5 Sep 2014

The Highlands: should they stay or should they go?

The Highlands are often thought of as emblematic of Scottish national identity. But will they say yes or no in the referendum? Inigo Gilmore takes the high road from Thurso to Inverness to find out.

You know a place is remote when the old red phone box doubles up as your local library. Peering inside to check on the book selection where the phone directories would be, in among the well-thumbed Dick Francis and John Grisham novels, I found a book on Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his revolution.

The phone box-cum-library was perched on hill a stone’s throw from the North Sea in the remote fringes of northern Scotland. Even here there’s a whiff of revolution in the air as the 18 September independence vote nears.

The focus of campaigners may be elsewhere in Scotland but, in the Highlands, there’s plenty of patter about the referendum. I had come to try to find out why Scots might want to leave the rest of us in Britain.

My journey began in the wind-blasted town of Betty Hill, where I came across Meg Telfer, who runs a shop in a converted croft house selling local artisan products. Meg was certainly fired up by the revolutionary spirit, albeit in a genteel sort of way.

‘Historical grievances’

I asked her why the Scots don’t want to live with the English any longer. Taking the question in her stride, Meg replied with a smile: “Because it would be nice to make our own decisions about ourselves for once.”

She talked about the historical grievances of Highlanders, the history of the 18th and 19th century clearances, and how the English are regarded. I asked her about anti-English sentiment today and she replied: “The Scot has a very big chip on his shoulder for whatever reason and the English always get the blame.”

Attempting to get a better grasp of the mood, we travelled west, meandering through the hills and glens and heading towards Ullapool, the largest town for miles around. The scenery is breathtaking. While some still work the land these days, the local economy is driven by tourism.

At a surfers’ beach, I met Simon from Lossiemouth. Again, I asked why the Scots don’t want to live with the English any longer.

He replied: “Look at this place. It is so removed from London. We need a local government that has more understanding of our needs.”

Running their own affairs

A couple of hours later, we arrived Ullapool, a picturesque fishing port and a gateway to the Western Isles. In the village hall, a Scottish National Party gathering was in full swing, just one of many such scenes being played out across the country.

I met Jock Urquhart, an SNP supporter who works in a hotel. He rejected the claim that nationalists did not want to live with the English – and insisted that they just wanted to run their own affairs. He said: “For my life our leaders haven’t represented us. We will get the government we vote for.”

The Scot has a very big chip on his shoulder for whatever reason and the English always get the blame. Meg Telfer, yes supporter.

We hit the road again, destination Inverness. On the edge of the city, we stopped at the site of the 1746 battle of Culloden. The battle is often portrayed as a defeat for a free Scotland at the hands of the treacherous English. But, in truth, Scots fought on both sides, just as they do today over the independence vote.

Hearty discussions

In a lively pub in the heart of inverness, where the windows were festooned with “Yes” stickers, we stumbled across some hearty discussions about the future of Scotland, with opposing camps offering up their opinions with some passion.

At the bar, I fell into conversation with a local yes supporter called Joseph. Again, I asked why the Scots no longer wanted to live with the English. He replied with a chortle: “We do! I am married to an English woman and, if you lot stopped voting Tory, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

Anti-Tory sentiment was a refrain I heard time and time again from yes supporters. I was invited to attend an evening of Highland dance and, in a shop in Inverness, I was fitted out with a kilt. I ended up performing a Scottish reel in front of some rather bemused American tourists, who appeared rather unimpressed with my efforts.

Even though the troupe were deeply immersed in Highland tradition, all of them told me that independence was not for them. They all wanted to stay within the UK