Visiting Scotland During Independence Referendum Day September 18th-19th 2014

by JoHarrington

We drove through the night and slept in the car, impulsive eye-witnesses to a day destined to hit the history books. Scotland voted and we were there.

On September 18th 2014, the people of Scotland went to the ballot box to answer a simple yes or no question. Did they want to remain within the United Kingdom, or to break away as a self-governing nation state?

For two years, the arguments passed back and forth. Campaigns gaining in intensity as the time approached for that momentous decision to be made. Throughout that time, the 'no' side - those who would reject independence - seemed comfortably ahead.

Then the pro-independence 'yes' view began to gain momentum, until finally polls put them ahead. Half of Westminster panicked and fled to Scotland. UK Prime Minister David Cameron and the leaders of the two main opposition parties promised the Earth on a plate, if Scotland would just desist with this tomfoolery and get back firmly into the fold.

By referendum day, opinions seemed split straight down the middle. No-one could easily predict which way the majority would vote on Scottish Independence. My friend and I traveled there to witness what came next.

The Beginning - and Potential End - of Scotland in the UK

In 1707, Scotland entered the United Kingdom against the will of its population. The previous year had echoes in the same debates held in reverse throughout 2014.

"We're like Defoe!" I declared, smirking, though the cynicism was already rushing like poison through the musing of my mind. Daniel Defoe was strongly rumored to be an English spy, agitating for the Union in Edinburgh. "Sort of."

We were sitting in the trunk of my car - cosy within a nest of quilts, sleeping bags and blankets - the hatch door raised upon the darkness of a Cumbrian rest area car-park.

Ember had only stepped off the plane from California twenty-four hours before. There was a certain spontaneity about this journey, which had already swallowed up two hundred miles behind us. The Scottish border lay just six miles ahead, but this seemed like a good place to wait out the dawn. It had a Costa.

Image: Sleeping in the car in Cumbria
Image: Sleeping in the car in Cumbria


"Bloke who wrote 'Robinson Crusoe'," I clarified, before realizing that she was merely prompting me to continue. I'd fallen silent in my pondering. "But before that, he was the one who brought it to life - what it was like to be in Scotland during the signing of the Act of Union. I mean, he wasn't the only person writing, but everything else was either politics or poetry.

"It was Defoe. It was only Defoe, who was there and could paint a picture in words that made you feel like you were there too. Biased as Hell, setting himself up to get very rich out of a United Kingdom, but even he couldn't bring himself to present the notion as popular in Scotland. He was there, watching the riots, writing it all down, changing the way eye-witness reports will forever be written."

The tiny details did it. They created an immediacy and a realism, which had generally been missing in accounts penned before Defoe did Edinburgh 1706. For centuries, you would get the story almost accidentally, details slipping through the heavy overlay of each author's opinion. Narratives which told you how to interpret events, even while they were occurring.

Defoe was much more dangerous than that. He made it all seem so matter of fact. An objective running commentary, whereby he was merely the eyes and ears that allowed you to stand inside these momentous scenes, judging for yourself what was really going on. He was perfecting the style which would one day flower into The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, but for now was busily being utilized to crush a thistle underfoot.

It was too easy to rile the English into assuming the Scots were money-grabbing, violent thugs determined to stifle everyone's chance for continued prosperity, when the overlaid opinions were disguised as adjectives.

How could anything be propaganda, when it was presented as plain fact? Truths reported as seen.

People miles away could tell you precisely what was going on in Edinburgh - up to and including the intimate thoughts of the rabble around the Mercat - because Defoe's readership wasn't stupid.

It was all there in black and white, unadulterated, trusting in the reader's own judgement to assess the situation for themselves.

Defoe's Review 1704-13 - Pro-Treaty Mouthpiece of the English Government

Defoe told English readers that the Union would 'neutralize the threat from the North', provide Scottish workers, create a new market and increase English power. He offered the Scots all kinds of incentives, which simply didn't transpire in the UK.

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A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain

Published in 1724-26, Defoe returned to Scotland as part of his trek. He wrote that his earlier vehement prediction - that the Scots would benefit economically through the Union - was 'not the case, but rather the contrary' in reality.

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More than the United Kingdom was born in those tense streets. Modern journalism toddled into being down the Royal Mile too, and instantly had to duck from a brick thrown straight at Defoe's head.

"Of course, it's all different now." I concluded aloud, as Ember finished tacking up a hippy shawl to shield a side-window from the views of passers-by. "Then it was just him, shaping the narrative like a dramatic novel. Just him making it that real."

Ember wore the amused expression of someone who's read all I've had to say about old Welsh bards, and knows never to trust the storyteller, only the story. "We'll have to take a lot of photographs for when you write about this on Wizzley."

"But that's the thing that's so different!" I beamed back. "We're ALL Defoe now. Half a million bloggers describing the same scenes; everyone Tweeting, updating their Facebook statuses, pinning pictures, telling Reddit." I paused as a massive truck trundled loudly up the M6 motorway towards Scotland, flanked by a sudden surge of cars edging past. "So yeah, we get to be like Defoe on this trip. The ones telling the story. But so does everybody else."

"Help Us Build a Cairn for the Union!"

I'm still confused about the Auld Acquaintance Cairn in Gretna, because one of us is totally misunderstanding the purpose of a cairn. I'm a bit worried it's me.
Image: Noticeboard for a Pro-Union Cairn in Gretna
Image: Noticeboard for a Pro-Union Ca...
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Before a battle, Highlanders used to each pick up a stone and congregate around their chief.  One by one, the clan members would place their chosen rock onto a pile made up of all the rest. Then they would go and fight.

Afterwards, all of the survivors would take a stone from that same mound. It didn't have to be the same rock, just as long as they had one.

However many rocks were left constituted the number of kinsmen (or women, on rarer occasions) had just been killed in battle.

Their stones would be gathered more tightly together, one on top of the other, then left standing in that pile as a memorial.

This is a cairn. It's from this that we get the old Gaelic saying, Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, I will put a stone on your cairn. It's carn in Welsh - though that was nicked off the Scots - or carnedd in plural. You find them all over Welsh mountainsides, particularly in the vicinity of old battle-sites.

They are burial markers! They are what you put over the graves of the dead. They line the entrance path onto Culloden Moor, clan after clan after clan, their mass graves topped by gravestones and/or cairns. There's a famous ghost story attached to them. I recounted it here, under the heading The Ghost of the Cairns:

On April 16th 1746, the last pitched battle on British land took place on Drummossie Moor. Up to 2000 Jacobites lay dead, or injured and dying, in the heather. It was never over.

A little bit of internet research has just informed me that, in Scotland, the ancient Gaels called any mound a cairn, be it rocky, Earthen or made of straw. But not for the best part of the last 2000 years. Piles of stones are sometimes shoved on mountain-tops as landmarks, and they might still be called cairns.

The Neolithic people through to the later Bronze Age communities might build structures that were fundamentally giant cairns. We don't know for certain what happened in them. The major guesses are ceremonial, religious and/or burial areas.

Let's put it this way. When I'm hurtling up the M6 within sight of the Scottish border, and a sodding great sign reads, 'Help us Build a Cairn for the Union!'  The conclusions that I reach do not suppose support for the Better Together 'no' campaign.  I'm seeing an almighty troll in progress, especially since the banner is on the English side of the River Sark.

I have come to bury the United Kingdom, not to praise it.

Image: The Auld Acquaintance Cairn by the River Sark
Image: The Auld Acquaintance Cairn by the River Sark
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Nor was my error immediately obvious when we first arrived. It wasn't like Alistair Darling was waiting with a megaphone to warn us. Neither was anyone there from the project itself.

There were people milling around, but they were all folk like us, who'd been lured in by the motorway sign. Never more than two or three of them at a time - pulling up, placing a stone, then wandering slowly around, reading messages left on the cairn's rocks, taking lots of pictures, before leaving. I doubt any of them were there longer than five minutes.

Ember and I took considerably longer. It was a pleasant morning, with the sun gently warming us to the point where we'd shed our jackets as we left the car. It was exciting too.  Not long past 8am, on the first full day of our adventure, and we're old friends who rarely get to meet up in person, given that the Atlantic Ocean is generally between us. A whole year and half of moments like this twinkled in our future.

Plus there were paints. You could select any rock from two big piles - a notice stuck between them said so - then squat down in the grass, where several large paint pots sat open, or with lids ajar. We had paint-brushes and inner children to appease.

Image: Paint Pots at the United Kingdom Cairn
Image: Paint Pots at the United Kingd...
Photograph by Jo Harrington
Image: Ember collecting rocks for the Gretna cairn
Image: Ember collecting rocks for the...
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Ember had chosen nice big, flat rocks to serve as our canvasses. She proceeded to create the Scottish flag - St Andrew's Saltire - after carefully inspecting each of the blue and white paints for the closest approximation. Considering that the bristles on her brush had compacted with paint, dried harder than the stone, she did very well.

No matter which side won the majority mandate that day, you couldn't go wrong with a Scottish Saltire. It belonged to both. Hence Ember inadvertently managed an addition to the cairn which was both pretty and inoffensive.

Then there was my contribution.

Hand on heart, I didn't know. I didn't mean to be subversive!  I wasn't there to disrespect anyone's project, nor to kick against the flow. I was there because a huge sign on the motorway made me think we were being invited to construct a gravestone. A memorial for the United Kingdom.  A cairn for the Union.

There was also the fact that I was juggling a camera in one hand with a cigarette in the other, then the paint-brush.  And I couldn't decide what to paint or write. I briefly contemplated Y Ddraig Goch, but that's quite complicated for a nocturnal woman up at just past 8, so I was trying to remember some relevant and profound poetry.

And in the end, I just wrote, 'Yes'.

Image: Mine and Ember's painted rocks on the IndyRef Cairn
Image: Mine and Ember's painted rocks on the IndyRef Cairn
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Only now did we actually wander over to the cairn. It was very big. That entrance shelf, with my Scottish Independence Yes rock perched upon it, was as high as I could comfortably reach. The top of the inner chamber towered over my head.

Unless the Auld Acquaintance Cairn was safe to clamber across (we didn't climb upon it to find out), I have no idea how the majority of those rocks had been placed.

By now, I'd clocked that every single rock around mine - which stated a preference and not just a name - was a declaration of support for the United Kingdom. I was also pondering the significance of that collection of flags flying over all.  Though not obvious from my photograph, Y Ddraig Goch (Wales), St George's Cross (England), St Andrew's Saltire (Scotland) and the Ulster Banner (sort of Northern Ireland - it's complicated), all stand in a row. The Union flag is slightly behind and central.

Had I been a little more awake, I might have joined the dots sooner. As it was, I'd only got as far as thinking it was more of a free for all than I'd anticipated, with people casting rocks as votes, though there were far more 'no' supporters. And a section there downright festooned with Union Jacks.

I remember smiling, thinking that there was no good reason why pro-Unionists should want to place stones on a cairn for the UK. Unless to build the memorial up faster, or they really had given up.

I was also sidetracked with disquiet, searching my memory for any update on the status of the Ulster Banner. I had that logged as the flag brandished by the sort of people with whom I should be wary, but then what would represent Northern Ireland up there, if not the Ulster flag? The Union flag was too busy being the United Kingdom's flag.

Then I turned a corner and found myself confronted by Cerridwyn's Cauldron.

Image: Inside the Scottish Pro-Union Cairn
Image: Inside the Scottish Pro-Union Cairn
Photograph by Jo Harrington

By now, I didn't understand anything anymore. A quick reccy around the whole cairn confirmed that it was indeed a monument covered exclusively by 'no' campaigners - my lone, red 'yes' stuck out like a sore thumb - but I had no frame of reference whereby that made any sense.

A lady came and left a candle lantern at the chamber entrance. The weak flame within seemed set to go out at any second. She waited, watching, and so did we. It dipped further. "Oh well." She breathed and turned on her heels, back to her car. As soon as she had gone, the candle-flame rallied. It was burning quite brightly, when I finally admitted that nothing in my combined knowledge of History, Paganism and Celtic lore could fit a context around this cairn.

I read the information board. Then I felt bad.

There was nothing particularly dodgy going on here. The project was all about togetherness, at a time when so much else is about separating. It highlighted the fact that this area was once Middleland - a buffer zone, in neither England nor Scotland - hence the choice of location for this cairn.

It was indeed being constructed, bit by bit through many hands, because of the Independence Referendum. But there was no mention anywhere of burial sites nor memorials. It was a 'testimony to the United Kingdom', as cairns had been built since Neolithic times and were frequently erected on mountain tops today quite spontaneously.

People from around the world, not just Britain, were being invited to participate by bringing a stone to place from their homeland. The space in the middle is there to sit quietly and listen to the sounds of nature, and to contemplate the Earth itself. The 'cauldron' is a fire bucket.

I really can over-think things at times. A realization made worse when the project owner arrived - sweet, helpful and very enthusiastic. He was thrilled to find us there, asking how far we'd come and thanking us for visiting.

We marked our dots on the make-shift map to show from where we came, then called it time to go.

Would You Have Known What the Cairn for the Union Meant?

Just wondering if it's me who's slightly dense here, or whether it was an easy mistake to make.
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MBC on 01/19/2016

Easy mistake.

Ember on 10/20/2014

I haven't got the wealth of information you have. I just have/had the understanding that a Cairn is a grave site or memorial site for someone who died. (Or I guess in this case something that died). So to me, the "for the union" sounded like it was a memorial for the union that was to die. :|

...but you know. (I still don't get it.)

Cairns to Learn and Cairns to Keep

Driving Through the Lowlands in Referendum Scotland

The pressure was on and there was 50/50 chance that we'd get it wrong. So we did.

From first suggestion that we were heading into Scotland until that point on the A747(M), we'd always been going to Glasgow.

It made sense. I'd been hearing nothing but what was happening in Glasgow on the news for weeks. At times it seemed like the Independence Referendum was only being held in Glasgow. The rest of Scotland barely scored a mention. Plus it was the major city on the west of the country, and we'd be arriving via the M6. My previous forays into Edinburgh had involved crossing the Pennines to enter from the east.

Most of all, I have a friend there and it would have been lovely to see him.

Then we're passing a road-sign telling us that it's only three extra miles to Edinburgh. The capital city, where all announcements would be made, and the parliament building sits poised to possibly change hands.

I spelt it out to Ember, newly landed from the USA and too unsure of the distinction to make a decision. "If this was America, and something this big was occurring, would you want to go to Washington DC or Times Square in New York?"  She hummed and arred as much as I was, then left it up to me.

She'd put the petrol in this car. I wanted to make the right choice for her. Back and forth I went with pros and cons flashing, forming, categorized and left for the full fourteen miles until the point of no return. Glasgow, I thought, and wondered if I was being selfish. Edinburgh then. Even if nothing is going on, then Edinburgh is always worth a visit. But so was Glasgow the first and only time I've been there.

Hurtling towards the junction, I still didn't know. Then the slip-road was being counted down in lines and I had to call it right now. Glasgow. No! Edinburgh! And we turned towards that ancient, historical city, singing loudly to The Waterboys This is the Sea.

The sun shone upon that pleasant drive across lowland countryside, pocked through with the scars of centuries worth of wrangling over who owned Scotland. At least it was if you had the history orientated eyes to see. I was so sure I'd made the right decision, as we glimpsed our first poll stations. Ordinary people popping in, holding the Fate of their nation in their hands.

We should have gone to Glasgow.

George Square in Glasgow on Referendum Night

A carnival atmosphere disdained on the assumption that a bigger party would be happening in Scotland's capital city Edinburgh.

Edinburgh on the Day of the Scottish Referendum Vote

It's always a pleasure to wander through the historic streets of Edinburgh, but not when your remit is to witness history in the making right now.

There was brilliant sunshine over in the west. Ember was wearing shorts. Yet it seemed that almost from the moment we passed the 'welcome to Edinburgh' sign, the Heavens opened.

Fog had come off the Leith in the east and hung about all day eclipsing half of the city. There were also intermittent showers to break up the general dryness, in case we got bored.

I'd already warned my American guest that, if she didn't like the British weather, just wait five minutes. She'd get some new weather to sample.

Edinburgh seemed determined to prove my words prophetical. Though it kept the fog all the same.

We abandoned my car in a residential street - directed there through the maze of paid parking places by an extremely helpful shopkeeper - then embarked on a long, but rather lovely stroll into the center of the capital city.

Along the way, we looked in vain for any evidence that the country was today voting on whether or not to stay in the United Kingdom. Though there were cryptic hints, like the random light-board pictured on the card above. There will be no miracles here today, its legend read. Did that pertain to the Referendum, or did it relate to the three church spires we could see in the background poking up out of the mist?  It was hard to tell without knowing if it was always there, or a special installment just for today.

"It'll get more obvious when we hit Princes Street," I assured Ember, my imagination picturing scenes a little like Hogmanay, which I'd only ever seen on TV. "Or if not there, then the Royal Mile."

We arrived on Princes Street in the rain, seeing rather fewer individuals than I'd expect to find on any given normal day, based upon my previous experience of being there. It was lower Edinburgh's main thoroughfare, yet only a scattering of people hurried by. Grim-faced, darting into shops or waiting stoically at pedestrian crossings, not waving banners, dancing jigs nor sloganeering. Not a single speech in sight. There wasn't even any bunting.

Nevertheless, we were approached. "Oh no!" The young man exclaimed, upon discovering that we were all together too skint or foreign to be interested in his wares. "You came to the wrong city." Drat. "You should have gone to Glasgow." He winced apologetically, like it was his fault and that of his entire country that I'd mentally flipped the wrong coin toss. "10,000 people in George Square for a week and here, well, look."

I looked. A woman in a skirt suit rushed into the nearest department store. Nothing much else happened. The rain seemed slightly less.

"Oh well!" beamed Ember, just excited to be anywhere. "Let's go and find some coffee." She'd only been in the country two days. Give her a week and it would be tea.

Postcards from Princes Street on Scottish Independence Ballot Day

Don't be fooled by the cluster of people in the background of the left hand picture. A bus had just emptied there. You can see it further along the street.

The Mound in Edinburgh on Independence Day

A live band momentarily gave us the atmosphere we sought, with Edinburgh laid out beyond them like Brigadoon - a scene which transpired to be just as transient.

We crossed over onto The Mound and here finally there was some hint that something historic was happening in Scotland today.

Camera crews milled about, interviewing people in suits or capturing scenic shots. This was the place for the latter. The Mound is fundamentally a very wide bridge, cutting over the city gardens and railway track to deliver pedestrians to the lower slopes of Old Town. What Edinburgh is mostly built upon is Edinburgh, and here you can see those layers in all their misty grace.

Image: Media interviews in Edinburgh during the Referendum
Image: Media interviews in Edinburgh during the Referendum
Photograph by Jo Harrington
Image: Cameraman gets scenic shots of the Scottish Referendum
Image: Cameraman gets scenic shots of the Scottish Referendum
Photograph by Jo Harrington

A folk rock band played in front of the parapet, history stretched out behind them in outcrops of ancient lava flow, medieval buildings perched upon them, Victorian monuments doing the architectural equivalent of photo-bombing the cityscape, a distant glimpse of bridges over the River Leith. Here too is the National Gallery and other such imposing constructions. The Mound looks far more like an avenue than a bridge.

Image: The Spinning Blowfish playing on The Mound in Edinburgh
Image: The Spinning Blowfish playing on The Mound in Edinburgh
Photograph by Jo Harrington

The band were the Spinning Blowfish playing an ecstatic combination of funk, rock, punk and folk, bagpipes and electric guitar getting my feet moving, and everybody else too. The atmosphere there was wonderful, young and old bouncing in jigs or nodding their heads at least.

This felt precisely the sort of thing that we'd traveled so far to experience. The historic credentials of the day could be seen to in the words scrawled in chalk on various surfaces. 'Yes yes yes yes yes' read several pedestals; 'Freedom from Greedy Westminster' proclaimed the pavement.

But the Spinning Blowfish were only a couple of songs away from the end of their set, and with them went the carnival atmosphere. Suddenly we were just a bunch of people on a rainy day, peering over pretty scenery but nevertheless living through the ordinary.

Moreover, a glance through YouTube listings shows that it wasn't really anything unusual for the Spinning Blowfish to be there. It's their usual busking site in Edinburgh.

"There's probably stuff happening on the Royal Mile," I assured Ember, hence we moved upwards onto the soaring heights of Old Town.

The Spinning Blowfish Perform Scotland the Brave

Crowds at Edinburgh Castle on Referendum Day

Finally people! Lots of them! Getting in the way of photographs, and nothing to do with the Scottish Independence Referendum Ballot...

If Princes Street had seemed dead, then the Esplanade leading into Edinburgh Castle was quite the opposite.

There was such a sudden surge in that direction that I thought for a moment all entrance fees had been waived in lieu of the historical occasion.

After all, this was usually ground zero for momentous events in Edinburgh's past. Where monarchs ruled; invaders attempted... well, invasion...; and the national treasures sat in security and/or (depending upon the political climate) great secrecy too.

It's also where the Edinburgh Tattoo is held, and that accounted for the apparent press of people. Workers busied themselves behind metal barricades erecting scaffolding for that annual spectacle of all things Scottish (though mostly bag-pipes and military marches). Or, at least, as 'traditionally Scottish' as Sir Walter Scott could manufacture and the English Victorian elite allow.

Tourists seeking passage through the Esplanade were forced to take a relatively narrow route between building sites.

Nothing here to suggest it wasn't business as usual. Watched by the statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, no-one here was crying freedom nor reciting the Declaration of Arbroath with renewed meaning for the day.

They were all mostly foreigners, here to pay their entrance fee to explore a castle once built as a mighty fortress to protect Scotland's capital city from its would be conquerors. Usually the English. But for now merely sitting with its gates wide open for the right price, pointedly ignoring the Referendum, while its Esplanade was taken over by preparations for a thoroughly Anglicized version of what Scottish culture should be.

Then again, I was also a foreigner not considering the history, as then I'd have been looking around the Esplanade remembering the hundreds of witches burnt there at the stake. Not a great image for a pyrophobic Pagan. Instead I took photographs of British red phone boxes inside the very precincts of the castle, while Ember explored the delights of a medieval storage room, now converted into toilets.

Edinburgh Castle's Iconic British Red Phone Box Gifts

Britain's red phone boxes have been with us since the 1920s. Designed to be acceptable to Londoners, each one bears the royal seal of the British government.

September 18th 2014: The Royal Mile in Edinburgh

In Edinburgh, most sights and events involving the vote for Scottish Independence were happening on the Royal Mile. But not necessarily involving the Scottish.

In 1297, William Wallace famously defended Stirling Castle - thus the whole of Scotland - against an invading English army. In 1305, he was horrifically executed as a traitor in London. His modern day counterpart stood outside Edinburgh Castle organizing two small girls and their mother into posing for a photograph with him.

There's nothing strange about a man dressed up as Wallace on that spot. He's been there for years. My Mum had her picture taken with him back in about 2010.  I bet if I hunted through my photo albums, I'd find one of myself with the Wallace lookalike from a  2006 trip to Edinburgh with a friend.

From the castle to St Giles Cathedral, you wouldn't have known it was September 18th 2014, unless you happened to glance at a newspaper. Tourists meandered and locals sold them stuff. The Referendum did not penetrate. Then before the towering Gothic steeples of the High Kirk of Edinburgh - BAM! It was all there!

Image: Scenes from Scottish Referendum Day in Edinburgh St Giles Kirkyard
Image: Scenes from Scottish Referendum Day in Edinburgh St Giles Kirkyard
Photograph by Jo Harrington
Image: Polling Station in Scotland on Referendum Day
Image: Polling Station in Scotland on...
Photograph by Jo Harrington
Image: Two lairds in Highland Dress during Scottish Independence vote
Image: Two lairds in Highland Dress d...
Photograph by Jo Harrington

It helped that there was a polling station opening right out onto the square. We had lairds in Highland dress; the world's media represented in isolated conclaves of anchors and cameras; people draped in Scottish Saltires...

... but not too many of the latter. And when you looked at them really closely, they didn't appear to be all that Scottish. Particularly since they were conversing in a language which owed more to the Mediterranean than the Leith.

After a while you started to notice that the dominant flag here was Catalan. They'd just finished one media orientated display in support of Scottish independence - and incidentally raising awareness of their own struggle for sovereignty distinct from Spain - and they were about to embark upon another.

Traditional dancing from Catalonia filled the square outside St Giles Kirk. Dozens of Catalonians forming a giant circle around a prone Scottish Saltire laid alongside the Catalan Senyera. It was entertaining, energetic and quite beautiful. Though not as much as their next endeavor, which was to fill that same space with hundreds of candles in colored holders. Once lit, each tiny flame created a glow which broadcast their hue, forming a gigantic Senyera, with a little Saltire for company.

The crowds and camera operators lapped it up, the latter broadcasting such scenes across Europe.

Ember and I climbed up onto a plinth, helped by a man wrapped in the Y Ddraig Goch of Wales, to see it from above. I was staring down into the eyes of a Spanish news anchorman set up beneath me, testing levels and light for what seemed like an eternity, before counting down to his live report to the people of Spain.

In fact, I was perfectly placed to signal to the group of Basque people across the square that it was time to raise their flag too. Which they did, with banners on either side, being as opportunist in publicity as the men from Sardinia standing just to their right.

Image: Basque, Scottish and Sardinian Independence in Edinburgh
Image: Basque, Scottish and Sardinian Independence in Edinburgh
Photograph by Jo Harrington

You had to admire the brilliance. While practically every country seemed to have dispatched a camera crew to Edinburgh, and the Scots weren't giving them anything much to broadcast back home, the void was well and truly being filled.

Up and down the Royal Mile were paraded the flags of every European nation campaigning for independence from another. Huge flags fluttered from poles, larger than those carrying them; smaller flags were draped over shoulders; tiny flags were handed out to passers by. Catalonia truly owned each scene, so fabulously organized - and in such numbers - that they commanded much of the attention.

But the Basque and Sardinian protestors weren't far behind, and their representatives were generally to be found in the background of any Catalan media focus. While the rest, including my lone Cymru am Byth Welshman, merely loitered and hoped.

Anyone wandering down the Royal Mile on September 18th 2014 - during the daytime at least - would have been forgiven for thinking that this Referendum was all about Catalonian independence. The Scottish presence was overwhelmed, limited mostly to a bloke with balloons and stickers to give away; two lairds becoming formally welcoming and friendly; isolated banners strung from windows and rooftops; and the ubiquitous chalk marks on monuments and walls.

Mostly the people of Edinburgh got on with the job of serving the swell of foreign customers. Selling coffee, souvenirs and other goods from their shops to Referendum tourists and campaigners, without any real hint that the lure had anything to do with them at all.

The only real exchange I witnessed on the Royal Mile was a one-sided jibe from a passer-by at a sword swallower in a pro-Independence shirt. She yelled that his t-shirt was disgusting. He affected not to hear her - or genuinely didn't - calling into her wake the request that she repeat herself. She didn't. She looked angry. She carried on.

He just shrugged and went on entertaining his audience with a sword.

Outside the Scottish Parliament Building in Scotland's Indy Ref

In Gaelic, it's Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. Already devolved within the United Kingdom, if the country voted 'yes' then it would be Scotland's center of power.

In 1707, you could not have moved outside the gates of Holyrood on the day that the Act of Union was signed. Inside the desperate, angry crowd of people banged on doors and stormed through houses, trying to seek out those who'd sign their country's sovereignty away.

Holyrood Palace itself saw Scots surging through its elegant corridors. Chaotic scenes which nevertheless did not stop the nation entering into the United Kingdom.

Upon this same spot, Ember and I entered now. Holyrood itself was shut to the public - that in common with 1707 - but no-one was hammering on those padlocked gates, nor bothering the police officer stationed outside.

We turned right into the plaza before the Parliament Building, where more police officers jovially stood guard before a couple of entrances and nobody rioted.

From the Romans to the English, the Scots had managed to repel every threat from south of its border. Until the conquerors came, not with swords, but with a crown.
On May Day 1707, a group of politicians huddled in secret to sign the Act of Union, while rioting Scots sought desperately to stop them. Thus Great Britain was born.
The Union Jack, as it's commonly known, was meant to represent the United Kingdom. It says more about England as a superpower.

Later Ember was to tell me that this was the moment when the Scottish Referendum on Independence suddenly felt real.  Until then it had been a concept happening somewhere in the world. Rationale supplied the fact that Edinburgh itself could be included in the locations.

It wasn't a massive crowd thronging in carnival atmosphere outside the Scottish Parliament. Nevertheless, it was a crowd.

A group of people stood on the rim of the water feature holding between them a long, blue banner urging voters to say 'yes'. They were constantly being splashed by a dog, chasing a ball which its owner kept hurling into the pool before them. A car parked on the street alongside Holyrood was spray-painted with another series of 'yes' affirmations.

My favorite was a man who wandered around sporting a novelty red beard and mustache, his big banner read, 'The Beginning is Nigh'. Fun and hopeful all at the same time.

Image: Scottish Parliament Building on September 18th 2014
Image: Scottish Parliament Building on September 18th 2014
Photograph by Jo Harrington
Image: Yes Campaigners for Scottish Independence outside Parliament on September 18th 2014
Image: Yes Campaigners for Scottish Independence outside Parliament on September 18th 2014
Photograph by Jo Harrington
Image: Beginning is Nigh man during the Scottish Referendum
Image: Beginning is Nigh man during t...
Photograph by Jo Harrington
Image: Catalan Independence campaigner on camera before the Scottish Parliament Building
Image: Catalan Independence campaigne...
Photograph by Jo Harrington

But my interest was mostly drawn to the tiers of terraces erected to house international media here to cover the Referendum. You never see this. By its very nature, such constructions are behind the camera. It amazed me how much thought had gone into their need to have a bird's eye view and how protected their space remained.

A double row of railings lined the plaza blocking access to within 100 feet of the media towers. Two burly policemen ensured that no-one so much as rattled those fences, though they did it with smiles on their faces.

Image: Media terraces in Edinburgh for the Referendum 2014
Image: Media terraces in Edinburgh for the Referendum 2014
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Leaving Edinburgh to its Referendum and Fog

Our sojourn before the Scottish Parliament Building wasn't the end of our day-trip to Edinburgh. But the journey back up the Royal Mile focused more upon other history than that potentially happening in the here and now.

Any other moments have already been told with the rest of the Royal Mile stories.

We paused for coffee and people watched for ages - particularly the person swallowing a sword - then bimbled around the graveyards. We'd already decided that we were going to head towards Glasgow, as it seemed that we'd exhausted the Referendum tourism possibilities in Scotland's capital city.

I kept apologizing to Ember for my dodgy choices. She assured me that it was all fine. Edinburgh is gorgeous whatever the day and it was all new to her.

Nevertheless the city did have one last spectacle to show up. Nestled in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, as viewed from the south, we found a washing line. A row of underwear pegged upon it seemed to urge voters to go with 'yes', unless you read the large banner at the end.

'Vote with clean pants', it advised, spinning the message entirely. 'Yes' voters would be airing their dirty linen in public. Got it.

"Vote with Clean Pants" Edinburgh Washing Line

A Surreal Night Awaiting the Vote in the Scottish Referendum

In all its strangeness (or perhaps because of it) I think I'll always remember that night, as a time set aside - through all its definitions.

Heading into Glasgow had been a good idea, while sipping lattes in the Royal Mile. By the time we'd made our slow way back to the car, tiredness and the fog were both setting in.

We made it halfway to Glasgow before the latter became so pronounced that I could barely see more than twenty feet ahead. Which is a little worrying when you're hurtling along a motorway. However, we could see well enough to spot the hazy glow of a service station with the promise of more hot coffee. Then pulling up there, neither of us could help but notice that it was another of those rest areas, which I'd sworn didn't exist in Britain.

To say that we decided to stay put belies an hour or two spent dithering over the point. Phone calls to two different friends elicited them crawling through news sources, Tweets and live streams from Glasgow's George Square. Judgment calls made from afar about whether they would press on, if they were in our position.

In my heart, I wanted to stay here, but history and hospitality both were beckoning me on. It was only Ember's final admission that she was exhausted now - jet-lag adding to a day spent climbing Edinburgh's steep cobbled streets and closes - and she too would prefer to stop now.

We walked to an off-license for cider, whisky and snacks, then climbed into our nest in the back of my car, lodged well towards the rear of the car park. Fog twisted and whirled; the conversation covered half a world and leaped across the centuries too; our little picnic complemented the listening; and periodically we'd put the radio on to hear the results of the ballot come in.

Though, in truth, I fell asleep in the early hours before it was clear to anyone which way the country had gone. We learned about that over coffee in the service station cafe next morning, when the fog had cleared and the night before seemed as a dream in an in-between space somewhere between realities.

For there had been no telling then in whose country we might awake come morning. It was all too soon to tell.

We never did get to Glasgow, though we skirted its outer edge. Our journey home took us instead to Moffat for breakfast - which was very lovely and afforded Ember the chance to sample haggis - but which held no hint that history was flirted with, then cast into a footnote the day before.

The country had voted 'no' and life went on, then continued into Cumbria and home.


Referendum Scenes from Edinburgh and Gretna Collage

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Updated: 11/12/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 10/22/2014

When you line it all up like this, it's amazing how much damage has been done in our little islands. All those waves of conquerors determined to imprint their culture upon the native people. All those rulers who care more for their own power than the populations under their governance.

There would be no need to tread carefully in Northern Ireland, if there had been no plantations in the 17th century. There would be no need for Orkney and Shetland to feel attached to foreigners, if their 14th century monarch hadn't basically sold them. There would be no need to ask about Kernow, if they hadn't been effectively under military occupation for nearly two millennia, deliberately kept impoverished and been subject to systematic cultural genocide. The national psyche of Cornwall is too punch drunk to even read the treaties anymore, and the Victorians merely said, "We're not even going to pretend you have power anymore. You're ours, or you'll starve." After the example of Ireland, who wouldn't have believed every word?

frankbeswick on 10/21/2014

Yes, Northern Ireland should have the same powers as the rest. However, I see it as an evolving situation that will develop as the peace process develops, and we still have to sort out the constitutional difficulty of power sharing, which may not be the final constitutional arrangement for that land. A gradual, consensual approach with Northern Ireland taken in conjunction with Eire will be best.

There could be a time when the UK and the Republic agree to adjust the borders of Northern Ireland, after a democratic referendum of course, and so changes might be made then. My old stamping grounds of County Fermanagh are a good case of predominantly Gaelic territory that would probably vote to join the Republic. But Northern Ireland is a land where we must tread very carefully. Peace must be maintained.

As a nation Cornwall has a claim to autonomy, but how many Cornish really want it? More investigation is needed on the demand for autonomy made by Mebyon Kernu.

Orkney and Shetland only came to Scotland in the fourteenth century as part of a dowry payment by the Danish king, who seemed to want them off his hands. The people are mainly Norse, particularly in Shetland, so they have a claim to be another nation in our complex archipelago of German, Norse and Celtic peoples [along with all the later arrivals.]

JoHarrington on 10/21/2014

In fairness though, Northern Ireland should have the same powers as Scotland and Wales and England. How about Cornwall though? Their situation has been in stasis for way too long.

frankbeswick on 10/21/2014

More powers for Scotland will come, that's for sure, as the government will get a load of angry Scots on its hands if it doesn't keep its promise. But we need to do the following: have an English parliament, for that's only fair to the English; and boost the Welsh assembly to give it the same powers as Scotland has. We also need to make progress in our developing relationship with Ireland. For too long the two islands have been at loggerheads, and the recent progress is very welcome. As for Northern Ireland, the longer peace is in place the better. We don't need to enact anything, just let relationships evolve.

JoHarrington on 10/21/2014

I'm not holding my breath either. The warning came for me when David Cameron called it English Home Rule the next day. Tories do not like the phrase 'home rule' and there were plenty of other words/phrases that he could have used.

I waffled about that here:

As for ancestry, I'm a slightly less mixed bag, but still have bloodlines reaching into Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Wight and (dominantly) Wales. The Isle of Wight lot have a surname which looks very Welsh to me too - Prangnall.

frankbeswick on 10/21/2014

My name is an old Lancashire one, and so I reflect that by by ancestry I am more Celtic than Anglo-Saxon, as this was a Celtic area. But my reflections show me that had the British not slaughtered each other at the battle of Arderydd I might have been Welsh; had the Scots won the battle of Northallerton and succeeded in taking Northern England, I would have been Scottish, but by historical accident I am English, [along with a large streak of Irish blood.]

The concept of Middleland has an appeal to me. Andrew, my son, who trained at the Scottish Agricultural College in Ayr, told me that Scots had said to him that as a Northern Englishman they felt that he was more like them in some ways than the Southern English lads were, and he felt an affinity to Scotland more than to southern England, though he is conscious of his Irish blood. But identity for me is a gradual matter of differentiation along a continuum through the isles.

I look forward to a new constitutional settlement for the whole isles. But I am not holding my breath.

JoHarrington on 10/20/2014

I've spotted this. LOL

I'm still glad we went, even though it didn't quite worked out as hoped. Some of the best journeys don't. I smile when I think of the least moments of this trip. It was a good one.

Ember on 10/20/2014

hmmm...yes fog does seem to me a theme in our adventures so far XD

It was a great to be a part of... I don't often get to witness people gathering and speaking out, and it was brilliant and inspiring to be around, and to be in Scotland for the referendum was also an amazing opportunity so thank you for taking me! :)

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