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 184.

    At least you've had a say (1979) and are about to have another one (2014), what about us English. There isn't a mainstream party that will give us a shout. There is literally no-one there who is standing up for us when the talks come down to sharing out the wealth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Perhaps they need reminding that the Picts and Scots came from Ireland so a toast with a glass of the dark stuff?

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    The vast majority of American do not know what is happening in the next state. How can you expect them to understand what is happening 3000 miles away, in a country with a history of greater than 250 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    I`m interested to see comments about England historically exploiting the wealth of Scotland and Wales, now what would that wealth be I wonder. There is also reference to the English being foreigners, erm, no they`re not, the English are a mix of Angles and Saxons. The Scottish are a mix of Celts from the North and Ireland and the Welsh are a mix of Celts from Wales and Ireland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    "84.Graphis The further North I go, the less I like it. Never been to Scotland, and as yet, never seen anything that might attract me there. Maybe we could finally finish Hadrian's Wall?"
    Then you've never seen the most beautiful scenery in the world (and I'm not Scottish and don't live in Scotland), or the finest city in the UK (Edinburgh).
    By the way, Hadrian's Wall is entirely in England.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    America. Isn't that the place where they raised huge sums of money for the IRA whilst shouting about a war on terror? Lets hope the SNP don't develop a terrorist wing. Elderly ladies dragging people off the streets and forcing them to eat haggis and shortbread biscuits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    I have a Scottish name in my ancestry way back, a drover or Cromwellian prisoner of war draining the Fens, so I claim a vote. I say full devo,no extra payments from the EU and cuts to subsidies for uneconomic hill farms, no compensation from England, offshore boundaries drawn to convention, and those choosing Scottish citizenship to have the same status as EU citizens. A clean break at vote count.

  • 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 176.

    138 - beat me to it.
    Americans should be Americans & claiming to be some sort of hybrid seems disloyal to the USA.

    Braveheart - wasn't it mostly filmed in Ireland with the Irish Army as extras for the large scenes ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    #14: It cuts both ways. I was moved, against my will, from Edinburgh to a wee town in the West Country, and aye, I had plenty of snide anti-Scottish attitudes to put up with. One reason why I'm planning on going home ahead of the referendum.

    If there's one thing that the independence debate has shown it's that the English are much more racist than they like to think they are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    You missed an industry writing and performing endless songs about wistfully missing the old country and one day going home again. Especially popular with Irish/Scottish Americans and with the rootless English. Keeps a goodly percentage of musicians in work. The myth of the celtic fringe is always a good brand to sell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Why is it things like this polarise comment so much? The vast majority of Scots do not want independence. The plastic Scots who don the kilt over in the US are little better than the plastic Irish over there who wept into their Guiness as they dropped money into the collection buckets in New York. Money that the IRA later used to blow up innocent people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    I live in NE England. I visit Scotland more often than SE England, but my 3 adult children have migrated south for employment. Full Scottish independence would diminish all parts of the UK and maroon me close to a ridiculous border. A curse on the tartan nationalists and their little England counterparts and their general petty offensiveness to each other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    I'm Scottish, I live in England and say no to Scottish independence. Why break up a United Kingdom? It will just make another bunch of politicians whom have to be paid. They will not run Scotland well judging by the performance of Blair and Brown.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    What is with this countries obsession with America?!

    In the 'interests of balance' why don't you also ask Scottish descendants in Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc? Or is it just the UK's poor cousin syndrome with the US that's important?

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    "Re-Gaelic, BBC Alba have full coverage of an SPL game every's Great !"

    Thats more than we ever get on the EPL, or even the champ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    I'm sick of reading comments like "I live in Edinburgh and I'v not met anyone who support independence" - what a ridiculously stupid statement. Does that mean that there are none whatsoever? Maybe you only know one person in Scotland? The whole point in a referendum is that the entire population gets its say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    "No mention at all of the other parts of what is now the UK. the Act covers "the United Kingdom of Great Britain" - i.e. England and Scotland (Wales doesn't get a mention)."

    ok, then how would you suggest post 32 takes place is Scotland elected to remain in the UK but England wished to seperate from Scotland?

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Americans generally tend to lack knowledge about our history & politics on this part of the globe. Gaelic history is over-romanticised & the English seen as terrible opressors, even in modern times!

    A few decades ago, quite a number of Americans who over-romanticised their Irish ancestory (& didn't understand the facts) were bank-rolling the IRA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Yay! Another story with a hidden agenda. The US are increasingly concerned about an ally in Europe - the UK How potent shall she be if Scotland default on the Union? America would be more concerned about keeping the UK together to strengthen their influence in Europe. This reporting is about as twee and irrelevant as Braveheart and paints Scotland likewise. Keep to the issue BBC! Annoyed Scot


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