Scottish independence: The American perspective

Mel Gibson in Braveheart

Thousands of Americans will don a kilt on Wednesday and raise a toast to the bard as they celebrate Burns Night. But how much do they know about modern Scotland? And does it matter?

It's the time of year when Americans everywhere get in touch with their Scottish roots, however tangled and distant they might be, as they celebrate Burns Night.

The concept of Scottish identity has recently been invigorated as plans for a referendum on independence take shape in Holyrood. So what do Americans with Caledonian ancestry make of the debate?

"In the minds of most Scottish Americans, Scotland is a country, so the idea of modern-day independence is mostly anathema to them," says Bart Forbes, of Washington DC's St Andrews Society.

"They understood the devolution of the Scottish Parliament but certainly not the details of it. It is another point of pride to being a Scot.

"It's the culture, the romance that captures a lot of Americans' imaginations".

Twisted tales

Their vision of Scotland is mostly taken from movies like Braveheart, Mel Gibson's 1995 tale of Scottish rebel William Wallace, who leads an uprising against an English tyrant, says Mr Forbes.

Scots in the US

  • 25m Americans claim Scottish ancestry, according to some estimates
  • Includes Scots Irish Americans - the descendants of an estimated 250,000 Presbyterian and other Protestant dissenters from Ulster
  • Americans with Scottish heritage include Ronald Reagan, Neil Armstrong and Bill Gates
  • The earliest Scottish settlers in the 17th Century were traders and planters in Virginia
  • In the 18th Century, thousands of Scots and Scots-Irish established their own communities in southern US
  • 19 of the 56 delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence came from Scotland or Ulster
  • American-Scots celebrate their heritage on Tartan Day and at Highland Games and Scottish walks

Few have any idea what modern Scotland is like, he adds, and if they do it will have been picked up from dark and twisted tales like Trainspotting or Shallow Grave.

"There are elements of truth in what people believe the whole of Scotland to be but it is not the whole truth. If you look at the marketing of Scotland, you see these broad mountainous vistas, these sparkling lakes, these old castles.

"They don't talk about the Silicon Glen, they don't talk about the industry around the northern oil fields."

But surely a bit of harmless nostalgia is good for business? Visitors are unlikely to hand over their hard-earned dollars for a tour of a high-tech industrial park.

Up to a point.

The US is Scotland's biggest export market - and the success of an independent Scotland might depend, to some extent, on convincing American investors that there is more to the country than whisky tours and old castles.

Since 2008, the Scottish government has been attempting to rebrand Scotland as "a creative and innovative nation with a rich heritage, contributing to the world as a modern dynamic country".

Commercial focus

To howls of protest from sections of the Scottish press, who claimed he was suffering from delusions of grandeur, First Minister Alex Salmond appointed a Scottish Government Counsellor, Robin Naysmith, to represent Scotland's interests in America.

He replaced the former First Secretary for Scottish Affairs, who had been working in the British embassy in Washington DC since 2001.

Old Scotland

Lone piper
  • Population: 1,265,380 in 1755, according to the first reliable estimate
  • Language: Vast majority of people in Middle Ages Scotland spoke Gaelic, then called Scottish
  • Law and government: In 1707, the Act of Union is passed formally uniting Scotland with England to form Great Britain
  • Industry: Sheep farming, fishing, textiles, coal mining, whisky
  • Food and drink: Haggis, beef, salmon, porridge, broth, oatcakes, whisky
  • Sport: Golf and curling both originated in 15th Century Scotland. Highland games began as athletic contests - modern version largely a Victorian invention
  • Cultural highlights: Country dancing, pipe music, story-telling, poetry

Tartan Week, an annual celebration of all things Scottish held every April, was renamed "Scotland Week" and given a more commercial focus - and a succession of Scottish ministers, including Mr Salmond himself, have crossed the Atlantic to drum up business and forge links with American legislators.

Mr Salmond has come under fire for using British taxpayers' money to promote the cause of Scottish independence in America and set up a nascent embassy network in readiness for independence.

The Scottish Affairs Office is reluctant to comment on potential conflicts of interest and insists it is simply there to support the aims of the Scottish government.

In a statement, it said: "Through the Scottish Government's US Engagement Plan, which articulates the government's strategic objectives for the US, our work directly supports the government's overall purpose - increasing sustainable economic growth."

Brigadoon it isn't.

But Mr Salmond's man in Washington, Robin Naysmith, is on a mission to educate the wealthy and influential Scottish Diaspora in America about such modern wonders as Scotland's low carbon energy industry and the Year of Creative Scotland programme.

It has been an eye-opener for Washington's St Andrews Society, which says that before the "Scottish embassy" came to town, it had been content to wear tartan to formal dinners and wallow in nostalgia for a semi-mythical past.

Nuclear weapons

Now it is learning more about modern Scotland and helping out the Scottish government's export drive by forging links between Scottish and American doctors and universities.

It has not always been a smooth ride.

Modern Scotland

Edinburgh festival fringe launch
  • Population: 5,222,100
  • Language: Mainly English but 150 languages spoken in total, including Farsi, Arabic and Polish, 1.2% can speak Gaelic
  • Law and government: Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999 with power over key areas like health, education. In May 2011, Scottish National Party won majority of seats and pledged referendum on full independence from Great Britain
  • Industry: Oil and gas, whisky, financial services, tourism, manufacturing
  • Food and drink: Salmon, shellfish, venison, lamb. Haggis and oats still made
  • Sport: Football, rugby football, golf, skiing, water sports, curling
  • Cultural highlights: Edinburgh hosts largest arts festival in world, thriving contemporary art and music scenes

Members of a Gaelic speaking society are, apparently, still smarting after their inquiries about promoting the language in Scotland were batted away by Scottish government officials, who told them that more people speak Farsi than Gaelic in modern Scotland.

The Scottish Government said it works with Gaelic groups "on a daily basis" and has a "very good" record of supporting and promoting the language.

"We are keen to support a wide range of languages that are spoken in Scotland and recognise that we have a special responsibility towards Gaelic," said a spokeswoman.

John King Bellassai, former president of the DC St Andrews Society, says Scottish Americans tend to let romance cloud their judgement when it comes to an independent Scotland.

He admits he is in the minority among his friends in opposing full independence, having balked at the SNP's "pacifist" stance on nuclear weapons and other "left wing" SNP policy positions, despite being a Democrat supporter.

"Americans, I think, are woefully ignorant of what the implications would be from an American point of view," he says.

Even American Scots who do support independence are not always on board with the SNP's ambitions for the country.

Chad McGregor, a 21-year-old New Yorker studying computer science at Aberdeen University, says: "I support Scotland becoming a fully independent nation, maybe without the EU. I am not the biggest fan of the EU."

Mr McGregor, who helps run a website for the Scottish American community, describes himself as a right-wing Republican, and says he and many of his Scottish American friends are planning to travel to Scotland to campaign for independence.

"I have met so many people who are members of the SNP, both in person and online, who consider themselves to be a conservative. They refer to themselves as 'Tartan Tories'.

"They probably disagree with the SNP on a number of issues but, at the end of the day, the independence of their country is more important than their personal party politics."

With the precise date of a referendum still to be set, but the SNP ruling out votes for Scots living abroad, the Scottish American community appears to be as divided about the merits of full independence as Scots themselves.

'Mixed feelings'

No polling has been done on the subject so far, but the New York-based American Scottish Foundation canvassed opinion from some of its members for the BBC.

A spokesman said: "It appears that Scottish-Americans here in the US have mixed feelings regarding the issue.

"While most people are intrigued by the 'notion' of independence, they express a great need to know or understand more exactly what independence will ultimately mean for Scotland in real terms - economically, politically, internationally, and so forth.

"People seem keen to watch the events closely as they unfold, without actually supporting either position at this point in time."

If Alex Salmond really is planning to mobilise the Scottish diaspora ahead of a referendum, he may have his work cut out inspiring the troops.

Time, perhaps, to dig out the Braveheart DVD.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    I respect the right of Scots-descended Americans to have an opinion. But I wonder how they’d feel if a very important US state chose to secede from their union? The UK benefits greatly from Scotland and we’d all be culturally, politically and economically poorer if they leave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    A truly bizarre comment on American society.

    There's no such thing as 'Scots Americans'. There are American citizens, British citizens, and British citizens living in Scotland.

    Scots independence - for the Americans - is basically about Scots society which is socialist and egalitarian at heart going in a different direction to England and the USA.

    That's what the debate is about. Not history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    Americans may have a skewed idea of what Scotland is really like, but let me tell you as an American living in Britain that many, many British people have a skewed idea of what America is like. Just look at all the comments that say something to the effect of Americans not even knowing where Scotland is on the map. I know reality TV would tell you we're all stupid, but believe me we're not!

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    I suppose Americans generally see Scotland in similar terms to Ireland. A great country full of wonderful people, oppressed for centuries by the bad bad English which is why so many of them emigrated. A view supported by Hollywood and vote-hungry politicians (why do we never hear of English Americans?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    I'm an American living in Scotland. I agree it doesn't matter one bit what Americans think about Scotland or whether it gains independence. Only Scots know their country well enough to decide what is best for their own people. I think most Americans have a very romantic and positive view of Scotland, but they don't know the country, and in light of comments here, maybe that's a good thing.


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