Wednesday, 27 August 2014


September 2014

Has Scotland ever had a more important month?

Perhaps not just Scotland.  People in the rest of the United Kingdom, and further afield, are abandoning political apathy as they await the result of the suspense story which is the long-awaited referendum on September 18.

Or as a London journalist[1] put it recently:-

“it’s almost a relief, as an English Brit, not to have to come to a decision about that deceptively simple referendum question Should Scotland be an independent country?  My usual rule of thumb on Scottish questions (what would the Proclaimers do?) doesn’t seem quite adequate on this occasion.”

The refrains of their 1988 song - “I’m gonna be (500 miles)" - sung in pronounced Scottish accents by Auchtermuchty twins rekindles fond memories of last month’s Commonwealth Games.   
The image of a Jamaican resident, the fastest man on earth, gyrating to a paean to Scottish success became an unintentional global highlight of a glorious summer of sport.

Commonwealth Games

Organised and hosted superbly by Scotland’s second city, the most important outcome was an unexpectedly high medal haul for the home nation.  
If ever there were an advertisement of collective national determination and pride there it was, emphatic in full public view.

The Games were intended as a respite from politics economics and the daily grind.  
And yet, observers couldn’t help speculating whether or not the exuberant performances of Scotland’s athletes might somehow sprinkle magic dust and a smidin of momentum over the Yes campaign.

One easily-quantified fact was the enormous boost that the Games provided to Scotland’s image and tourism industry.  
For marketing professionals, this must be an easy sell anyway.  Here is a place with a unique appeal and a clear identity.  Maybe time to remind the world that people make Glasgow – and Scotland too for that matter.   
It has, after all, been a few years since Braveheart hit the big screens.

Visitors admire, nay watch with jealousy, the unselfconscious pride that Scots take in parading their folklore and customs.  
The sight and sounds of massed ranks of kilted Scotsmen and women with droning bagpipes at events like the Edinburgh Tattoo, the artistry of Scottish traditional dancing including the sword dance, the wearing of tartan national dress at weddings and international rugby matches – all of this makes an indelible impact on outsiders.

Shared heritage

Ireland, both north and south, can easily identify with this display of cultural pride.   
The Scots are our celtic siblings.   

The comedian Billy Connolly joked once that the reason why the Scots and Irish are mad is that we have become bewildered by switching populations on countless occasions throughout our history.

These repeated population movements substantially pre-date (and also post-date) the seventeenth century Plantation of Ulster.  
There is evidence that the Romans’ original name for Ireland was Scotia.  The Scoti people were originally Irish but later resettled in Scotland.  

According to the Trinity College Dublin website:- In “The Book of Armagh folio 16v
a text inserted around the year 1005 celebrates Brian Boru as Imperator Scotorum (Emperor of the Irish).  It was written to record an agreement between Brian and Ireland’s most powerful church, Armagh."
As I said at my son’s recent wedding in a twelfth century castle in quaint Quothquan South Lanarkshire, this process of exchange has continued through the ages right up to the modern era.   

So much so that, with two daughters and a son now living and married in Scotland, this family can claim to be helping the relationship on its special way.

The music and dancing of Ireland and Scotland, both in traditional and modernised forms, are enjoyed throughout Europe and further afield.  The sheer depth of beauty evoked by the instrumentation and singing stimulates the full range of emotions from haunting sadness to ecstatic happiness.

The North Uist songstress Julie Fowlis[2], who sings in Scots Gaelic as well as in English, achieves this feat in a style and language similar to Donegal’s Altan[3].  
And almost as if to dare to take on the Scots at their own speciality, the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band from County Antrim has won the World Pipe Band Championship in Glasgow for the tenth time[4].  Omnes ad unum.

Kilts, clans, ceilidhs, jigs and reels, not to mention uisce bheatha, folk musicians, and ancient games like shinty and hurling and are examples of the common heritage of both nations.  
So too are the sonorous and clueful Gaelic place-names and surnames, signposted bilingually throughout Scotland.


Scotland has inspired some of the world’s great inventors.

Consider the achievements of people like Alexander Graham Bell, John Louden McAdam, Thomas Telford, John Logie Baird, James Watt and Adam Smith.  
Where would the world be without telephones, macadamised road surfacing, design of roads bridges and canals, television, the steam engine condenser, modern economics and the Age of Enlightenment? 

Scottish inventiveness carries the hallmarks of gravitas, originality and quality.

Natural beauty

The country’s geographical landscape is a priceless asset.   
Travelling outside the magnificence of cosmopolitan Edinburgh and Glasgow, the splendours of rural Scotland stir the senses.  
The natural beauty of the Caledonian countryside provides us all with a mesmerising variety of scenic splendour which is way beyond a value.

I have been lucky to visit places like Orkney with its majestic archaeology at Skara Brae; the Isle of Lewis where Sunday is special, strictly observed and Gaelic is the first language; the Isle of Skye where our family surname is used in Portree’s central square; Highland Games; National Trust Scotland properties such as Culzean Castle in Ayrshire; and more recently the rolling hills and streams of the Borders. 

Skara Brae Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site

Somerled Square Portree, Isle of Skye
Massed bands bagpipes & drums - Highland Games Crieff

Tossing the caber - Highland Games Crieff

18th century Culzean Castle, former home of Marquess of Ailsa, the chief of Clan Kennedy

All a million miles from politics, and each place offering fáilte[5] gu Alba.

Public engagement

In the everyday world, the rational manner in which Scotland’s people have conducted the debate has been impressively constructive.

I recall the robust debate among the politicians in the UK in the lead-up to the UK joining the European Economic Community, the EEC or Common Market, on 1 January 1973.  
This was intensified before the first-ever UK-wide referendum on any issue, and which took place in June 1975.  It was about whether or not to stay in the EEC.  
Both the Labour and Conservative parties were split internally. 

But the lively and healthy quality of debate ensured that the issues were teased out fully.
The same thing has been happening in Scotland this year, and rationally so.

As one London correspondent[6] has put it

“The 95% of sane normal voters on both sides have shown a level of maturity tolerance and knowledge much higher than the politicians they’re being led by.  It has forced the UK to think about the things it takes for granted and it has made everyone aware of what Scotland has and always will contribute to the world...”

Commenting on the TV debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, a leading journalist in Belfast [7] put it this way:-

“The thing that struck home immediately is the difference between Scottish attitudes and our own, even when it was a nationalist debating the border with a unionist....There were no rows over what flag would be flown and no mention of battles long ago...The debate wasn’t pitched in terms of treachery or loyalty...It is hard to imagine constitutional change being discussed so reasonably here....It was a fact-based discussion, not an emotional rant...We could learn from them.”

Yes or No

Professor Tom Devine, a man described as “as close to a national bard as the nation has” justifies his recently reached decision to vote yes[8] as based on “a clear national narrative underpinned by objective and rigorous academic research...a resilient economic system and reserves of power (oil and wind)....”

On the other side of the debate, some foreigners have eschewed timorousness and voiced their opinion.   
Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister of Australia, is quoted as saying that Scottish independence would be a victory for the enemies of freedom and justice...while an independent Scotland would make little positive impact on the world stage.  
The Times newspaper (whose proprietor also happens to be Australian) endorses Mr Abbott’s stance that Scottish independence would be a blow to Western liberal democracy[9].

If the result of the referendum reflects the opinion polls and the outcome is close, the margin of victory will be small with a large consequent minority.  
If only for that reason, the real debate about Scotland’s dependence or sovereignty will begin on and after 19 September.   
The closer the outcome, whichever side of the argument prevails, the more intense will be the subsequent talks.

Whatever choice the people make, the world will not end.  Scotland will still be Scotland the brave.

It will continue to have a border with England and remain close neighbours of Wales Ireland and Norway. 
It will still have heather, single malt whisky, the Edinburgh Festival, Scots porridge oats, midges, shortbread biscuits, Irn Bru, the Lough Ness monster, Tam o‘Shanter hats, beautiful islands loughs and mountains, romantic castles, fantastic museums, top universities, and will still be the home of golf.

What an exciting time it is to visit, and witness history happening peacefully.

©Michael McSorley 2014

[1] Tim Adams Observer 3 Aug 2014
[5] The Scots Gaelic fada faces back rather than forward (as is written above)
[6] Observer 10 August Bella Bathurst “Salmond and Darling squabble, but the real conversation is elsewhere.”
 [7] Belfast Telegraph 28 August 2014 Liam Clarke. “Reasoned calm of Salmond and co a far cry from our histrionics”
[8] Observer 17 Aug 2014 p 7 “Scotland’s leading historian makes up his mind: it’s yes to independence.”
[9] The Times 16 August 2014 p6 “Scots independence a bad idea” Giles Whittell and p26 (editorial)