Thousands march in Scotland over whisky plant closure

LONDON: Thousands of people took to the streets of a Scottish town Sunday to protest against the planned closure of a whisky plant with the loss of some 700 jobs, organisers said.

Holding banners, 20,000 protesters, including politicians, workers and their families and members of the town football team, marched through Kilmarnock in western Scotland where Johnnie Walker started blending whisky in the 1820s.

The country's First Minister Alex Salmond said the protest was another step in a campaign to try to keep open the bottling plant and a grain distillery in nearby Glasgow, both owned by drinks giant Diageo.

"The tens of thousands at the demonstration today in Kilmarnock is a demonstration of the absolute willing and determination in this town and this community to keep Johnnie Walker in this community," Salmond told the crowd.

"So let's have no more nonsense from anyone that these proposals are in any way socially acceptable to the people of Scotland."

Diageo has said the closure of the Johnnie Walker bottling plant and Port Dundas distillery over a two-year period will lead to the loss of 900 jobs.

As part of its restructuring and investment plans, the company has said the redundancies would be offset by the creation of 400 jobs at its packaging plant in Fife in eastern Scotland.

But union leaders said the closure would have a devastating impact on communities which have strong links to the whisky brand.

"This is a company that made a 2.2-billion pound (2.5 billion euro, 3.6 billion dollar) profit last year and has already declared half yearly profits of 1.6 billion pounds," Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey said.

"This is company that does not need to take the drastic decisions that they have that will damage and destroy families and blight communities."

The campaign to keep open the plant has drawn celebrity support, including Scottish band The Proclaimers, the BBC reported.

On its website, Diageo says John Walker opened a grocery store in 1820 in Kilmarnock before experimenting with blending malt whiskies, which eventually evolved into the top-selling brand.

Scotland is a semi-independent country with a devolved government which handles most domestic policy areas, since 2007 run by the separatist Scottish National Party.

Salmond's SNP plans to hold a referendum in 2010 seeking a mandate to negotiate the end of the 300-year-old political union with England that created Britain.