Scotland politics

Scottish independence: Who are the referendum relic hunters?

They are dropping through letterboxes and being handed out on streets across Scotland - leaflets, newsletters, flyers and car stickers emblazoned with either "Yes" or "No Thanks".

And a small band of volunteers carefully gathering and archiving this material, which they believe could be of historic importance.

A select few of the items could even, sometime in the future, have a value at auction and be sought-after and collected just as stamps, punk rock memorabilia, fossils or butterflies are.

The campaign aims are poles apart, but the offices of the rival Better Together and Yes Scotland camps in Inverness have some things in common.

They have bookshelves packed with thousands of leaflets, posters on walls and windows, and bowls filled with confectionary-like colourful, shiny badges.

Volunteers busily answer phones, or sort out mailshots of campaign material and pamphlets for street stalls.

And in both the Yes campaign base, with its huge Saltire signed by Alex Salmond draped down one wall, and the No Thanks office on a street below the red stone Inverness Castle, the staff are also aware that copies of all this material must be laid aside for a small band of referendum "relic hunters".

These volunteer collectors are led by the Scottish Political Archive (SPA).

Started at the University of Stirling in October 2010, SPA collects political material and archives from Scottish politicians and political organisations to chronicle the political history of Scotland in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Image copyright Scottish political archive/university of stirling

SPA's collection already includes items from both the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums.

"It is important to archive this material because after the referendum vote most of the material will not be kept," says SPA archivist Sarah Bromage.

"Our experience of retrospectively collecting for 1979 and 1997 has taught us that a lot of the material that is distributed through the door and at stalls and events will be lost.

"It is important to collect it now so that we have a picture of what campaign messages were being given to people on the doorstep."

What is being collected?

  • SPA is trying to put together a campaign study of what type of material people are given on both sides of the debate.
  • It is collecting from all of the groups in the Yes and No camps, such as National Collective, So Say Scotland, Radical Independence, Friends of the Union and United with Labour among many others.
  • Its volunteers are also making a photographic record of campaign events. So far they have taken more than 1,000 images from across Scotland.
  • SPA is looking for more volunteers to help with the collecting. For further information email

This year's referendum campaign is very different to those of 35 and 17 years ago, says SPA.

One key difference is that social media is playing a major role in the setting up of different campaign groups, and spreading their messages and information.

These groups are also better able, using today's technology, to produce professional leaflets, badges and posters cheaply and distribute them widely.

Image copyright Scottish political archive/university of stirling

In 1997, there was not a large number of groups producing material and as a result the SPA has only managed to collect limited amounts from the two main organisations, Think Twice and Scotland Forward.

But while the archivists are interested in the historic worth of the leaflets, posters and badges, do they have potential monetary value?

Political historian Prof Russell Deacon and artist Dan Peterson have built up a web-based business around creating UK political collectables.

The site, Protest and Survive, sells replica vintage Liberal, Labour and Conservative posters, fridge magnets featuring slogans from Winston Churchill's 1945 election campaign and coffee mugs.

Image copyright AP/Protest and Survive

Many of its Scottish customers purchase mugs showing Mr Peterson's portrait of Glasgow-born Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal prime minister from 1905 until 1908.

The mug also carries the Campbell-Bannerman quote: "It is not power, not glory, nor wealth, that exalteth a nation, but righteousness, justice and freedom".

Prof Deacon says the website attracts a particular kind of customer.

"All are interested in politics except those that buy them as presents for someone who is, or they have a son or daughter who works for a politician, or some other reason like that," he says.

"Some people who are in a protest will buy the stuff with Protest and Survive on it."

But is there money to be made from the referendum?

"There has a been a fair sale of the independence and federalism mugs outside of Scotland, not so much in it," says Prof Deacon.

Luke Batterham, of auctioneers Bonhams, says certain campaign material that people are receiving may gain monetary value in the future.

He says the most sought items will either be scarce - because most of it will have been binned, recycled or lost - or unusual or closely linked to a widely known figure.

Material from the "Yes" campaign, in particular, could become desirable if there is a vote for independence because it will bring about a historic change in the shape of the UK, he adds.

Image copyright Bonhams

Bonhams occasionally holds sales of political items, and also material from campaigns that wrought dramatic cultural and social changes such as the Suffragettes' fight for votes for women in the early 1900s.

Medals recognising hunger strikes, a board game and tea sets are among historic items linked to the Suffragettes that are highly valued by collectors.

Mr Batterham says: "The political material tends to be figure-centric, such as a letter from Churchill or Lloyd George.

"Going back into Scottish history, it is memorabilia connected with the Jacobites."

With the referendum, he says it will take the passage of time for its material to gain significant monetary value.

It will not be this generation, or their children's, but their grandchildren may find they have been left something worth auctioning.

Meanwhile, back in the campaign offices in Inverness the focus is very much on the next five or so weeks.

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