Coming Full Circle
In my early teens, I loved the band, The Corries and, with a little group of friends would walk around our council estate singing Flower of Scotland, that song about the defeat of the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, beloved yet by city drunks and football fans. We’d wave saltires, wear Lion Rampant flags like capes, and trying to impress upon any adults we met how important it was that our country detached itself politically from England, the land of the Sassenach.
Even now, I can remember the lyrics of ‘Come now, Gather now’, the Corries’ Jacobite call to arms and the way I wore my Lanarkshire accent and vocabulary like a badge of pride.
But by my late teens, I eschewed such sentiment. It was racist, I declared. Why should we be so parochial and inward looking? I put my education where my very big mouth was and went to study in London. And there the conflict began. The head of Department, who had interviewed me for my place, was the late and very wonderful Karl Millar, who spoke to me of Scottishness and what it meant to him, living and happy in England. He was the most successful and celebrated Scottish person I had ever met, and gave me hope of belonging, in a university where too often I felt out of place and where my accent was highlighted by a linguistics lecturer as an example of ‘lower class’ speech. When I met Karl again, much, much later, at a literary party, he confided he was ‘too old for the weather now’ or otherwise might have moved ‘back home’. Now I wish I’d asked why he had changed so.
I started dating an Italian man while I was still an undergraduate and did so for years. He was from the South and had the same feelings of insecurity and vague unworthiness when in Northern Italy, that I secretly harboured in London. But we both embraced the history of the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, without really paying much attention to the cracks left behind, and thought yes, together is better, stronger.
Circumstances, in the form of a scholarship, brought me back to Edinburgh for my PhD, and nothing really changed. Edinburgh, unlike Glasgow, which I thought of as my home city, was still very much a place of the Union. For me, the castle, the gardens, Arthur’s seat, which I passed every day on the bus on my way to the department, were somehow British and so was I.
I still regarded Scottish Nationalists with disdain. These were people who mocked England, a country where many people I loved dearly were born and raised. I lived in London, after my studies were completed. I loved my job. I met my (Dutch, Kiwi, Romany) husband, Alan, and saw London as my city, a metropolis which made such random chance encounters seem more likely and easier than any place I’d ever been.
But while my attitude remained steady, what the Scottish National Party represented did not. I was living in London and didn’t get a vote in the first independence referendum, but I would have voted no. By then I’d worked in three different countries in mainland Europe and was again teaching at an English University. I was European to my core, and that to me included all of the UK. Scotland breaking away, might also mean leaving Europe, or at the very worst a nervous waiting period when we reapplied to join. I even said as much on a Channel 4 show when asked to make a comment.
I also felt disenfranchised. My family was in Scotland and when not working I was there in the house I grew up in. I spent far more time in our Bellshill scheme than the majority of people with second homes who popped over a few times a year for a holiday. Yet they were able to vote.
It was only then that I started to read about Civic Nationalism. I had worked extensively with refugees and asylum seekers, those who had settled in Scotland kept in touch and spoke to me of a sense of belonging of welcoming. It wasn’t just a romantic notion but a tangible thing. Being born in a place did not and should not really give me any particular rights; being part of that country, living there, should. It was a concept that intrigued me. Independence was about growth and self-determination, my old ideas of Nationalism, and indeed those prevalent in the country when I was growing up, had been swept away for something inclusive and developmental. A change had come, and I hadn’t noticed it.
And then there was Brexit.
The night before the election my husband had been working in the Home Counties and came in late. ‘We’re going to lose,’ he said.
I didn’t believe him; it was inconceivable to me. He told me he had driven through streets of English flags, Union Jacks and Brexit heralding. I argued and said, come on, look at all the saltires when we go home and everyone there will still vote to Remain (no matter where I lived, or for how many decades, Scotland was always referred to as home, something I didn’t notice till a bemused colleague pointed it out to me). I didn’t know a single Scottish Leave supporter, not one. It’s like turkeys voting for Christmas, I said. It won’t happen.
But it did.
And there was a shift too. While my husband who had been in the UK for more than twenty years was registering for Settled Status, Scotland was welcoming ‘new Scots’ as they affectionately called non-native incomers on social media. My job, which I loved and still do, is in Hertfordshire, but my mum was in her eighties, and I was regularly commuting to Scotland to check up on her. Could we reverse the commute? My husband was looking for other work, at one interview down South, he was asked if he didn’t want to ‘become British’ (he doesn’t). My university, like many others, during the pandemic, was exploring blended learning and what could be gained from it, and the commute to teach my students would be no worse than the one I’d been making for years to see my mum.
So, we moved. To Stirling. There was an irony that I was now living in the home of the Battle of Bannockburn, like an off-key echo of the old song I had once sung, wrapped in a flag. My mum was half an hour away, there were dear friends to see at a similar distance, as soon as Covid permitted, and there were those vistas of hills and history, that even, months later, make my heart sing when I pass them. I still work in England. I have no wish to change my job and don’t see why I should, so long as they are happy to keep me. My university is inclusive and welcoming, we are educating young people to be the best that they can be wherever they choose to call home, wherever they choose to belong.
I still have questions. I’m unsure why people who own a house here but don’t live in it are entitled to vote. The sectarianism so prevalent in my youth, flares up still from time to time, and I worry about its effects. I worry that an independent Scotland, might not be welcomed back into the EU, that the heartbreak of a divorce, this time an unwilling one, unasked for and unwanted, might recur.
But, and this is important, it is possible, despite the chattering of Unionists on twitter, and Brexit voters everywhere, to live in one country and work in another. We did exactly this for four years when we lived on the Italian side of the border and worked in France and Monaco.
It is also possible to believe that one of those countries, Scotland, should have the independence that the majority of its citizens now want, that the country will be kinder, fairer, stronger, as a result.
And finally, it is also very, very easy to believe both of these things, without even a vestige of dislike for the people of England, and the rest of the UK. Perhaps the other countries in the Union will also break away. They can enjoy the governments they choose to vote for, something Scotland hasn’t been able to do for many a year. If the majority in England and Wales want to be separate from the EU, then, fine, let them be so. But let us make our own choices, let the country that has grown up and away from anti English sentiment, from racism, be the adult it wants to be. It’s well past the age of consent, the right to make its own decisions. Next time, I’ll be voting yes.
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