Many people in the United States might not be aware that a hot political topic in the land of my birth (other than whether Princess Catherine is pregnant again, of course) is that of Scottish independence.
In less than a month, on Sept. 18, there will be a vote among all Scottish people about whether to separate from the United Kingdom and strike out alone after 307 years of union with the rest of Great Britain.
Scotland is about the size of South Carolina, and includes 787 Scottish islands. It currently comprises the northern third of the land mass of today’s Great Britain. The kingdom of Scotland emerged as an independent sovereign state in the early Middle Ages. After centuries of bloody fighting with the English, the Scots were victorious. The legendary 13th century leader of the Scottish Wars of Independence — portrayed by Mel Gibson in the 1996 Oscar-winning movie “Braveheart” — famously said after winning the last battle: “I’m William Wallace, and the rest of you will be spared. Go back to England and tell them Scotland is free.”
Scotland finally united with England and Wales in 1603. However, as I wrote in a 2011 column, this was not through battle but through royal succession. Queen Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen) died, and the throne passed to her nephew, James IV of Scotland, who became James I of England, Wales and Scotland. He handled the transition well by moving to London in what became known as the Union of the Crowns and ordered the creation of the “Union Jack” — still the flag of the United Kingdom today. True political union didn’t happen until Parliament passed the Act of Union in 1707.
The reasons for this are interesting. In the 1690s, Scotland was nearly bankrupt and a few years of even worse than normal weather lead to failed harvests. This caused even more death in Scotland than the plague. In a desperate bid to restore its finances, 2,500 Scottish pioneers set off to found a colony in what now is Panama, but were thwarted by disease and Spanish and English settlers. Only a few hundred survived.
This plan lost about a quarter of Scotland’s capital, and many Scottish people began to see union with England and access to its established trade routes as the only way to survival and prosperity. Despite riots and the “Jacobite uprisings” aimed at reinstalling Scotland’s lost Stuart kings, the merger held.
Scotland continues today to have different legal, religious and education systems than England, and the second half of the 20th century saw a rise of the Scottish independence movement. In 1999, some of the union was reversed when the Scottish Parliament was created with authority over many domestic matters.
Polls show a result too close to call. The Scottish National Party (SNP) appears to have won the hearts of many patriotic Scots, but there are wide-ranging concerns about the economic future of Scotland as an independent country. This could lead to a victory for the “Better Together” campaign, which favors continuing political union.
Whatever the voters decide next month, it makes me deeply appreciate the amazing political union of the USA’s vastly different 50 states.
I will leave you with two quotes from Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. The first is serious: “The Union with England saved Scotland.” The second is, of course, about the weather: “There are two seasons in Scotland — June and winter.”
God bless America!