Far-right Highland Division forced out of Scottish town
When the news came through that Alex Yerbury and the far-right Highland Division were planning a rally in a small north east Scottish town, Scottish Traveller Davie Donaldson - who campaigns for the rights of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers - jumped in his van and drove there to report. Exclusive to the TT
As I scrolled through Instagram the sun shone in through the window to my right, the heat in the trailer was becoming unbearable. My Insta feed is the same as most; pictures of beaches, folk enjoying Appleby and plenty of new engagements, weddings and a gaggle of babies. But as my thumb continued to swipe, it rested on a black and white picture of an old man staring solemnly into a camera lens.
The description read: “With great sadness we say goodbye to Nadir Dedic (1930-2023), a survivor of Jasenovac concentration camp.”
I let out a sigh of loss for a man I didn’t know. I sighed because I knew another link to the past – to the atrocities of the Second World War - had been severed. My mind drifted to my role as a Holocaust educator and the importance of survivor testimony in ensuring people ‘look and don’t forget’. As I scrolled another face popped up on my screen, the face of Alek Yerbury.
Alek Yerbury, a Leeds-based former soldier, who recently broke away from the Patriotic Alternative (a group termed by Hope not Hate as ‘the UK’s most fascist organisation’) has formed a military-style splinter group – The National Support Detachment.
I had been aware of Yerbury a few months earlier, aside from his regular speeches around the country, Yerbury had also drawn press attention due to his resemblance to Adolf Hitler and aspirations to ‘Unite the Right’.
His most recent attention has been directed north, toward an ethno-nationalist group in Scotland, The Highland Division, who’s activists regularly share anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQ content online. But it doesn’t stop there, members of Highland Division also include Holocaust deniers, alongside support for a white-nationalist belief - ‘The great replacement’. Recently members shared a fake Black history month poster, which redirected people to a page promoting ‘The great replacement’ through anti-Black and anti-Semitic content.
The Instagram post explained that the Highland Division was planning their first rally. The rally was to be held in the most unassuming place, a small town in the North-East of Scotland - Elgin. The keynote speaker was to be none other than Yerbury himself. So, I jumped in my van and headed the 220 miles north.
Arriving in Elgin I soon found the town square, and despite being over an hour early anti-fascist counter-protestors had already began to arrive. They had come from all over Scotland; Glasgow, Dundee, Perth, Aberdeen – bussed in for the occasion by Trade Unions, LGBTQ organisations and anti-racist movements.
I grabbed a take-away coffee and made my way over to an older man standing off to the side, he was sporting two placards both with anti-racist slogans. I approached him and asked him his name and where he had come from.
Peter told me he was from Dundee and that he was protesting against Yerbury and standing in solidarity with refugees.
“[Refugees] only want a better life for their families," said Peter. “I’m against groups who create division.” He continued. “Their [Highland Division] numbers may be small but they are here and they specialise in dividing communities. The British public are in a bad shape due to Government choices and the non-distribution of wealth – some call it the cost-of-living crisis. They [Highland Division] are preying on this.”
Meanwhile, in the town square stalls were now being erected and magazines, anti-racism pins, and badges were being sold whilst placards were handed out. The social, and at times, commercial side to these counter-rallies has always perplexed me.
Overhearing a police officer, I learned that the White Nationalist rally was to be held on the other side of the street from the counter-protest. As I approached, a small ensemble of people came into view, some with Highland Division flags and one with a ‘White Lives Matter’ t-shirt. Panning the group I saw a familiar face from the Instagram post - Alek Yerbury.
Yerbury had already been cornered by a local Elgin woman. The woman reminded me of the many amazing women from my youth growing up in the North-East of Scotland. These women are stalwart, strong, and formidable – they are the most likely to offer you a cup of tea but if you ‘think yourself something’ or overstep the mark – well - the most likely to hit you with the cup as well.
Today Yerbury was getting it both barrels from this Elgin woman: “I am standing up to fascism and racism,” she calmly but loudly told him straight into his face. “You need to go away and take your little band of fascists and you need to go back under whatever stone you came out from under! We will not have fascism in Scotland!”
Yerbury’s body language wasn’t what I’d expected, he looked shy, arms crossed, retreating into himself – almost cowed. At any rate, I wasn’t going to get a chance to talk with him anytime soon – so I approached one of the young ‘activists’ from the Highland Division, one of only seven who had turned out to support Yerbury, and asked him why he had come.
“I’m here to protest the migrant hotels, it’s the cost on British taxpayers,” he told me, adding that, “charity should start at home.”
I asked him why there were only seven supporters with Yerbury and he quickly retorted:
“Many people are scared to come out and make their views in public. They fear attacks or impact on their personal lives. My girlfriend lost her job after someone saw her at one of the rallies. It’s hard for people to come out - but we are the silent majority”.
This expression – ‘we are the silent majority’ – sent shivers down my spine. From my work across Europe, I knew what he was saying had a grain of truth. Only last month I was in Berlin at the World Roma Congress. While I was there, I had spoken with many Roma who shared concerns of growing support for the far-right across Europe, particularly in Hungary, Czechia and Ukraine.
The young Yerbury supporter continued his spiel: “Governments around the world are validating our message,” he said. “We need a halt on immigration. I don’t think asylum seekers or migrants can be integrated into our society.”
I asked him how he felt about media outlets branding his organisation a ‘neo-Nazi movement’, and comparisons that had been made between Yerbury and Hitler. He shook his head, “Everyone sees us as ‘evil Nazis’ and it’s not true,” he said. “Whenever you’re right of centre they call you a Nazi. Free speech is portrayed as hate speech. We care about industry and jobs, the rights of native people – the people in Elgin support that.”
Despite what the young man believed; many locals came out to make it known that the Highland Division was not welcome in Elgin. As Yerbury began to speak to his rally, one local shouted: “F*** off! You’re talking s****!”
At this the young Yerbury supporter I had been speaking to, laughingly pointed at the counter-protestors and said: “Look at them they look like tramps.”
This throw-away comment highlighted the fact that to many far-right groups, an importance is placed on appearing professional and legitimate. In this young man’s case, it included wearing a shirt and tie, for Yerbury it was a full 1930’s style suit, and for similar groups like ‘Homeland’ it meant pushing toward becoming an official political party.
Another white nationalist came up to me, obviously noticing that I had been observing and scribbling in my notepad: “Make sure you get the whole truth now. You lot are good at telling lies,” she told me, and I can only assume that she was talking about the press. Fake news – a term made popular by Donald Trump - is a common belief among these movements, the belief that no media can be trusted and that there is always an elite conspiracy against the truth.
I took this opportunity to raise local political attitudes about Gypsy/Traveller communities, in particular some recent racist comments made by Scottish Conservative party Leader - Douglas Ross. To my shock she stated: “It seems to me Gypsies face the last acceptable racism. They’re used as a scapegoat – most are good people.”
I’d never thought I’d hear a far-right activist use the expression ‘last acceptable racism’ in reference to Gypsy/Travellers. However, this surprise was to be short lived, as I later learned the Highland Division had shared content back in March; praising a white nationalist who had been involved in attacking Roma in Croatia.
The counter-protest was now closing in around Highland Division from all sides, until the White Nationalists were outnumbered at least 10-1 with chants of; “Down with this sorta thing”, “Go home Nazis” and “Refugees are welcome here”.
Things began to get very heated, Yerbury had been punched in the side of the head by a passerby and another man was torn from a bench in front of me by police officers, who were now establishing a human barrier between Highland Division activists and counter-protestors.
“There will be a reckoning for the parasites in Westminster” – these were the last words I heard from Yerbury, as the chanting from the counter-protestors now drowned him out. Instead, “Refugees are welcome here” were the words that echoed throughout the usual sleepy northern town.
Yerbury looked down beaten, clearly the people of Elgin had spoken, as the group packed up their banners and flags. As the Police cordon closed in, the chanting became one of: “Nazi scum shame on you – don’t come back!”
As the crowds pushed the white nationalists out of Elgin, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was it – that the saga had ended. But I couldn’t help but feel this was only the start, that what we had seen play out on the streets of Elgin was the beginning of something dangerous. This division I recognised in the testimonies of people like Nadir Dedic, a fire flamed by what one onlooker described as ‘a society with all the ingredients of 1930’s Germany.’
As I started up my van to head off home, seagulls flew overhead. A strong wind was now blowing, but in what direction?
By Davie Donaldson, Freelance, for TT Features
(All photos (c) Davie Donaldson unless otherwise credited)