THE back room of a cafe in Kirkintilloch’s Townhead may seem like an unlikely place for political intrigue and illegality – but that’s where plans were hatched for a nationalist pirate radio station nearly 60 years ago.
In the 1950s, before a single SNP MP had been elected to power, there was a government ban on broadcasts by Scottish nationalists on the BBC - leaving the party at a severe political disadvantage.
SNP national treasurer David Rollo, from Kirkintilloch, dreamed up a novel way of redressing the balance.
The electrical engineer got to work in the local Townhead Cafe and, assisted by owner and fellow radio ham Alvaro Rossi, created a transmitter capable of broadcasting sound on the BBC’s television frequency.
In 1956 Radio Free Scotland took to the airwaves for the first time, opening with the statement: “This is Radio Free Scotland proclaiming to the nation that the fight for independence is on in earnest.”
The station broadcast on the BBC after television programming finished at 11pm and was heralded by a blast of ‘Scotland the Brave’.
The pioneer’s son, also called David, still lives in Kirkintilloch and has fond memories of the broadcasts, which he was often involved in during university holidays.
The retired librarian told the Herald: “There was a certain notoriety which built up around it - a bit like the Stone of Destiny. Lots of people would say that Radio Free Scotland was transmitted from their living room.
“There would be a mix of skits and sketches all with a political edge but we always tried to make it good fun.
“I remember doing an impression of the Secretary of State for Scotland!
“It was certainly an exciting time and, even though we were breaking the law, we weren’t doing any harm.
“The BBC got their airwaves back in the same state we found them.”
David senior dedicated much of his life to the SNP and stood five times for election as an MP and once for Kirkintilloch Town Council - all unsuccessfully.
But his place in history is ensured by his leading role in Radio Free Scotland, which was an open secret even at the time.
His son explained: “Prior to one of the elections he was pictured in the paper with the transmitter, so he wasn’t hiding his involvement too much. It was semi-covert because it was technically illegal but they didn’t want to make my father or anybody else in the party a martyr.”
He added: “Eventually it wasn’t needed any more because the SNP were legally allowed to broadcast. My father died in September 2006 at the age of 87 and it was just a shame he didn’t live to see the 2007 election.
“He was involved right up until the end and would have been so proud to see a SNP Government at Holyrood.”
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