Into Tomorrow: the Scottish Referendum: September 2014
18 September 2015. Facebook reminded me that a year ago today I posted a picture of my polling card for the Scottish Independence Referendum on my timeline, along with the comment to my online friends, Scottish and otherwise, “see you on the other side of democracy”.
At that point in time, one year previously, it hardly mattered to me who won. What had mattered was the process. The mass engagement in political debate, from the quiet intimacy of intense conversations in pub corners to the mass produced spectacle of those televised live to the nation. People talked politics as if it mattered and that they and their vote could actually make a difference.
The declaration of my intent to exercise my democratic right was the last in a number of referendum related posts I’d stuck on Facebook. My friends south of the border responded with comments that from their point of view the whole process was simply a spectacle of chest beating nationalism. And I know I lost friends back by pointing out that nationalism was on both sides and to interpret a nation’s deep engagement in the political process, and the policies of those who have power over our lives, as merely nationalist rhetoric, was more a reflection on politics in their lives than mine.
From that day onwards I’ve been wanting to write about my experience of the Referendum. But it kept feeling too soon. Still too much to assimilate, reflect on and create an opinion about. Then a General Election came along to engage with, a Labour leadership campaign to watch in horror and a year passed. A year that witnessed a Tory majority in Westminster, a socialist take the helm of the UK’s ‘left wing’ mainstream party and then Facebook promoted me, it was time to get it out of my system.
It’s cliché of course, but like all clichés it comes with a grain of truth, but I do remember that day – 18 September 2014 – as if it was yesterday. Many versions of the day, the days, the weeks, the months and the years leading up to it will be written about, poured over and pulled apart by the future. But, for the record, this is where I was and this is what I saw.
It’s hard to sum up 18 September 2014 in Scotland in words. The debate seemed to last forever and like Christmas when the day itself came, it came and went quickly, a brief collection of hours in which to mark a cross in pencil on a piece of card in private and make a stand on which side of the hopes, dreams, debates and policies you stood on.
The night before I’d headed out to watch some of the National Theatre of Scotland’s referendum inspired performance Blabbermouth, a 12-hour live celebration of Scottish music and spoken word, performed from midday to midnight at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh. I was glad to be there. Glad to be in Scotland and to be part of the nation’s history at that moment in time.
Designed in 1858 by David Bryce, the Assembly Hall is a large neo-gothic building that strikes an imposing stance astride the city’s Mound. Known to some as an Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue, others as the meeting place of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, its stones and polished wood are soaked in the past that only buildings in Edinburgh’s Old Town can be. Its large oval hall where the performance took place remains, despite its size, an intimate space thanks largely to all round galleries which draw audiences in around its stage. This was, for me, the best place to be on this night when history paused for one moment and waited, like all of us, for tomorrow to come.
Audiences emerge from the oval hall into the ‘black and white’ corridor named after the colour and pattern of its floor tiling and into a high sided quadrangle with long, sweeping, north facing views over Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth and, on a clear day, the coastline of Fife. But it wasn’t clear that night. Far from it. I emerged from a rousing celebration of Scottish theatre and song, old and new into the quadrangle and was met with a wall of thick fog. As I stood drinking beer and looking into a view that lasted no more than a few feet, it felt as though the weather had risen perfectly to the occasion. The fog pressed the pause button in our lives, held us in a state of anticipation and offered no glimpse of the road ahead.
I got home late that night and was up early the next morning to vote. I was working from home that day, although I knew I’d get little work done. When I got to the polling station in a nearby primary school a steady stream of voters were heading both in and out of the building. It was the busiest I’d seen it on any voting day and I took a photograph to mark the moment. No one tried to persuade me to vote one way or the other and a sense of occasion was evident.
After voting I went for a bike ride, paced the rooms of my small flat, fussed, tided did anything but work. In the late afternoon a Tesco delivery arrived and the deliveryman asked if I’d voted, which polling station? Was it busy? He was going to vote as soon as he got home from work. Neither of us asked the other which box we crossed. It didn’t matter by that time. We were fired up about voting and to both of us, and many others, that was enough.
It wasn’t a night be at home, watching what the BBC was saying about the day. It was a night to be on the streets seeing what was actually happening. The world’s media were enshrined in a large, temporary tent next to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood and this was the place to be.
Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital since the 15th century, is a city that stands proud in history and its streets and residents rose naturally to the occasion. The city’s duel personality is reflected in its architecture. To the north the wide streets and squares of Edinburgh’s New Town spread out in a vista of visionary Georgian town planning. To the south the medieval narrow streets of the Old Town brood over a large plug of volcanic rock and my walk to Holyrood took me through both.
The night was warm, humid and alive. I emerged onto Princess Street at the Mound and the large square adjacent to the National Gallery, a complex of three interconnected neo classical buildings housing the pick of the nation’s fine art. The square overlooks Princess Street Gardens and here a hand written notice attached to temporary steel fencing invited anyone to add their hopes for a Scottish constitution. Its wires were strewn with the scribbles of yes voters on all colours of paper wishing for freedom, equality and peace. Each laying bare the chest of their dreams for change, for a better world.
Over the course of the following days I walked through that square a number of times. The fence and the dreams it held stood their ground for a good while afterwards despite repeated batterings by the late autumn Scottish weather. Eventually though there was nothing left but detached paper strewn on wet ground and passers bys trampling over the hopes of those who had stood there that night and made a wish.
Walking up the steps behind the National Gallery to the top of the Mound, past the Assembly Hall where I’d drunk beer and watched fog the night before, I crossed the road and headed to the Royal Mile – the spine of the old city. Waking the length of the Royal Mile from the castle that crowns its west end to the untamed landscape of Holyrood park to the east was the only way to mark the night and the occasion. As if somehow I could imprint my presence in the city on that night by walking across its old cobbles.
The Royal Mile is a chain of interconnected streets that actually stretch for the one mile and 107 yards and I was far from alone walking along Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street and down into Canongate. The streets were heavy with those in favour of Scottish independence and visitors from other places also seeking to break free from a dominant neighbour – Quebec, Corsica, Catalan. Walking was an effort yet effortless. I wasn’t sure at any given moment which part of time I was experiencing, the past which was never far from my mind, the present which felt detached from real time or the future which held all of our hands.
Legend tells us that a tunnel runs beneath the Royal Mile from the castle to Holyrood. If you listen carefully on only the darkest night you can hear the beat of a lost drummer boy, sent to walk the length of the tunnel when its opening was ‘accidently’ discovered at the castle. The drummer boy never returned and after that auspicious night no one ever found the tunnel’s entrance again. Those who still listen for the beat of his drum will also tell you that St Giles Cathedral – the High Kirk of Edinburgh – tucked to the south side of the High Street is home to a host of angels and the beating heart of the city.
The oldest part of St Giles’ dates back to 1124 and set into the pavement near its west door is the Heart of Midlothian, a heart shaped mosaic marking the spot where the doorway of the 15th century Old Tolbooth prison once stood. This former site of public execution was demolished in 1817 and tonight its mosaic heart was strewn with fresh roses.
Here a crowd of Catalan supporters had gathered and pieced together a large Catalan flag from coloured candles in Parliament Square in front of St Giles’ west door. As the night grew darker, the candles and the sentiment behind them grew stronger. It wasn’t hard to believe the angels were watching us that night.
It’s downhill all the way to Holyrood from St Giles and the Royal Mile’s personality becomes darker once you pass the World’s End pub which marks the former end of the royal burgh and boundary of the old Flodden Wall. Built in the wake of Scot’s decisive defeat at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, anyone outside of its safe keeping was on their own against the expected English invasion after the battle that never came, at least not then.
I followed an older couple into Canongate, the man wore with pride a kilt of muted tartan and as another man walked past them draped in a Welsh flag the couple reached out, shook hands and declared “You next!” Lives, causes, shared histories touching briefly for one moment, caught in one handshake before moving on. Who captures moments like these? How can these brief vignettes of humanity that communicate grand narratives in small gestures and simple images be made available to future generations when given the task of piecing together the past with only the edited words and images of history books to go by.
The east end of the Royal Mile unfolds into Holyrood Park, a miniature Highland landscape in the heart of the city dominated by Arthur’s Seat and the steep cliffs of Salisbury Crags. Those who believe in the angels of St Giles will also tell you that the Crags are the home of dragons older than Scotland, older than the rock itself, breeding deep within the cliffs, ambivalent to recorded history and measured time. Beneath this nest of dragons the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament stand on opposite sides of Horse Wynd in a faceoff of aristocracy verses democracy, the crown verses the people, the past verses the present.
Here the air felt thicker than mist, it held fast over the Crags, the large, white media tent beneath it and the growing carnivalesque crowd gathered outside the Parliament. The debates were long over, the polling stations now all but closed, the waiting nearly at an end and there was nothing to do except mark the occasion by simply being there watched by foreign correspondents and a handful of police.
There was no trouble. Don’t get carried away by reports of the charge of the pro-Unionists in Glasgow’s George Square the following day and any confrontations they had with the supporters of independence. That was the one off, not the images of yes and no voters I saw shaking hands that night. In front of the Parliament people were singing, some were dancing, all still reflecting on the moment and the kind of world they wanted to live in. All wanting to come together, and not be alone as the future came marching in.
Walking home later that night, a couple of drinks and a lot of conversation down, a car full of teenage boys sped past. One leaned out and said “please vote no!” By that time it too late to vote either way and, too tired to go the whole nine yards, I went to bed sometime after midnight. I sleep with my mobile by my pillow and woke in the early hours of the following day to the buzz of a push notification from the New York Times saying the Nos had won. Regardless of which way I might have voted I felt sad. That the close call had been won by Westminster taking the process and the people of Scotland seriously at the last minute when the possibility of losing became real. That fear had won the voting day not hopes, even if that hope lay within the Union.
Friends began to write on my Facebook wall, they were ‘sorry’ claimed ‘I tried my best’. What they failed to understand was that there was nothing to be sorry for, except for those not living in Scotland who misinterpreted what happened here in the days and debates leading up to the vote. What that time gave us was the opportunity to take change seriously. Consider if it’s possible, for the best, what it would look like, who would benefit and who would lose? With that experience in hand the other side of democracy is a place where many won’t take no for an answer, but merely as a starting point for more questions, more debates and a greater understanding of the place before change, which if fear can be kept at bay, is a place which can lead into tomorrow.
Words Lesley Anne Rose
Thanks to Richard Cross Photography http://www.richardx.co.uk for the use of images.