LIKE THE square bottle and the slanting label, the Striding Man logo has helped make Johnnie Walker one of the world's most iconic drinks. The image of the cane-toting dandy struts above the factory where the whisky is bottled, a building that dominates Kilmarnock physically, emotionally and economically.There's a great deal of anger in the town:
Last Wednesday the Striding Man lost his confident swagger. Diageo, the world's biggest drinks manufacturer, announced it was closing the plant with the loss of 700 jobs.
After almost 200 years, Johnnie Walker is striding away from his Ayrshire roots."
"I think the area is finished once they've gone. Unemployment is bad enough without this adding to it. What's Kilmarnock going to be like in two or three years? A ghost town."I have Kilmarnock connections.
Outside, 67-year-old Sam Anderson, the head barman, and Andrew Davidson, his 74-year-old customer, go through the litany of the town's industrial dead. "Massey Fergusson, Saxone - gone," chants Sam.
"You used to be able to leave your job one day and walk into a new one the next. Now there's no jobs," says Andrew
My late father used to work for Saxone, mentioned above. He joined Saxone after leaving the army and we lived in Stewarton, a few miles to the north. That's where I started school. When I was six a transfer took us to Leeds for three years. A move back to the shoe company's HQ led to us renting in Kilmarnock for a few months before buying a house in Prestwick where I lived until I was eighteen. Then another transfer took us down to London.
My memories of Kilmarnock are a bit hazy. I do remember my father taking to a few games at the nearby Rugby Park and I still look out for Killie's results every week during the football season. As a director of a prominent local company my father got to know Willie Ross, the town's MP and later Secretary of State for Scotland. Despite being a staunch Tory my father used to enjoy a dram or two on the London sleeper with the hardline socialist politician. Naturally, they drank Johnnie Walker. And now it's gone.
I read an editorial somewhere that pointed out that the Diageo-owned Guinness HQ is Ireland's number one tourist destination and why not try the same thing in Kilmarnock? A good question.
But there are deeper issues.
For as long as I can remember Scotland has suffered from the departure or downsizing of well-known companies. Up here, we all know the importance of having locally-based employers. If Johnnie Walker had still been locally-owned would it have left Kilmarnock? Probably not.
But all those folk who are moaning about profit being put before people are missing the point. Profit is about people. Without profit there won't be any jobs, something hundreds of thousands of "public" sector workers will shortly find out.
The key to long-term prosperity is a well-educated population, free trade, respect for property rights, and the rule of law. That's the only way to build up a critical mass of home-based companies. Another thing needed is to strip away all that red tape that gives an artificial advantage to big companies like Diageo. Few Scottish politicians understand this, or if they do they're afraid to say so.
What Kilmarnock needs is an outward-looking population that's as well-educated as any in the world. Somehow I think that my father and Willie Ross might have agreed on that.