30 Apr 2014

From the farthest British Isles: how will Scotland vote?

No one prepares you for the intoxicating beauty of the Outer Hebrides. Setting sail on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from a sun-bathed Ullapool – a delicious spit of land spotted with small white-washed house against a backdrop of blue mountains and flat-calm sea, was one of the most sumptuous scenes I have ever experienced in the British Isles.

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As you ponder Scottish independence, that matter of isles strikes you hard. Denude England and Wales of Scotland, and nearly all those formerly British Isles are shed. Sure, there’s Wight, Mann, Channel Isles, Lundy and a few more left, but take away the pepper of islands that thread around the west of Scotland that define the physical evidence of the “British Isles”, and the sense of identity that rides with the concept is history.

A journey to the Outer Hebrides takes you to a world that is both different and the same as the world in which the majority of the British live. The language is the same, though back-grounded by many who speak Gaelic. But that indigenous language, whilst taught in school here, and flourishing, is the first language of only a minority.

There’s a Tesco in Stornoway – the Outer Hebridean capital. There’s a Harris Tweed shop too. Some Hebrideans told me that they feel as remote from Edinburgh as they do from London – despite the energetic efforts of the islands’ Scottish National MP, and MSP.

That fuels a passionate ‘Yes Campaign’ for independence. But it also drives many in the ‘No Campaign’ too. It’s a sentiment that fears not a lot would change for the better, and that they’d rather not take the risk.

My own belief is that Scotland at large has the potential to win either way, whatever the September referendum on independence decides. If it is “Yes”, there will be a divorce. Divorce is rarely anything but complex, painful and messy – but the former partners tend to survive and make the best of their lives.

There is no reason Scotland will not do so too.

If the “No” campaign wins, it will do so despite a large “Yes” vote. If that sizable vote is to be placated, Westminster will have no option but to devolve a vast amount more power to the Edinburgh parliament, and again, the parties will eventually emerge, after battering negotiations, to live fulfilled lives.

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Everything you need to know about the Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides is a chain of over 200 islands stretching 130 miles from the Butt of Lewis in the North to Barra Head in the South.
Fifteen of the islands are inhabited. Most of the 26,500 population live on Lewis and Harris, with Stornoway the main town and ferry port.
The archipelago was referred to by Scottish Gaels as Innse Gall or Island of Strangers, referring to the Norse Vikings who dominated the area for 500 years from the 9th century.
Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Norse and Medieval sites are scattered across the islands. The most dramatic are the Callanish Standing Stones which date from 3000BC.
Gaelic is the everyday language for between 40 per cent and 80 per cent of the population. Laws were passed in 1872 forbidding its use in schools, but the attempt to eradicate it failed and by 2005 the Scottish Parliament was passing laws to support it.
The craft of weaving has been practiced for centuries, traditionally by hand and by women. The Harris Tweed brand is now international, but the 1993 Harris Tweed Act states that the tweed must be hand-woven by islanders at their homes.
Golden eagles can be seen almost anywhere in the isles. Dolphins, whales and sharks are common in the surrounding waters.
Recently an influx of immigrants from the mainland has slowed the population decline. Wind, wave and tidal power generation are leading the islands’ economic development.
Source: The Outer Hebrides Guide Book

To me, as an Englishman who has scoured his family tree in search of Celtic blood and sadly found none, Scottish independence would feel like an amputation, an impoverishment of who we are.

When I talk to people about their own feelings and reveal my own thoughts, they are surprised. Many have a sense that the English don’t care either way about this debate. They hear very little from the English, beyond the dire and often selfish Westminster warnings of the consequences of separation. I sense they need to hear from more beyond their own border.

When I mention Kate Moss’s message to the Brit Awards from David Bowie – ‘Stay With Us’ – many I spoke to even in the “Yes” camp are pleased.

The contest is tight here and active. Everyone has a view. Not a few say they need to have more real facts. This is a battle not only about facts though. As I’ve suggested, it’s about emotion.

If the English have the slightest affection or desire for the “Union”, they need to shed their troublesome stand-offishness, and declare it.

If I have found one common cause here, it is that the English don’t care what happens here. But plenty of them love this place when they come here and want the best for it.

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