End of a long vigil, and a rare old chinwag

The number 1979 is an inauspicious one for Scottish home rule, being the year that the last plans came badly unstuck. But on the front of a brightly painted portable hut outside Edinburgh's proposed parliament building today is day number 1979.

This is the Vigil for Democracy, a makeshift assembly of slogans, Saltire flags, ironic artefacts and eclectic people. They have kept the faith through five Scottish winters, since the Conservative election victory on the morning of 10 April 1992 brought indignant home rulers from up to 200 miles away to protest outside the Royal High School building and the Scottish Office headquarters across the road.

Tonight the vigil is to be the focus of a BBC outside broadcast unit. And tomorrow, with a pavement party to celebrate the expected Yes-Yes vote, the vigil ends. "At long last, the people of Scotland will have had their chance to speak, so there's no reason for us to continue after that," says one of democracy's vigilantes, Gillian Grant.

The hut is to go to the allotment of a mental health charity, all the leaflets and the diaries kept through five-and-a-half years are to be archived at the National Library of Scotland, and several of the artefacts are to go to an Edinburgh museum. By next week, the pavement, which has been a windswept focus of Scottish protest, will be cleared, and all that will be left will be a cairn memorial on Calton Hill above it.

"We could have sat here till Hell froze over, and it wouldn't have changed a thing," concedes Ms Grant, an Edinburgh office worker, who has taken a week's holiday to help the Yes-Yes campaign. "But we've been part of a wider movement for change. When the books are written, the vigil will have its place."

The vigil has involved between 20 and 30 people through most of its life, most from Edinburgh, though few of them have stayed involved throughout. There is no party affiliation, no hierarchy, no spokesperson and no voting on policy - everything at their Sunday afternoon meetings is done by consensus.

"This was just ordinary people who felt that they'd had enough," says Ms Grant. "It was just enthusiastic amateurs." That includes Louis "The Book", an eccentric homeless man who has entertained foreign tourists with his explanations of Scottish politics and slept in the hut at night when boy racers have gathered on Regent Road outside.

John Orr joined the vigil two years ago, after having been patriotically fired-up by the film Braveheart. "It has been pretty grim through winter, but we believe in this, we have a passion and a vision," he says.

"The Scots' idea of talking politics is sitting at home or in the pub, moaning and groaning, whereas here you can have a good chinwag and get a few things off your chest."

"I'm proud of the vigil," adds Gillian Grant. "It's had a lot of media coverage and raised consciousness. But like everything else, it just comes to a natural end."

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