Ayear or so ago, in Edinburgh, a Danish friend asked me what I thought about Scottish independence. I replied that I felt instinctively against it but supposed that if the Scots wanted to be independent, I had no right to stop them. That was before all the rather tedious arguments about the redistribution of tax revenue, oil, currency, membership of the European Union and so on in the run-up to the independence referendum on September 18.
Now, a year on, having just spent a fascinating and stirring few days in the north, I realise just how feeble and inadequate my answer was.
It was feeble and inadequate first of all because it did not respond to my own depth of feeling on the matter. I found out that I felt very strongly about Scotland. Travelling up by train on the east coast route, I was passing sights and views etched into my childhood memory; there was the North Berwick Law, that strange conical mound, which used to be crowned with a whale’s jawbone, just inland from the pretty town where we spent many summer holidays. There was the Firth of Forth, the top-heavy Bass rock with its tens of thousands of gannets; further out to sea, the Isle of May; beyond, the coastal towns of Fife, which to me as a little boy seemed like another kingdom.
Scotland, you see, feels part of me, and I feel partly Scottish. “I’m a quarter Scottish,” I boasted to the distinguished journalist Magnus Linklater when we visited him at his home in Edinburgh’s New Town. “Everyone’s a quarter Scottish,” he scoffed in reply, and I could see he had a point.
Being a quarter Scottish may not sound very impressive, and certainly does not qualify me for a vote in the forthcoming referendum, but I would insist that it is an important part of my identity, or identities. My father’s mother was Scottish through and through, by ancestry, though brought up partly in England, and my father spent much of his childhood in Scotland, where several of his oldest friendships were established. I once asked him if he felt more Scottish than English. “That’s an interesting question,” he said, seemingly stumped for a reply.
One thing for sure was that he loved Scotland, loved going there, took us there on holidays whenever he could, and transmitted that love to me and to my sister. That love was partly for a country, a still wild land, whose dramatic, poignant beauty, whose sea inlets, lochs and curiously shaped mountains, whose breathtaking intensities of light and colour, contrasted so absolutely with the smug, green blandness of southern England. Scotland is simply one of the loveliest places on earth.
You could write this off as a kind of colonial English romanticism. The English have always loved Scotland, to be sure, especially when it could be rid of the pesky Scots. I was not ignorant of the shameful story of the Highland Clearances, before it was subject to revisionist recleansing – the story of the forcible removal from the land, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of thousands of crofters to make way for more profitable sheep.
I would like to point out that I have always had especially warm feelings not just for the land but also for the people of Scotland. From a very early age – the age of 11 to be precise – I formed the idea that Scotland was a better, healthier, less class-ridden, more egalitarian society than England. This idea came from playing a round of golf at Dornoch with a local lad my own age who told me he lived in the town (a royal burgh, to be precise) and went to school at the local, and excellent, state-run Dornoch Academy, and could play whenever he felt like it on one of the finest links courses on the planet. This seemed to me preferable to being sent away to a boarding school 50 miles from my home, with not a golf course in sight.
These feelings for the people of Scotland were renewed on my recent visit, and extended across classes. I was graciously received both by members of the professional and landowning classes and by those who worked among disadvantaged people in Glasgow.
It was the Glasgow visit that changed my mind. This city has an almost American energy and rough bustle about it (so different from the immaculate order and grace of Edinburgh) and its people are exceptionally warm.
In Glasgow I heard, both from people my own age and a group in their twenties, of a desire for self-governance, to address the pressing needs of poor health (life expectancy for men in the Glasgow inner city area of Calton is a shocking 54), lack of education, inadequate housing. This seemed entirely reasonable.
I think if I lived in Scotland and had a vote, I might well vote for independence. I would do so with misgivings, because I believe strongly, with the philosopher Amartya Sen, that a narrow, singular sense of identity increases a society’s proclivity towards violence. As it is, I don’t want Scotland to leave the Union, because I want to continue to feel partly Scottish.