When I arrived in Scotland, blue and white stickers (Scotland’s colors) reading “Yes” were plastered on bumpers of cars, street signs, windows and almost every available flat surface you could think of—my neighbor’s toaster had one stuck to its side. Windows were hung with “Yes” flags. The clubbing street that I walked by to get to class was littered with blue “Yes” flags in the mornings.
There has been no equivalent in my life so far, and is unlikely to be so in my future, of a single word carrying so much meaning, of a single word carrying so much hope and fear and history—Independence for Scotland, Yes.
Watching those votes come in, thinking about my position as a foreigner in a nation so polarized and so opinionated, I felt at once more a part of and more alienated from my experience in Scotland.
It was such a tense issue that almost every conversation I had in the lead up to the referendum and the beginning of my abroad experience devolved into discussions of independence. I opened a bank account in those weeks, and in the first few minutes, I knew that my bank teller was a “Yes” voter. My Chaucer professor was of the “No, Thanks” persuasion. My Tour bus driver, roommates, doctor, pharmacist; everyone. Whether you were in it to ensure that your children would have the freedom your ancestors had been fighting about for centuries, or in it to ensure that you weren’t paying off the UK’s debts in a currency-less mess, or in it because you liked the Queen, you were most definitely in it, and everyone had an opinion.
Opinions ranged from the intelligent to the ridiculous. One of my favorite’s was during a “No, thanks” rally in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, on the site where public hangings used to take place. A couple of “Yes” supporters had come to heckle and latched on to the fact that the speaker for the “No, thanks” side was drinking a popular Scottish soda called “Irn Bru”. Although Irn Bru allegedly contains 5% of your daily Iron intake, it is actually banned in Canada because of its sugar content. It tastes like a bubblegum/cotton candy blend and is drunk with meals, mixed with alcohol when going out, and praised as the best hangover cure from the damage done by your Irn Bru mixers from the night before. The “Yes” supporter saw the “No, Thanks” supporter drinking Irn Bru and shouted: “Just cause you’re drinking Irn Bru doesn’t mean you know what’s best for Scotland”.
On the night of the referendum—Thursday, otherwise known as karaoke night—I wanted to sing the Proclaimers’ song “500 Miles”. If you aren’t familiar with them, the Proclaimers are a band from the Edinburgh suburb of Leith and have attained international fame for songs such as “500 Miles”. I was denied my choice of song that night by the karaoke dj because, “Mate, you’ll start a riot”.
That night, we stayed up till 5 or 6 in the morning and watched the votes coming in. Around that time it became clear that “No, thanks” was going to sweep with a larger margin than anyone expected. At sunrise, the “Yes” voters of Edinburgh climbed to the top of “Arthur’s Seat”—an extinct volcano whose dark, shaggy cliffs and treacherous slopes characterize the Edinburgh skyline—to mourn the loss of their chance at separating from the UK. Watching those votes come in, thinking about my position as a foreigner in a nation so polarized and so opinionated, I felt at once more a part of and more alienated from my experience in Scotland. Everyone had wanted to talk to me about it, had wanted third-party opinions. I had the unique experience of bearing witness to a historic moment in another country, and I learned almost more in those weeks about what the people of Scotland cared about than I did in the rest of my year spent there.
Yet this wasn’t my battle—while I could have accidentally set off a riot in a karaoke bar, I came from a country with a different history; I couldn’t even stomach their Irn Bru. When I listened to my bank teller, or Chaucer professor talk about independence, I was framing their fight for independence (and being framed in return) by America’s history of successful independence from Britain, rather than my own history as an individual. I was an emblem of my country, a country whose culture, history and spirit is dominated by independence. While I was present and involved in the Scottish independence movement, I was there as a facet of a different history.
Maddy Agnew is a student at Colorado College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.