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Scotland Votes 'No,' but Dreams Persist

The following opinion piece by Michelle Brock, assistant professor of history, appeared in the Sept. 22, 2014, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted here by permission.

Scotland Votes ‘No,’ but Dreams Persist

Michelle Brock
Assistant Professor of History

Driving to work Thursday, the morning of the referendum, I spotted four Scottish flags along U.S. Route 11. One hung from a fence, two flew atop flagpoles, and the fourth added blue to the bumper of a Ford pickup.

In the Shenandoah Valley where I live and work, many residents have a deep attachment to Scotland. For some, this connection stems from their Scottish ancestors who settled this part of Virginia. For others, myself included, the love of Scotland emerged from a first trip to the cobbled streets of Edinburgh or the mountains and glens of the Highlands. When the world awoke Friday morning to the news that the independence movement had failed, and decisively at that, many of these Virginia Scotophiles likely felt a twinge of disappointment (perhaps only curable by a dram or two).

In my estimation, three primary reasons motivated these Americans to cross their fingers for a “yes” vote in solidarity with the Scots who yearned for an independent nation.

First — and this is especially relevant in the American South — the campaign for Scottish independence enticed those who advocate states’ rights and disdain big government in all of its guises. That President Obama and both Clintons vocalized support for continued union was just icing on the cake. The irony is that the progressive goals of the Scottish National Party and many “yes” voters would make tea party types blanch, but the principle of further decentralized power was applauded nonetheless. On the flip side, many on America’s political left identified with the “yes” campaign’s desire to build in Scotland the sort of liberal, socialized democracy one finds in Scandinavia. All logistics aside, Scottish independence appealed, and will continue to appeal, to those in this country who dream of a better, more prosperous society, however that might be defined.

What has struck me most, though, amid the entire independence hullabaloo is the extent to which we Americans buy into a largely romanticized version of Scottish history that reinforces our own. When discussing the referendum with friends and colleagues in the days leading up to the vote, I inevitably heard references to tartans and kilts, to the Celtic language and bagpipes, and to William Wallace crying “Freedom!” in perhaps the most historically inaccurate movie of all time.

These symbols, however, were for centuries generally eschewed in the Scottish Lowlands by a substantially Anglicized population intent on oppressing remnants of Gaelic culture in the Highlands. Only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when across Europe nationalism crept into its heyday, were such symbols of Highland life revived, assumed and even fabricated as core components of broader Scottish identity. In the decades after the contentious parliamentary union of 1707, Scots throughout Britain embraced a culture they had long demeaned, appropriating the Jacobite or Highlander cause as the last stand of an independent Scotland. This starry-eyed and often revisionist retelling has captivated many Americans who look to the Scottish past (and present) for reflections of their own romanticized story of independence and nationhood.

Even across the pond, much of the Scottish public has embraced a perception of their history that is idealized and inspiring in equal measure. Though endlessly frustrating for historians, this romancing of the past serves a distinct purpose for independence movements. This is not to say that the “yes” campaign overtly promoted such simplistic narratives of the Scottish past or that Scots do not understand their own history. I am suggesting, however, that historical imagining, even subconsciously, imbued more than 1.6 million people in Scotland with the confidence to vote “aye” in the face of serious uncertainty and unanswered questions. The image of the proud, free, tartan-clad and bagpipe-loving Scot as a fixed, unchanging icon may be far from historically accurate, but it is as powerful and unifying as the mythology surrounding Paul Revere’s ride or George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.

For much of the campaign leading up to the referendum, the “no” camp spoke primarily to the left-brains of Scots, making arguments about finance and defense that were at best practical and at worst condescending. Only in the eleventh hour, when the tide appeared to have shifted toward independence, did the political elite in Britain make sincere emotional appeals to the Scottish public. But history ebbs and flows not according to rationality and empiricism alone. It depends, too, on the heart and on the power of personal and communal sentiments that often belie what is practical.

Though cooler heads decisively prevailed on Sept. 18, the “no” vote will not quell calls for further political and social autonomy. It will not erase the yearning for change in so many Scottish hearts. Looking back on the years that led up to 1776, John Adams observed that before any actual break from Britain, the American Revolution already existed “in the minds and hearts of the people.” Adams’ words about our own romanticized past might yet foretell the future of the Scottish nation, though their revolution may mean manifest transformation rather than total independence.