worldwide. For more than 50 years, Rothesay was the venue for the prestigious international yacht racing event called Clyde fortnight, which was regularly supported by kings and princes and on a par with Cowes week. Yachts that had been designed and built in the yards around the Clyde estuary regularly led the field. We have become prone to forgetting how great a maritime nation we once were, and the thought that we still are in some fields has led me to think that the reintroduction of the Scottish red ensign for use by our vessels might restore some sense of identity and pride among those Scots who sail at home or abroad, albeit mainly for leisure purposes nowadays.
Those thoughts were echoed by the head of maritime administration and registrar of British ships for the States of Jersey, Piers Baker, when I asked him whether Jersey’s informal or voluntary red ensign had been successful. He said:
“We find it valuable in our advertising and in distinguishing ourselves from the United Kingdom and other members of the Red Ensign Group. Abroad in particular, owners like to fly it as it is clear statement of identity. However it has not proved so popular with local boat owners who are members of the Jersey Yacht Clubs as they already hold warrants for their club ensigns.”
It is my opinion that granting the Scottish red ensign a warrant would have the same effect in this country and would help to enhance our maritime identity. I am sure that “sailscotland”, the annual publication that promotes our magnificent sailing waters, would value it as a useful advertising tool to help to promote the wonderful sailing, harbours and marina facilities that Scotland now has to offer visiting yachtsmen from home and abroad.
Finally, I was pleasantly surprised that the 531 signatures that the petition received included a number from around the world. Of the 70 signatories who added their comments, the only one against the proposal was a member of a yacht club that already holds a warrant for a blue ensign. The number of comments was small, perhaps, but they indicated wider opinion on the matter.
Thank you for this opportunity to present my petition, convener. I commend it to members.