The People’s Referendum


In the weeks and months leading up to September’s referendum, Peter Geoghegan travelled across Scotland – and Europe – meeting people on all sides of the independence debate. In this extract from his new book ‘
The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be The Same Again’, he journeys through the Scottish Borders.

“We’re looking for the cairn.”

The woman behind the counter in the Cadbury’s outlet store in the Gretna Gateway shopping centre stared silently over my shoulder. All around her, piled precariously high, were clear plastic bags filled to bursting with Roses chocolates and mini-Wispas. “Any 2 for £6,” declared signs in red dotted across the shop.

‘”We’re looking for the cairn,” I tried again. “Rory Stewart’s cairn.”

There was a flicker of recognition. “Oh yeah, that.”

The directions were not great, but they were good enough. After wandering through the sprawling Gateway car park, myself and my companion, a young bearded Greenie from Edinburgh, finally spotted a homemade sign on the edge of the road: “The Cairn”. An arrow pointed into a field.

The Auld Acquaintances Cairn was the brainchild of Rory Stewart. The Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border had opened the cairn a few months earlier to give “ordinary people the chance to show how they feel.” Stewart’s solution was a circular pile of rocks and scree behind a car park on the border. Behind it flags of all the nations in the union fluttered in the stiff breeze. Traffic whirred past on the road just beyond the hedge. It was very loud.

Stewart had hoped, he said, that the cairn would reach nine feet tall, but three weeks before the referendum it was barely a third of that. A short walkway connected the cairn’s outer and inner walls. It looked more like a miniature golf course than an archaeological relic.

We spent half an hour wandering around the site. There was nobody else there. The whole scene could have been borrowed from an episode of Father Ted. There was a gazebo in blue and white with Stewart’s name above it and a pair of empty deck chairs. A sign invited visitors to add a fresh stone to the pile. You could even paint your lump of rock. Open tins in shades of red, white and blue stood adjacent to a plastic bag filled with used gloves. On the ground, an orgy of spilt paint bore a passing resemblance to an A-level student’s pastiche of Jasper Johns. Some of the rocks on the cairn carried popular unionist slogans. One said “Better Together”, another “Let’s Stay as One”. The menacing “All One Blood All One Nation” was more the exception than the rule.

One particularly ornate slab of drystone, decorated with the Union flag and a Scottish Saltire, declared “Proud to be Scottish. Proud to Be British. Please Let’s Stay Together.” The ‘Please’ was underlined, as if to emphasis the essential politeness of it all. Even the “yes to independence” scrawled in the cairn’s well-thumbed guest book appeared more mischievous than malicious.

As we stood in the field, I found myself feeling sorry for the people who have taken the time to come to Gretna and carried their stones to this unloved hillock of rocks. Throughout the referendum, Better Together – dubbed Project Fear on account of its oft-unrelenting negativity – spoke of economic uncertainty and “the pound in your pocket”, not of four nations united. Where was the heart in the Union? Where was the emotional case for why these four peoples really were better together? Earlier that day, we had visited a food bank in Dumfries run by “Yes” activist – and amateur novelist – Mark Frankland. Born in Lancashire, Frankland had moved to Dumfries with his wife and two children in 1996. Westminster’s welfare reforms had, he said, convinced him of the need for independence.

Before we left the cairn, my Greenie friend and I walked across a molehill-filled field to the River Sark. “So this is the border?” I asked. “I believe so, yeah.”

We stood staring in silence at an inert stretch of water, about ten feet wide. A rust-coloured leaf fell from an overhanging tree. It felt very peaceful.

Everyone admits the Border countryside is of another world, of a limpid beauty, tranquillity and gentle intensity that stuns if only because the visible gawping tourists are almost nil.
John Murray, Reiver Blues, 1996.

Borders are defining lines, creating places and people, nations and nationalities. The Scottish Borders is often depicted as a peaceful land of picturesque villages, panoramic valleys and horizon-filling peat bog. But the more than 80-mile long line separating Scotland and England was not always so tranquil. Between the 13th and the 16th centuries this was a wild, dangerous place. Borderers could rarely go to sleep without the fear of attack from Reviers, the rough balladeering men who launched frequent raids into enemy territory, stealing livestock and disrupting quotidian life. Nonetheless, in the same partisan manoeuvring seen today across borders from Kosovo to South Sudan, trouble at the frontier often served a political purpose for the Scottish and English potentates. Nowhere was this truer than “the Debatable Lands”.

The Debatable Lands, as the name suggests, were held by neither Scotland nor England but claimed by both. Local clans controlled the territory, about 40 square miles extending from the Solway Firth at Gretna to Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway. The names of the clansmen have a familiar ring: Armstrong, Elliot, Scott, Charlton, Robson, Bell, Graham. These are the surnames of many of the largest landowners on both sides of the border today. Four centuries ago these were the families that, backed by a clan-based devotion to banditry and romantic notions of honour, marshalled some of the most ferocious of the Reivers. In Scotland, the Reivers were cursed by the national churches and even excommunicated. English Reviers (who were often related to their Scottish foes) suffered a similar fate. But business was good; the thievery continued.


The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be The Same Again by Peter
 Geoghegan is published by Luath Press. Copies are available from:

What eventually sealed the Reivers’ fate was the same event that spelled the end of an independent Scotland: the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Overnight, the strategic rationale for allowing the Reivers to run amok vanished. King James set about destroying the Reivers and the conditions that allowed them to thrive. Strongholds on both sides of the border were demolished. The ordinary law of the land replaced the cruder Borders variant. The theft of goods or cattle “amounting to the value of 12d” became punishable by death. There are reports of broken men being hung in Hawick until the town ran out of rope.

Overtime the Borders were pacified. The belligerent reputation was replaced by a softer image of soporific bucolicism. The Borders, in the popular imaginary, became a place where change happened slowly, if it happened at all. The people voted Liberal or Conservative and displayed little appetite for radicalism. But it was not always thus.

* * * * * *

“Welcome to Coldstream – The First True Border Toon” declared a road sign just over the stone bridge that spans the River Tweed. On the High Street, a row of Saltires flew from the railings of a cark park. Further down the street, a Union flag with “Better Together” printed across it occupied most of a shop window display. Below it the faces of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon had been superimposed onto a pair of cartoon sheep, with a placard that said “don’t let this pair pull the wool over your eyes.” The shop’s owner was an amiable septuagenarian named, almost inevitably, Jock.

‘I’m against, definitely against,’ he said, shaking his head when I asked about the upcoming vote.
Coldstream felt like the most unionist place in Scotland that I visited during the campaign. There were Yes posters in some of the narrow terraced houses that lined the crowded High Street, but for once they were equalled, if not outnumbered, by No Thanks signs. Coldstream has a strong, material connection with the Union. It is the only town in the UK with its own army regiment. On the High Street, I called into an army surplus store called Walk This Way. The rails were filled with khakis and military fatigues, gas masks and army boots. The shop owner, Trevor Brunning was a veteran. “I think it’s a sad thing that we’ve come to this point. I’d like to see Scotland staying in the union,” said Brunning, a father of four from North London. “From my standpoint, I don’t see what the benefit would be of leaving.”
About a month after the vote, I passed through Coldstream again. It was the only place in Scotland that I saw where people still had “No Thanks” stickers in their windows.


‘Peter Geoghegan’s The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again’ is available now, published by Luath Press


Comments (24)

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  1. Matt Seattle says:

    Gala and Hawick were strong for Yes. But it’s a hard one, the Borders. Dukes own the maist o’t and they dinnae gie a frack.

    I never did get Rory. Seemed too intelligent to believe the sentimentalist unionism he was peddling. Seemed being the operative word. When you examined his arguments about the Middle-Land there was nothing there. He really missed the point.

  2. The picture of a lawless Borders ravaged by bands of marauding reivers is a familar one. In the 1970s it was consolidated in the popular imagination by George MacDonald Fraser’s book, “The Steel Bonnets” and the BBC2 drama series, “The Borderers”. But it relates only to the period between the Wars of Independence and the Union. For a period of more than 100 years between the reign of William the Lion and the invasion of Scotland by Edward I, life on the border between the kingdoms of Scotland and England was predominantly peaceful and well ordered. At the time my Norman-Flemish ancestors settled in Berwickshire, the Border abbeys and the burghs of Berwick and Roxburgh were prospering in the back of a flourishing wool trade with the Low Countries. As Professor John Cramsie writes in the current issue of “History Scotland”:

    “The advance of Anglo-Norman culture and institutions (Normanisation) achieved its greatest success outside England in the one area of the British Isles that successfully resisted political subjugation: Scotland. The paradox of medieval Scotland is that the arrival of French and English speaking knights, clerics, merchants and likely even some peasants, from England, Normandy, and across the Angevin realms, as well as ideas of church reform. commercial development, and political centralisation instead of undercutting Scottish identity and the authority of the King of Scots achieved the opposite. Normanisation prompted a redefinition of Scottishness that accommodated the kingdom’s local and regional diversity and the consolidation of a strong, confident monarchy ruling in partnership with an increasingly self-conscious political community.”

    A lot of that happened in the Borders.

    1. Dan Huil says:

      The Normans concentrated on developing farming land which was rarely used by local lairds and chiefs who were more inclined to follow traditional ways of cattle-rearing and livestock herding. The Normans, especially those from the Low Countries, reclaimed much land in Scotland – some from the sea, most from inland lochs like Spynie Loch in Moray. It seems it was a mutual arrangement which benefited the country as a whole.

  3. Lochside says:

    James vi subjugated the wild Borderers, particularly the Scots ones and cleared many famous reiver families by sword and ‘persuasion’ into the plantation of Ulster. The famine of 1696-1698 encouraged even more Border Scots to escape to Ulster.

    Fortunately for the native Irish, tens of thousands of them,once there ,discovered that the English and the Anglican Church treated them almost as badly as the Irish Catholics and these Border Scots, now Ulster Scots (soon to be designated Scotch Irish in the US) migrated to the USA.

    There, these wild men became pioneers and eschewing the New England settlements headed South and into the mountains of the East. They rebelled against the crown( such irony!) and helped win American Independence. As George Washington attested ‘the American Revolution was a Scots Irish Revolution’.

    So the Border fighting spirit never died. It lives on in the Appalachian mountains and the South, where the highest percentage of US soldiers are recruited. The current Borders is a passive shell due to never-ending emigration of the young and the increasing influx of English and middle class, middle-aged Scots.

  4. June Stewart says:

    The Borders, where I grew up, always had close ties to their southern neighbours.
    That close relationship with England was summed up by one voter overheard leaving a polling station in Dumfries.

    “I cannae even understand why we’re voting on this,” he was telling a friend. “We’ve been friends with them for years.”

    1. Heather says:

      Having lived in Scotland for half of my life, brought up on Tyneside, feom day one, I could never understand why anyone in Scotland would not want to be Independent. I still can’t get my head round it and yes, as the referendum took, place, it seemed the most bizarre thing that a country would have to even have to vote to have self determination. What a strange concept, but then it took a few days after Sept 18th for the penny to drop, westminster were never, never going to let Scotland go without a fight to the death.

    2. Independence is not about severing friendships. I believe Scottish independence can strengthen social and economic links across the Border. It is interesting that the European Union has established mechanisms to encourage cross-border collaboration between member states. There are no equivalent mechanisms to support cross-border collaboration between the various administrations of the United Kingdom.

  5. Darien says:

    The English living in Scotland, predominantly and with few notable exceptions, demonstrate zero aspiration for Scottish nationhood; indeed, 80%+ of them voted No, and actively thwarted our nationhood, and that was decisive. Rory is upper class – he clearly does not ‘get it’, and probably never will.

    1. Matt Seattle says:

      The notorious but accurate distinction between ‘colonists’ and ‘settlers’ springs to mind. Did they learn nothing from empire? Independence is inevitable: the imperial power can choose to make the transition good-willed, but tends not to as far as I can see.

    2. Doon the A701 says:

      Indeed, the aspiration for Scottish nationhood is less intense in the Borders region, with 67% voting against independence and with Dumfries and Galloway not far behind. And for sure there are a lots of English people living in my part of the Borders, who probably voted no. So?

    3. Mr T says:

      I was born in England with 2 x Scottish Grandparents & 2 x English ones, moved to Scotland with work 25 yrs ago. My brother went to Edinburgh University in the 80s and still lives there, with his Irish wife who is a mix of both sides of the Irish border. My children were born & brought up in Scotland but both now work in England.

      I don’t think that any of us define ourselves as English, Scottish or even Irish. We’re just people who have moved around in the UK, or the British Isles in the case of my Sister in Law. Is it surprising that we don’t have an aspiration for Scottish nationhood?

      However, had Scotland voted Yes we would have been part of the new nation and it was fair that we had a say in the referendum (exc. my kids), just as it was fair that expat Scots who would not have been part of the new nation did not get a say (inc. my kids). I’ve got some sympathy for those who were away temporarily and didn’t get a vote, but the line has to be drawn somewhere and I think that the rules were a good compromise.

      1. Darien says:

        “we don’t have an aspiration for Scottish nationhood”

        In other words, for you, assuming you voted ‘No’ to effectively help thwart Scotland’s nationhood, British nationhood clearly trumps Scottish nationhood.

        “I don’t think that any of us define ourselves as English, Scottish or even Irish.”

        This will confuse Ms Sturgeon and her SNP followers who politely declare that all who live and work in Scotland are ‘Scots’.

        I don’t think Scotland would have become (post ‘Yes’) a ‘new nation’ exactly. We’re merely in the process of regaining nationhood. What would be new is that other nations would once again recognise us as a nation, instead of a colony; even RUK maybe!

        Expat Scots invariably feel ‘Scottish’, in my experience, and will probably always be a part of Scotland, though often a rather sad part given our past mass economic migration. You may have heard of the ‘Union Dividend’ – mass out-migration was one of them.

      2. Dean Richardson says:

        As far as I can tell, having observed from England, the struggle for Scottish independence went beyond narrow definitions of nationality or where your ancestors were from. It was and is about achieving a fairer, more just and more democratic society, the opposite of the Westminster way of doing things.

      3. Darien says:

        ” It was and is about achieving a fairer, more just and more democratic society”

        To a large extent you are right, which makes it all the more disconcerting why most English people (up to 80% according to pre-ref voting intention polls) who live/work in Scotland should actively vote to prevent our nation’s independence.

  6. Adam Neilson says:

    I’m English. I’m also an office bearer in my local SNP branch. Because our membership has quadrupled since the vote we’re creating a new branch – and everyone in that branch can see England from their doorsteps. The secretary of the new branch is also English.
    The person who gave an incredible ‘Immortal Memory’ at our recent Burns Supper is a very familiar face in Yes circles. He’s English too, and of the 50 or so Yes activists in this part of Scotland, around 15 are English – and every one of them is now an SNP member.
    So please, stop blaming ‘the English’ !
    Down here people were bombarded by a very efficient Tory/Labour/LibDem media campaign, while senior staff at a local English hospital were telling sick patients from Scotland that Independence would mean they would no longer be treated there.
    We discovered that it was our (Scottish) health board that paid for that treatment, so we obtained the actual figures and passed them on to the local media …. which ignored them completely.
    People who obtained their ‘facts’ from the MSM were frightened into voting ‘No’ – English, Scots, Welsh, Polish (the victims of another shocking lie) and others.
    Their nationality had very little to do with it, and it still doesn’t.

    1. Matt Seattle says:

      Thanks for that, Adam Neilson, it parallels my experience. If I were an English patriot (rather than happening to be English-born) I would still have voted for Scottish Independence in the hope that England might awake from its subservience to its feudal masters.

      The relationship of the Borders to its own feudal overlords needs no comment from me. But here’s one from a friend – “Everything up to the garden wall, I own. Everything else, as far as you can see, that belangs the Duke” (he who paid for the large purple No Thanks signs in all the fields).

      1. SquirrelTowers says:

        Hope you are all going to fill out the Land Reform consultation, it ends on the 10th Feb. You can do it online

  7. arthur thomson says:

    @Adam Neilson Yes Adam, there are many English people who are active supporters of Scottish independence and they have my respect – my highest accolade!. In my opinion those English people who did not wish to support Scottish independence should have had abstained from voting in the Referendum. Cuckoos in the nest? I don’t expect these people to agree with my opinion but I would ask them to reflect on the significance of their votes in determining the outcome. Perhaps they were just unconvinced but perhaps they were being less than respectful.

    1. Monty says:

      By that logic all English people in Scotland and perhaps all non Scottish born people should have abstained from the vote whatever their view.

      1. Doon the A701 says:

        Taking that theory – the 2011 census shows that 16% of Scotland’s population identify as not born in Scotland. Using that percentage (and assuming the same proportions of eligible to vote and actually voted) the total number of votes from non Scots born was just under 580,000. The census also identifies 25% of non Scots born who actually feel Scottish. Assume they voted YES and the other 75% voted NO. Deduct these percentages of the 580,000 from the actual votes cast for YES and NO and you end up with 48.5% YES and 51.5% NO. Closer but still a NO result. Please feel free to correct my school-boy arithmetic or point out any flaws.

      2. Darien says:

        The English are Scotland’s largest ethnic minority group, the 2011 census ‘officially’ showing 408,000 and with the ongoing upward trends this will now be around 450,000; unofficially, it will probably be higher due to census lag and the fact the census does not pick up everyone anyway. However the massive increase in registrations for the 2014 referendum reflects the likelihood that many more English people registered in order to get a vote, e.g. students studying here; those owning holiday and second homes and rented property addresses; those working here staying in temp accommodation; UK military personnel and families stationed here; and others who simply registered via a relative or friend’s address in Scotland in order to get a vote. No doubt there were other options used to register as well. Thus, around 500,000 English people voting ‘No’ (i.e. 70%+ of say a total ‘inflated’/ registered ‘English’ pop of 650,000-700,000 registered) would not be entirely unrealistic. As 500,000 was the actual margin of difference permitting a ‘No’ win, it is very significant indeed. This effectively means that the English vote probably pushed ‘No’ over the winning line. Remember there was considerable momentum down south especially amongst the upper/middle/landed classes to ‘keep’ Scotland part of UK and it was known that all sorts of dodges would be used to get folk to register; and nothing to stop them doing so. The (actually unbelievably) large turnout was not only due to poor folks in cities registering for the first time in years, as the BBC and MSM, and even Yes campaigners suggested.

      3. Doon the A701 says:

        Darien, the census figures I’m reading show the largest ethnic minority in Scotland as 417,100, classed as White: other British. However, only 78% of this number identified as being born in England. So that would make 325,338 English people. It beats me how your estimate gets this number to more than double in 3 years to your claimed 650,000-700,000?

        I agree that it was a fantastic turnout but would suggest that the “poor folks in cities registering for the first time” might have helped the NO campaign. This is evidenced in the SEG section of Ashcroft’s post-ref poll showing 56% voting NO in classification DE – the least well off.

      4. Darien says:

        My point is the census figures do not tell the whole story, or maybe even half the story. The poorest newly registered voted Yes in their droves in cities like Dundee and Glasgow, so you cannot simply say the poor voted No. Edinburgh voted mainly No – largely because it is nowadays full of middle class professionals plus thousands of students, and has tens of thousands of rented properties from which it was easy for owners and their families to register from. In addition to that I also gave several other realistic options for people to register, and these are people who would not necessarily show up in the census. You appear to ignore all these opportunities. What I am saying is that there was clearly absolutely nothing to stop an extra 200,000+ English No voters registering and that in my view is what happened. The abnormally and very high postal vote, in addition to the unbelievable number of new registrations, serves to support such a hypothesis. The English vote therefore would relatively easily account for around 25% of the No vote – 500,000. I appreciate probably the only way to confirm this is to go through registrations with a fine tooth comb, and that is something the referendum regulators will not do. But I suspect if they did they would find a helluva lot of Tristrams, Julians and Peregrines, and a great many non-Scottish surnames. Scope for a Better Together fiddle was enormous and Scots are naïve to think otherwise.

  8. Doon the A701 says:

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I for one do not believe that there was any skulduggery to magic up an extra 200,000 English NO voters. But maybe I am gullible? I didn’t say the poor voted NO – I simply stated what was in the detail of the Ashcroft poll. In fact I admired the YES campaign when they enthusiastically reached out to many people in poorer areas who had never previously voted, helping them to register.

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