From Referendum to Reconciliation—Can Scotland Heal Its Wounds?

The bruising campaigns for and against independence opened up deep class and regional divisions in Scotland.
View Images

Head bowed in dejection, this Yes supporter in Edinburgh—and the 45 percent of his fellow Scots who dreamed that this was their country's moment for self-determination—must adjust again to the old reality.

Few Scots went to bed on Thursday night. Huddled round televisions and radios, glued to laptops and smartphones, in pubs and meeting halls, on tiny islands and in cities, old and young, rich and poor, they waited anxiously for what would be the most momentous piece of news they’re likely to hear in their lifetimes.

After more than 300 years as part of the United Kingdom, would Scotland secede?

For most of the two years of campaigning, the answer seemed to be no. But in the final weeks, the pro-independence side drew level.

The utopian dream of independence, which has shimmered on the horizon of Scottish consciousness, like a fata morgana in the desert ever since forces loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie were crushed on the fields of Culloden in 1746, looked as if it might become reality.

It wasn't to be. Worried by more down-to-earth concerns, like pensions and the currency in their pockets, Scots voted decisively to remain in the United Kingdom.

Relief for No Voters, Heartbreak for Yes

"It was always going to be difficult for whichever side lost," says Peter Ross, a journalist with Scotland on Sunday.

"But it's more difficult for the pro-independence group. They've been campaigning about this for a long, long time. They have their whole identity bound up with it. Now they're distraught. There's also a perception that the No voters were old and more affluent. So there's a split between young and old, rich and poor."

Even before the last vote was counted, a new campaign—of reconciliation—was launched.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called on the country "to come together and to move forward," and he promised significant new powers for Scotland.

Alistair Darling, the leader of the No campaign, followed suit, saying the result had "reaffirmed all that we have in common and the bonds that tie us together."

The Queen Weighs In

Queen Elizabeth, having long muzzled her passionately pro-Union views, released a statement from Balmoral, her Scottish estate. She called on Scotland to unite "in a spirit of mutual respect and support."

Today in Edinburgh, a thousand people, including members of both campaigns, are attending "a service of reconciliation" at St. Giles Cathedral.

Only Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the driving force behind independence, sounded a defiant note. In his concession speech, he called for unity and said, "I think over the last few weeks we have seen a scare and a fear of enormous proportions. Not the scaremongering directed at the Scottish people, but the scare and fear at the heart of Westminster establishment as they realized the mass movement of people that was going forward in Scotland."

Salmond also demanded that Cameron follow through on his promise to extend new devolutionary powers to Scotland.

An ugly brawl in Glasgow on Friday evening, although fueled more by sectarian hatreds than the referendum result (a good number of youths waving Union Jacks were from the staunchly Protestant Rangers Football Club), showed how volatile the mood still is.

"It all became very divisive during the campaign," says Nick Harvey-Miller, a retired wine dealer who now farms in Stirlingshire. "'No' signs were vandalized, doors with 'unity' stickers on them were graffitied with words like 'coward' or 'traitor.'"

Ian Blackford, a former treasurer of the SNP, bridles at the suggestion that Salmond failed to rein in the darker elements of nationalism, which passionate No supporter J.K. Rowling likened to Death Eaters, cohorts of Lord Voldemort who hate people without pure blood in Rowling's Harry Potter series.

"He [Salmond] went on the record criticizing the Cybernats," Blackford said from his home on the island of Skye.

"A Pat On The Back"

"You're always going to get people on the margins who will push things too far," Blackford said. "One individual was charged with giving death threats to Alex [Salmond]. But in the vast majority of cases it was a good-natured debate. And we deserve to give ourselves a pat on the back for that. I believe the country will now come together."

Novelist and screenwriter Ewan Morrison, whose father was briefly associated with the radical Scottish National Liberation Army in the 1970s, and who converted from Yes to No, is not convinced.

"It reminds me of 1978, the last time we tried this," he said from his holiday cottage near Glasgow. "My father was incredibly depressed for months afterwards. But every time Scotland sets off in search of utopia, this is what happens. It's like everyone gets caught up in a collective illusion."

Audrey Gillies, an unemployed former care worker who volunteered for the Yes campaign, thinks the reports of bitter divisions have been exaggerated.

"I live in a rural community on the Borders," she said from her home in Hawick. "Most people here voted No. But I don't have any animosity towards my neighbors. They're still my neighbors. It's more a question of how long it takes for us to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we won't be independent. The Yes campaign gave the downtrodden and disenfranchised a taste of hope. And we're going to carry that forward."

Time inevitably will heal most divisions. On the same day the country voted No to independence, one of Scotland's best known institutions, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, delivered an almost unanimous Yes to allowing women to become members—after 260 years of exclusion.

Uniting Around Change

One aspiration nearly all Scots are united about, whichever side of the independence divide they're on, is a desire for change.

"There's a mood for change among all parties," says Hamish McArthur, a retired chemical engineer who campaigned for the No vote. "The Yes campaign created an expectation among the disadvantaged, and those aspirations now have to be met. There needs to be a more federal approach, more local decision-making. We'll unite around that."

No voter James Playfair-Hannay, a farmer in the Cheviot Hills, agrees. "Westminster is completely out of touch with the electorate all over the U.K.," he said from the cab of his Land Rover. "So I'm all for Devo Max [Maximum Devolution]. Whether we get it is another matter."

And therein lies the rub. The devolved powers promised for Scotland amount to the biggest constitutional change in Britain since home rule was granted to Ireland in the 1920s.

And already Westminster's promises seem to be unraveling. Conservative Englishmembers of Parliament are demanding an end to the right of Scottish MPs to vote in Westminster as well as in the Scottish parliament.

But this would exclude one of the Labour Party's heartlands—Scotland's Central Belt—weakening its power in London. The horse trading will be long and hard.

Despite the resignation of the SNP's Salmond, the bulldog of the independence movement, there are also signs that the Yes campaign has not thrown in the towel just yet.

"We Are The 45"

There's already a new Internet campaign, "We Are The 45," which connects the percentage of Yes votes with the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, snuffed out at Culloden the next year.

The finger of blame is being pointed. "The SNP was flooded with refugees from the old, radical left," Ewan Morrison explains. "So it's that old Marxist idea of everyone else being cowards and guilty of having a false consciousness. They can't bear it that the invisible people took over—the silent majority."

He laughs. "It's like these tartan revolutionaries were stopped in their tracks by a bunch of old ladies with tea and scones!"

One redoubtable hotelier, who prefers to remain anonymous, did just that at a Better Together Campaign meeting in her establishment.

Faced by a troupe of boisterous Yes supporters, including a bagpiper, she served them cake and tea to keep them occupied and chatted to them. One of them didn't like it and tried to shove her out of the way. But at least we silenced the piper, she said, and we could go on with our meeting.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

Comment on This Story