Arts & Culture - Opinion

2007 - 2022

Without culture, there is no Country

Remembering and reflecting on the referendum five years on from within the Yes movement, with Stewart Bremner.

2014 was a year of hope, a year of making connections, of talking to strangers, of incredible busyness and of indefatigable creativity. It’s safe to say that it was the most intense year of my life to date.

Back in 2011, on the night when the SNP won the Scottish General Election, I was in the USA. As the results rolled in and the supposedly impossible majority became real, I was sitting with a group of artists in a gallery following an exhibition opening, of which I had been part. The first small tremors of excitement awoke in me, as I explained to the other artists what the result would mean: that a referendum on Scotland’s independence was almost certain to happen.

Yes Scotland launched the following summer, although I hardly gave it a thought. However, at the end of the year when I was again in the USA, I was inspired by my partner’s voluntary work for the Obama campaign and, having been a political spectator for a many years, I realised the time had come to become actively engaged.

I began 2013 remaking the social media graphics Yes Scotland had put out, as well as creating some of my own. I also joined Yes Edinburgh North and Leith and helped out on their street stalls – something that was well outside my comfort zone.

The YENL team were – and still are – amazing. I would not have been able to be out on the streets campaigning without their generous help and support, no less so that on a dreary Saturday morning at the Kirkgate, when I encountered an angry Unionist literally shouting right in my face. It was a first for me, but sadly not the last time.

Like countless thousands of others across the country, the direct experience of taking part in a political campaign was an eye-opening experience, in particular because this was such an important event. For the first time in my life, I felt like something I was doing might make a difference.

Just like those countless thousands, I talked to strangers at stalls, and I talked to friends and I talked to family. I listened to their worries and to their questions and I tried to remain positive and share why I believe Scotland will be better off independent.

We chipped away at the seemingly unsurmountable lead the Unionist side had at the campaign’s outset, against their constantly negative, fear-led campaign. We faced down an endlessly hostile, corporate-owned mass media and, through it all, we kept on talking and making our positive cases.

On the stalls, and at planning meetings, many friendships were forged that remain to this day, an experience shared by those thousands across the country. We made connections that have not gone away, that are ready to re-energise when the time is right, when the call again goes out.

In the storm of the indyref campaign, my experience was both one with the many and quite outside it. As well as stepping out of my comfort zone to campaign face-to-face on the streets, I also stepped out of it when I wrote to Yes Scotland’s digital team in the spring of 2013, to ask if they wanted some help with their social media graphics.

I didn’t expect anything to come of that offer and yet almost straight away I was put to voluntary work making their graphics. By October, thanks to the brilliant digital team leader Stewart Kirkpatrick, I was officially working part time for them. From being an unnamed face in the indyref storm, I entered its eye, where rather than finding a calm, there was a pressure unlike any I’ve ever experienced.

The pressure at Yes Scotland HQ came from both within and without the Yes campaign. Our support looked to us for leadership and our opposition endlessly attacked.

In the digital team, we did out best. For most of the time there was just four of us, checking the channels, creating content and countering a continual cascade of comments. It never stopped and neither did we.

In August 2014 I held a crowdfunder, so that I could join my colleagues Stewart, Kevin and Peter to campaign full-time. Friends, family and many, many others raised the funds needed – a fact that stuns me to this day. With that help, I was able to entirely throw myself into the campaign.

As August rolled into September, I remember feeling burnt out. The only moments in the day when I was not campaigning were the walks between my flat and Waverley Station and from Glasgow Queen Street to HQ. Every other minute of the day I was working. By September I was even dreaming new ideas for graphics in my sleep and somehow, when burn out threatened, I just powered on through it. To this day, I do not know how I did it.

Like so many others, I gave everything to the campaign and, at least as part of the Yes social media campaign, was successful. We utterly outperformed the No side and saw staggering levels of engagement.

I will never forget the day of the referendum, five years ago today, when the campaign was done. Still, the digital team headed into the office because there was always the cascade of comments. Yet unlike on the rest of the campaign, this day saw comments of support coming in from countries all around the world.

That amazing solidarity and support, especially in light of what followed, brings tears today. We were so close. We almost had it.

In truth, the Yes side made mistakes, that still no one seems to want to talk about publicly. The No side, I think it’s fair to say, cheated. ‘The Vow’ and the media and political onslaught following the fateful September poll that showed Yes leading, were illegal according to the framework set for the referendum. Combined, the mistakes and the illegality led to the result.

I still believe – as I had to at the time in order to do what I did – that we could have won in 2014. It would have been a thin result, much as with the EU referendum. However, I doubt that second referendum would have happened at all, should the events of 2014 have played out differently.

David Cameron’s indyref cheating and his subsequent stupendously stupid actions brought us to where we are today, to a place that we in the Yes campaign foresaw and tried to warn others about. (I have the graphics to prove this and so does the National Library of Scotland, whose digital archive includes everything I made during the indyref.)

I’ve felt almost no hope in politics since September 18th, 2014. Even though I have remained engaged with politics, it seems like positive change remains ever out of grasp.

For years after the indyref, I kept making graphics. However after the last UK General Election, I stopped. With events seeming to endlessly spiral downwards, I stepped back for the good of my health.

My work today is mostly non-political and promotes Scotland, its landscapes, its culture, its history and Scots language. Those last three, in particular, I believe are incredibly important.

Every weekend now, I am back out on the streets. At Leith and Stockbridge Markets in Edinburgh, I sell my work and I talk to strangers and I talk to friends and I talk to family. I listen to their stories and I tell them mine, about our culture, about our history and about Scots language. I hear every week the surprised laugh at seeing the Scots language written down. I see lights that goes on in eyes at the recognition of our culture.

My work is no longer political and yet, perhaps, it has never been more important politically. While talking about how good Scotland’s finances would be after independence and the need to escape from the Westminster-led madness is necessary, so too should we be talking about what makes Scotland Scotland.

Without culture, there is no country. Think about it. Culture defines a country. Culture is what binds us. Without it, a country would not exist.

Scotland’s culture, history and languages have been downplayed, ignored, trammelled, written-off and cringed at for centuries. For generations none of it was taught to us. We were more or less intentionally kept ignorant of them. Scotland was remade as North Britain, where the War of the Roses and 1066 was commonly taught and where Scots was a corrupted dialect of English, unfit for proper use. Times are changing, yet the generational legacy of miseducation remains.

So it’s time for us to remember what it is that makes Scotland unique and to embrace it and to share it. There’s never been a more important time to do so. Scotland’s future could soon be in our hands once more. We can’t let it slip from our grasp again.

Comments (14)

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  1. David Allan says:

    Five years on and it’s good to recall events many pleasant and those situations not so, many of us encountered a “kirkgate” moment or two during the momentous period of the YES Campaign.

    I have an A3 Bella Vote Yes framed poster displayed on a prominent wall at home a permanent reminder of the time and an excellent example of your work which I greatly admire.

    I hope the next campaign will re-stimulate your political work creating exciting new topical graphic material for YES2.

    1. Stewart Bremner says:

      I’ve still been making political artwork, however not the day-to-day hits on social media.

      Who knows what a future campaign will hold? I’m not on the inside of the political parties that will probably take the lead, so I may just be out in the cold!

  2. I cant believe we were crowdfunding for you to be full-time a month before polling? (!)

    1. Elaine Fraser says:


      I can’t believe I supported and donated many back then who now appear to support the erasure of my legal sex-based rights or decide to turn a blind eye.

      Well, gentlemen , here’s an idea for a poster – “the more you refuse to hear my voice …the louder I will sing!”

      1. Hi Elaine – I’m trying to find a connection between Stewart’s article and your comment?

    2. Stewart Bremner says:

      I just checked. I launched the fundraiser on August 9th. Blah blah, the stories I could tell, etc.

  3. Douglas Wilson says:

    Great article, Stewart, and timely too. Your artwork will always be synonymous with 2014 referendum campaign, at least for me.

    I agree that a country is its culture mostly, and it’s just infuriating that the Scottish government doesn’t seem to agree. Their attitude to Scottish culture is indistinguishable from that of New Labour. Why is this so? I don’t know. But it is bizarre for a so-called national party to have what is a basically imported, UK based vision of Scotland’s arts and languages…

    So, we have diversity targets for Inverness or Abredeen like they have in London or Manchester, and yet Gaelic and Scots aren’t diversity criteria… how is that possible when not even 2% of the population speaks Gaelic? How much of a minority do you have to be?

    We have moved from repression and hostility of Scots and Gaelic to indifference and a blase “who cares attitude”…and I would bet about 50% of Scots think Scots is still “bad English”, definitely. Nobody has ever told them it isn’t…

    I read somewhere that Nicola Sturgeon is “no that bothered about Gaelic”… Scottish Gaelic is a language over 1000 years old. It comes from a language family thousands upon thousands of years old, going back milenia before the Romans invaded Britain in 50 AD roughly…. one of the last language families of pre Roman Europe…

    How can any responsible person who cares about Scottish culture be indifferent / no that bothered about Gaelic or Scots? It makes you want to weep…

    Meanwhile, in the Basque Country, in Catalonia, in Galicia, all kids are taught their national languages at school, and the populations of these parts of Spain are totally bilingual, except for older people… It makes you want to weep, man…

    To have a native, ancient Celtic language like Scottish Gaelic is a gift from history, a blessing, and a very serious responsibility which the Scottish govt, no Scottish govt, has ever taken seriously…

    1. Stewart Bremner says:

      Ah dinnae really ken tae much aboot the SG’s attitudes tae oor languages. However, this morning ah wis at the launch o a new Scots map project ah’ve been involved in, wi the Scots Language Centre, an John Swinney wis there as Minister for Education. There were twa clesses o kids there, whae hae been learnin the Scots. Ah think it might be the SNP that is behind Scots bein taught tae kids noo, so that must be a guid thing.

      1. Douglas Wilson says:

        Swinney at the Scots Language Centre you say? How very SNP… all style, and little or no substance… good photo call though…wi the bairns an that…

        I would expect the Scottish government to robustly defend Scotland’s linguistic diversity in a way comparable to their European counterparts in places like Catalonia and yet, neither Scots nor Scottish Gaelic are even included in the Common European Framework of Reference For Language after 10 years in office:

        So what’s that? How can that be? There is not even a Standard Form for Scots… which means a non Scot can’t learn it for example… Anyway…

        “Farewell to the heather an the glen
        They cleared us off for sheep and they’d do it all again
        For they still prefer sheep to thinking men
        Ah but men who think like sheep are even better
        There’s nothing much to choose between the old laird and the new
        They still don’t give a damn for the likes of me and you…”

  4. Douglas Wilson says:


    çAs the last Scot to be a serious contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature put it – the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean – the Scottish Gaelic musical repertoire is “the single biggest and most important Scottish contribution to world culture bar none…”

  5. MMT is Right says:

    The SNP is not offering independence.

    They are offering to be at the heart of a neoliberal cable at EU central.

    If you do not wake up it is people like you who will take us there.

    1. Wul says:

      In an independent Scotland the people can vote in whichever political party they want. And vote to be in, or out, of Europe. That is kind of the point in being independent. At the moment we get whatever England votes for.

      You (and others who must also have some hidden agenda) present an independent Scotland as somehow being a permanent SNP dictatorship and one-party state. Why is that?

      Do you understand what an election is? What democracy is?

      1. Richard Easson says:

        And, of course there will be no Labour, Conservative or Liberal parties as they stand at the moment since these are all British ( even possibly English) entities.

  6. florian albert says:

    Stewart Bremner’s statement that ‘for generations none of us was taught’ Scotland’s history is an oft repeated assertion which needs to be challenged.
    Writing about what was taught in Scottish schools can be problematic because of the near total absence of a national curriculum until a couple of decades ago.
    As a result of this, it is possible that there were children who learned no Scottish history in their school.
    On the other hand there is strong evidence that a great deal of Scottish history was being taught it Scottish schools. The evidence is in the plethora of books which educational publishers in Scotland published and reprinted. Printing and publishing was a massive industry in Scotland, led by firms such as Collins. Like so much of Scottish industry it vanished almost overnight at the time of the Thatcherite recession of 1980-1982.
    Growing up in Scotland in the 1950s and 1960s, I was taught Scottish history. One thing we were never taught was to view ourselves as victims.

    Living in Leith five years ago, I totally agree that the YES side won the campaign in the run up to the September referendum. However, when the votes were counted, Edinburgh North and Leith voted 60 – 40 to remain in the UK.

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