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An Outsider’s Inside View of History in Scotland

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When I arrived in Scotland, I saw blue and white (the colors of Scotland) stickers reading “Yes” everywhere—on cars, street signs, windows, even my neighbor’s toaster. Windows were hung with “Yes” flags, which also littered a street I walked by to get to class each morning. I had  never seen a single word carry so much meaning, so much hope and fear and history.  Independence from the UK for Scotland, yes.   

At the beginning of my Scotland experience, independence was such a tense issue that almost every conversation I had leading up to the referendum turned to it. I opened a bank account and in minutes, I knew the bank teller was a Yes voter. My Chaucer professor was No, Thanks. My tour bus driver, roommates, doctor, pharmacist—everyone had a stance. Whether you were in it to ensure your children had the freedom your ancestors had contested for centuries, or to ensure you weren’t paying off UK debts, or because you liked the Queen, you were most definitely in it.  

Opinions everywhere  

Opinions ranged from intelligent to ridiculous. One of my favorites was during a No, Thanks rally in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, on the site where public hangings used to take place. A couple of Yes supporters had come to heckle and saw the No Thanks speaker was drinking Irn Bru, a popular Scottish soda. (Irn Bru is banned in Canada because of its sugar content. It tastes like a blend of bubblegum and cotton candy and is drunk with meals, mixed with alcohol, and praised as a hangover cure.) The Yes supporter shouted, “Just cause you’re drinking Irn Bru doesn’t mean you know what’s best for Scotland.” 

The night of the referendum—a Thursday and karaoke night—I wanted to sing 500 Miles by the Proclaimers, a band from the Edinburgh suburb of Leith. But I was denied as the karaoke deejay said, “Mate, you’ll start a riot.” 

That night, we stayed up til 5 a.m. and watched the votes coming in. It became clear No, Thanks would sweep with a larger than expected margin. At sunrise, the Yes voters climbed to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano whose dark, shaggy cliffs characterize the Edinburgh skyline, to mourn the loss of their chance at separating from the UK.  

This wasn’t my battle  

Watching the votes come in, thinking about my position as a foreigner in a nation so polarized and opinionated, I felt at once more a part of Scotland and also more alienated from it. Everyone had wanted to talk to me about it, seeking a third-party opinion. I had the unique experience of bearing witness to a historic moment in another country, and I nearly learned more in those weeks about the people of Scotland than I did in the rest of my year there. 

Yet this wasn’t my battle. I came from a country with a different history. When I listened to my bank teller or Chaucer professor talk about independence, I was framing their fight for independence—and being framed in return—by America’s history of gaining independence from Britain, rather than my own history as an individual. I was an emblem of my country, a country whose culture, history and spirit is dominated by independence. While I was present and involved in the Scottish independence movement, I was there as a facet of a different history.

Maddy A. (Colorado College), University of Edinburgh