Officials with the city of Athens and Athens City Schools returned from Scotland last Wednesday after a nine-day excursion related to a twinning agreement between Athens and Stonehaven, Scotland.
Athens welcomed visitors from Scotland in May, and an Athens delegation was scheduled to visit in July. Those on the trip to Scotland included Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks, city grant coordinator and communications specialist Holly Hollman, Athens City Schools Superintendent Dr. Trey Holladay, Athens-Limestone Tourism Director Teresa Todd.
The twinning agreement came about from an invitation by Philip Mills-Bishop, the chair of the Stonehaven and North East Scotland Twinning Council, and Richard Holman-Baird, the Baird of Ury, Rickarton and Lochwood and the Clan Baird Chieftain. Prior to becoming sister cities with Athens, the twinning group had entered into a twinning agreement with Acheres, France.
The agreement with Athens was overseen by Debra Baird, a professor of religious studies at Athens State University. She initially said the goal of the project was to encourage student exchanges and opportunities to explore partnerships in business, the arts, sporting events and tourism.
Photos of the Athens delegation's trip to Scotland show officials visiting castles, cemeteries and taking in Scottish culture. Scottish news reports, however, say the twinning agreement and visit by Athens officials were not greeted with enthusiasm by some.
Stonehaven is a town in Aberdeenshire, one of 32 council areas in Scotland. An article appearing in Monday's edition of The Times (U.K.) said Bill Howatson, the provost of Aberdeenshire and “a liberal Democrat councillor, did not attend the twinning ceremony with representatives from both towns because it was not 'appropriate.'” The ceremony was set for Aug. 4 at Dunnottar Castle, according to news reports.
The article cited “a row over abortion laws” as Howatson's decision not to attend. The same article also mentions the Alabama Legislature's passage of a total abortion ban, which Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law.
Another article published Monday in the Mearns Leader newspaper claimed those involved with the twinning agreement never involved the Aberdeenshire Council. Members of the council told the paper they had “been inundated with complaints over the publicity it's generated.”
A copy of an email from an acting area manager said council representatives had been contacted by individuals and organizations, including the Stonehaven Town Partnership, “expressing significant concerns about the twinning arrangement with Athens.”
“Given the contention felt locally, it is not considered appropriate for the civic head of Aberdeenshire Council to be involved,” the email said, as reported by The Leader. “It should be noted that Aberdeenshire Council has had no involvement with the twinning process.”
Marks and Hollman said they were surprised to learn about the controversy surrounding their visit. They described everyone they met as polite and friendly, and there was no talk about politics or abortion.
Marks explained the delegation was there in friendship in an effort to enhance both communities. He said, in the future, he may keep government entities out of any twinning agreement-related activities and instead leave it to officials with Athens City Schools, Athens State University and local arts groups.
“(Scottish officials) are very interested in Space Camp and having some of their students attending the Fiddlers Convention,” he said. “They were amazed by our 52 years of Fiddlers.”
Likewise, Mills-Bishop told The Mearns Leader the visit by Athens delegates had been a “tremendous success.” He also explained he founded the twinning group two years ago because the Stonehaven Town Partnership, community council or — “to a large extent” — the Aberdeenshire Council.
The Mearns Leader report said others at the twinning gathering included U.S. Consul to Scotland, Ellen Wong, “who commended and indeed supported the work that the twinning group was doing and had achieved.”