THE EYES of the world will be focused on her at breakfast time on Friday morning. Cool, calm and collected, Mary Pitcaithly will stand up on the stage at the Royal Highland Centre at Ingliston in Edinburgh to make the announcement. For those few moments she’ll be the only one who knows the answer to the question that a nation has talked about for two years: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” And then she’ll share it with the global audience in a historic speech which will be replayed time and time again no matter if that answer is yes or no. But the chief counting officer plays down what some would see as massive pressure. She said: “A lot of people have been asking what it will be like. I know there is a lot of interest from people around the world and I’m glad that so many people have become engaged with this referendum. “When I get onto the stage I hope I’ll be reflecting on a process that gave us a decision in an open and transparent way and one that can be relied upon. “I’m only the one confirming the result, after that it’s up to others to decide what it means.” She added: “We can expect an announcement around breakfast time – I’m keeping the time deliberately vague as you can never predict what might happen.”
It’s a slight change to the day job for Mary who was awarded an OBE in 2005 for services to local government. She’s better known as the chief executive of Falkirk Council where she manages a £350 million budget and 7,500 staff. She might be a veteran of election counting nights but she says she still feels a buzz when the votes are coming in thick and fast. “Being the returning officer is one of the highlights of my job,” she said. “There is a buzz and as the votes are counted by hand there will be lots for people to see.”
Mary spoke to the Record yesterday as she was making final checks and preparations at Ingliston ahead of a 24 hour or more marathon event ahead of her. She’ll be the last person in the line of a massive Scotland-wide network of 18,808 people working in polling stations, counting votes, announcing results and ensuring the vote goes as smoothly as possible. Each of Scotland’s 32 council regions will run the polling process in their area before counting their votes and announcing a total for each side which is then transferred to the main centre in Edinburgh. Shetland Islands and Moray are expected to be the first areas to announce their vote with a predicted time of between 1am and 2am. The bulk of the announcements will come in between 2am and 4am with the bigger areas like Glasgow and Edinburgh expected in last at around 5am.
Councils have already received thousands of postal votes which will be counted first and verified by computer to match up the signature of the voter with the signature they gave on their postal vote application. But that will be the only computer involvement – every other vote will be counted by hand. And it’s simple – mark a clear X within the box next to either yes or no. The polling and counting operation will see councils pull out all the stops to make sure people get to vote and ensure their completed ballot papers get to the counting centres safely. A fleet of ferries, a helicopter, plane as well as lorries, cars and vans will all be employed. Most councils will use the usual polling places of schools and village halls but its the rural and islands areas of the country where the logistics of polling places and delivering votes prove more challenging.
And some of the most unusual polling stations include a caravan and a conservatory in someone’s house. In the Highland Council area postwoman Alison Bain won’t have far to go to cast her vote today because the local polling station is actually her conservatory. The room in Alison’s home in the tiny village of Opinan, near Gairloch in the Highlands, has been used as a voting post for over 20 years. The ballot address, known simply as No 11 Opinan, has served as the village’s only polling station since her father John McKenzie struck a deal with the electoral commission in the 1980s. And Alison is always first in the village to cast her vote “at seven o’clock on the dot”. She said: “Basically there was nowhere else for the polling station to go on this side of the loch so my father got in touch with the electoral commission and offered up the conservatory. “I’ve always really enjoyed it but it does leave a lot of cleaning up to be done on the Friday.” As for the day itself, Alison wouldn’t say how she was voting but all her hopes are for a clear outcome.
She said: “I’ll wake up, flip the ‘polling station’ signs over, vote and then leave the electoral lot to it. “The votes will be taken from here at about 10 then I can get on with just watching the results come in. “One thing is for sure – it’ll be a very long night.” And given the sparse nature of some of their communities, bosses at Highland Council are also using their trusty caravan. The unit, in the town of Coulag has been used for several elections and will be in place for voters again today. And they’ll also employ a cafeteria at Broadford Village Hall. Argyl and Bute Council is probably the council area with the toughest logistical issue. It’s the second largest local authority area in Scotland and has 23 inhabited islands.
They’ll also use a caravan on the Isle of Mull for 30 registered voters. But cars, lorries ferries and helicopters will be used to make sure the votes gets to the counting centre in Lochgilphead. A spokeswoman for the council said: “We do what we can to make the voting process as easy as possible for the people who live and work in our remote but stunning rural communities. “We also plan extremely carefully to make sure that a vote count on this scale runs smoothly.” In Shetland, boxes from the outer islands of Unst, Yell and Whalsay are transported using the council’s own Inter Island Ferries to the Shetland mainland and then taken to the counting centre by road And the region also has the most northerly ballot box in Scotland at North Unst Public Hall, Haroldswick, Unst which serves 342 voters. And in Orkney, around 1,600 voters will cast their historic votes in a place better known as being a parliament of its own.
Stromness Polling Station is at what’s locally called the Stromness Pierhead Parliament – a famous gathering place where retired men used to come and set the world to rights. Specially commissioned boats will be employed to bring votes into North Ayrshire from the Isle of Arran and Cumbrae. And in the Western Islands they’ll use a plane to make sure thousands of votes from islanders on Uist and Barra. A spokesman said: “We’re using a fixed wing plane to get votes to our counting centre on Stornoway.”
Meanwhile in Dumfries and Galloway some schoolkids while be given a daytrip away when rural areas have no other option but to use the local school. Police Scotland will also be alert for what will be a higher than normal turnout for a vote. Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins said: “The referendum is a significant event which is expected to attract a higher than normal turnout. “Policing arrangements for the referendum are well in hand and will be appropriate and proportionate. “Police Scotland’s priority is to ensure public safety and security. “We will respond appropriately to any issues which arise. “We will not offer comment on the numbers of officers or their specific operational deployment.”