Into the Highlands

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Sunrise came far too early and it’s off again. Today I am 34 years old and Scotland has a real chance at independence for the first time in over 300 years. My phone chimes repeatedly when I turn it on with birthday wishes from friends, coworkers, and clients. Today feels like a good day.

After about an hour and a half of driving we arrive in Elgen, the road sign count has shifted back strongly in favor of Yes and we see a fair number of stickers and a few big flags as well. There doesn’t seem to be an actual Yes office in town, though there have apparently been a good number of events and the day is getting on by the time we get breakfast in our bellies so we decide to head on to Inverness (dubbed InverYESs by local activists).

We’re deep in the highlands now and there are no longer any No posters or signs anywhere in sight and big home-made Yes signs appear regularly.

We make a stop along the way at the site of the Battle of Culloden, where my mothers Clan (The Ritchie’s) were almost wiped out holding the center of the Jacobite line. Culloden and the Jacobite’s conjure decidedly mixed feelings for me. On the one hand Prince Charles wanted absolute monarchy and was, in historical terms, little more than a pawn of the French. But the Ritchie’s and others joined him out of the belief that he would restore the Scottish Parliament and give them back home rule – and because he promised religious tolerance.

They were slaughtered, the survivors were hunted relentlessly, and the overwhelmingly Catholic highlanders were subjected to intense religious persecution for more than a century.

History is full of good people betrayed by their leaders and walking the battlefield I find myself in tears. I gather a few wildflowers and press them into a notebook to take home. To be here, today, gathering flowers on the day Scotland gets to finally vote on the act of union these men died to undo seems entirely appropriate.

50 years later, when the newly independent Mexican government was looking for Catholic immigrants to help build up the population in California to counter massive illegal immigration by hostile Americans, they invited a group of Scottish highlanders to come and gave them land grants. My great grandmother’s great grandmother’s great grandmother was one of them. I still cook some of the recipes she learned upon arriving that have been passed down in our family – mission olive and hard boiled egg enchiladas may not seem like typical Scottish fare, but that’s life on the margins of empire.

Driving into Inverness, the streetlight poles are almost all decorated with Yes posters, though a fair few have No posters too.

As elsewhere, people here are divided.

The drive to the local Yes shop takes about 15 minutes and we pass a polling station on the way. We also pass the first private residence flying a Union Jack that I’ve seen this entire trip.

The Yes shop is, ironically, located on Union street, a pedestrian-only boulevard festooned with Scottish flags and posters. Inside there’s a big crowd of excited people – some locals, some tourists (Inverness is right on the shore of Loch Ness), and lots of activists. I first talk to John and Sheena, both of whom are retired. Sheena is thrilled and nervous and excited all at once at the voter turnout today and the real possibility of a victory. For her, as with many others, it all comes down to self determination and the ability for the Scottish people to take charge of their country and build a better future for her children and grandchildren. She quotes Winnie Ewing, the woman who was the SNP’s first elected official, on the announcement of her election “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”

John is dressed in a kilt (the first Yes campaigner I’ve seen in a kilt) but speaks with an English accent – the result of being sent off to boarding school in England as a kid and raised there while his father served in the RAF. He’s a former BBC presenter and speaks passionately about how disgusted he is with the BBC for their overt bias in this campaign. “When I was in the BBC they told us to go out there, see what’s happening on the ground and report the truth – whatever that is.” I remark that it is the British Broadcasting Corporation after all and he says that they’ve made that very obvious and there will be a reckoning once Scotland has her independence.

Emerald is 17 and is active for the first time ever in politics. She is smart, informed, and ready to talk about the big issues. Like many, she was undecided at first but – after reading through the facts and figures – decided that an independent Scotland would be more likely to provide a bright future for her and her peers. Part of that future is being protected from Westminster’s agenda of privatization by taking full control of taxation and spending instead of relying on the Barnett formula to give Scotland money for social programs based on what is spent on similar programs in England.

Since making her decision she’s come down to the Yes shop every day for the last several months to volunteer. I ask her what she’d like to see from other young people and she says that, while many young voters will probably vote the same as their parents, she hopes that as many as possible take the time to research the issues and make their own minds up based on facts – no matter which conclusion that leads them too. As we’re wrapping up our interview a large man in a rumpled business suit tries to interrupt and shout her down but she refuses to be intimidated, replying calmly and citing figures. I admire her professionalism, personally I might have been less polite. Scotland’s future is in good hands – however the vote goes.

Across the street the pub has a big Scottish flag painted on the window with the words “Freedom and Whiskey go Together” and a row of Yes posters. The owner, Dave, says that he’s made sure that his bar is still a friendly place for everyone regardless of how they’re voting. He doesn’t see any point in being aggressive with people or trying to change other people’s minds but will happily talk about the issues.

As a barkeep he’s particularly interested in Scottish Whisky and talks at length about how under the current tax system all Value Added Tax on alcohol exports is counted as revenue for London even though Whisky exports bring in billions of dollars to the treasury. He believes that once the revenue from those taxes is counted Scotland’s tax base will look a lot better than the (already impressive) official figures would suggest. We chat for a while on a range of issues from the war in Iraq to monetary policy and a couple of the other patrons join in as well – and with informed opinions no less! Can you even imagine that in an american bar?

When he finds out we came all the way to Scotland to write about the election he refuses to let us pay for our drinks and thanks us for giving them a voice. I find myself humbled, and immensely gratified. I promise to do my best.

After a quick walk around town and a bite to eat, we’re off away down south back to Edinburgh to await the election results. The news has announced there will be no exit polls, the first and only result will be the official one with the actual counting observed by delegates from all parties. I doubt we’ll get much sleep tonight, but that’s probably true of the entire country.