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.


More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Us Brits who are of Scottish descent have a far more down to earth view than Americans.Personally I think it's up to Scotland if it wants to break from the union & become a separate nation however I think it would be a mistake.Scotland has north sea gas in it's sights which it doesn't want to share but when that's all gone Scotland will struggle. Scotland needs the UK more than we need Scotland...

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    #99 I liked the english test comment - made me laugh.
    I was born in Scotland but I after swearing an oath and serving in the forces I consider myself British, but I think, if the facts and figures are true, that Scotland could benefit from complete independence. I also think that these ancestral ties would help in future industry and should not be overlooked, as has been done by union governments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Am I the only Englishman who is genuinely desparate for Scotland to leave the union.

    Can somebody who is English and wants them to stay please answer me why on earth a country foolish enough to vote in Alex Salmond, knowing what he stands for, has any right to remain?

    Don't wait for a vote: kick them out. A little financial pain for no longer being embarassed by them is well worth it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    As a Scot, I find the suggestion that any Americans could even be asked about Scottish Independence terrifying. I like the think those currently living in Scotland will have the sense to vote no to Scottish independence once the full proposal is set out clearly. I voted for SNP in the last elections because I supported their other policies but I don't support independence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    'Scottish independence: The American perspective'

    Yawn: about as relevant, interesting, and significant as British people fretting about the outcome of the presidential elections at the end of the year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    @10downinst: how about us setting up a group to go to the USA and demand indpendence for the "Native Americans"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    It's all a mute point. Scottish "independence", English "independence", a united Ireland. It doesn't matter as at the end of the day we will still be ruled by that bunch of unelected fools in Brussels...

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    If Scotland can vote for independence, why not London? Londoners would be a lot better off, we wouldn't even have to spend millions to build our new London Parliament as we already have one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Full independence will not happen few want it but the constitution of the UK must modernise - soon. The home nations need to get about a table and thrash out a new system based on each nation respecting each other but managing itself but sharing the big ideas and common unity of families all married together for generations now. Americans do not care either way Scotland is not their country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    William Wallace was a wealthy landowner, not a freedom fighter, and had some of his captives flayed alive thus actually initiating the ending of chivalry in war- so being hung, drawn and quartered himself was really only fair does. Thats the trouble with Scotland- they always were a real bother to us English and Americans, being totally ignorant of any reality, think Mel Gibson is William Wallace

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Its not just about taxes - a recent example being students fees.

    And i havent entered England on an online form under country of birth for a decade because the only option is UK (even though thats not a country...)

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Does Alex Salmon not realise independence wil not only weaken the UK but will make Scotland into another insignificant European country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    72 - I'm from Newington,Edinburgh and I know plenty of people here who will vote for independence (note to everyone who is posting on this subject - there is no 'a' in the word).
    55 - It was over 23%. the conservatives got 10.7 million out of 45 M voters (also 23%) at the 2010 election, Labour got 21% in 2005. Your point?

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    @Studstudson-they don't. It is welll known that descendants of the largest historical migration to the USA, of the English under report their ethnic group on the census.Their surnames may be names of English villages but unless they are descended from the zealots on the Mayflower they are plain USA, but stick a Mac, Mc or O' in front or a gan, sson on the end and up jumps the " old country" .

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    "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."

    in the related articles on this page
    scotland-scotland-politics-16607480 - "SNP dismisses expat voting call "

    It is Labour that have been leading the calls for ex-pats to get the vote.

    Poor reporting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Human history is steeped with good and bad.. people who hate those they have never met based on events that happened way before they were born are at best very bored and frustrated individuals... find something to do ... take up a sport or something...

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    @7 Almost half of the countries in the world have a population which is similar to or smaller than Scotland - and most of them are not oil producers. Many of them are far happier and more prosperous by head of population than the USA/China/England etc.

    Scottish Independence is both sensible and inevitable. Look at the political map from the last general election and Holyrood election!

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    James VI & I - 1603 Stuart Dynasty ended 1688 -William of Orange!
    Act of Union - 1707 England did run out of Monarchs - and got a Dutchman; so I rather think the Act of Union wasn't a result of James becoming king 104 years earlier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Why do Americans say their Scottish Americans, or Irish Americans etc..?

    If you're less than 50% Scottish, Irish etc, then your'e an American. I know that's nothing to brag about, but just accept it and get on with your life in the USA and stop claiming to be something you're not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.


    The point is, that if either Scotland or England wish to seperate themselves from the other then that country would be leaving the UK, so post 32 suggesting England seperates itself from Scotland either means insisting Scotland leaves the UK (by all UK members) or England volunteers to leave.


Page 26 of 32



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.