The mainstream campaign against Scottish independence had disavowed them completely but there was no doubting the British pride and enthusiasm for the UK on display among the Protestant Orange Order members and supporters who marched through Edinburgh on Saturday.
With an estimated 15,000 marchers and thousands more supporters, this was easily the biggest rally of pro-union support to be held ahead of Thursday’s referendum. The drums of more than 100 bands from across the UK echoed through the Scottish capital in a near-deafening display of loyalty to the British state and crown.
“We come here with a sense of duty to God and to our country,” one organiser told the assembled marchers before they set off at a service where Scottish nationalism was denounced as a “divisive and evil enemy”.
It was a powerful demonstration by a movement founded in the 18th century to uphold Protestant supremacy in Ireland and which has tens of thousands of followers in Scotland. But participants were keenly aware that their contribution to the cause was not welcome among other supporters of Scotland remaining in the UK.
Critics say the Orange Order is a bastion of sectarian sentiment and prejudice against Catholic communities in Scotland. Alistair Darling, leader of the pro-union cross-party Better Together campaign, told the Guardian newspaper this week that its marchers had “absolutely nothing” in common with his group.
One marcher, a 48-year-old financial adviser from Glasgow dressed like many of his fellow supporters in a neat dark suit, said complaints of sectarianism were misplaced and that many of his friends and even his business partner were Catholics.
“Loyalists always seem to be the pariahs of society, it’s totally wrong,” he said.
But some participants and supporters offered a narrower view of British identity than would be acceptable in mainstream political discussion.
“I don’t believed that ethnic minorities should be getting a vote . . . why should they have a vote in our country’s future?” said Mary Roy, 63, a Glasgow grandmother, whose arrived with the Union Jack emblazoned not just across her jacket, but also her skirt, shoes, earrings, bracelet and even the ribbons tied to her walking stick.
“We don’t want the Union Jack to be split up – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Mrs Roy said.
Supporter John McCabe, 51, blamed the strength of support for Scottish independence on “18th century Irish republicans” and said he did not think that those who had immigrated to Scotland from Ireland since the 19th century potato famines should be allowed a vote either.
In general the marchers were upbeat and cheerful, however, with some saying they hoped it would boost support for the union in the final days of the long campaign. Police said no trouble associated with it had been reported.
Some Yes supporters who saw the march said it could boost support for independence as voters rejected the old-fashioned brand of Britishness on show. But most Edinburgh observers were sceptical that it would have much impact either way.
Helen Milburn, manager of a café along the route, said it would not sway those who like her have not yet finally made up their minds on how to vote. “I don’t think it will affect the overall vote at all,” Ms Milburn said. “It will only solidify the Yes and No camps.”
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