UK

Scottish independence: The Scots who can only watch from afar

  • 13 September 2014
  • From the section UK
Scottish fans attend an Argentina vs Scotland match in the 2011 Rugby World Cup in Wellington, New Zealand
Image caption Scottish fans watch Argentina vs Scotland at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in Wellington, New Zealand

Hundreds of thousands of Scots who live abroad are missing out on one of the biggest events to affect their country in generations. How are they feeling about it?

Something so momentous is happening in my home country of Scotland that within a few days the political map could be changed for ever. Whatever your view on the independence referendum, the buzz around it is undoubtedly intoxicating.

But like hundreds of thousands of Scots who are living, working or travelling outside of the UK, I am looking in on this theatre as a distant and impotent spectator, and that is agony.

I was born in Scotland and lived there until my early twenties, and my whole family lives there. After living in England for 16 years I'm now based in South America. I have no vote and nor would I if I still lived in England.

Living abroad is my choice, but this political turmoil has thrown up confusing emotions. I feel lost, anxious, frustrated to be missing out, and even a little bit guilty and homesick.

Image caption Sharon has been glued to her iPhone

The exile's relationship with their home country can be complex and fraught with contradictions.

"It's a bit like an old boyfriend. You might not want them any more, but you don't want them to move on and start dating Iceland or whatever," says Sharon Hall, 42, who is originally from Fife.

"In this case though, it's an old boyfriend I might want to go back to," she adds.

After living in England and then Jersey, she and her husband headed for Australia last month, to begin a year out abroad with their three children.

"Every evening I'm on the iPhone in the campsite. I read the Guardian online then scroll down, reading the comments. But I feel I have forfeited my right to have a say," she says.

'Homesick'

Andrew Avila, 27, moved to the US from Glasgow in 2012 and works in the hotel industry. He says he's recently been spending more time trying to stay connected with events "back home".

"Social media has played a really big role in keeping me up to speed.

"More and more in the last few weeks I have started to feel homesick, which is really strange as it's not something I have experienced since I left. I even found myself getting a lump in my throat watching a video on Facebook the other day. I think I feel a little helpless," he says.

Image caption Andrew Avila, who now lives in the US, says the referendum has made him feel homesick

He has taken the day off work on post-referendum day, and will be watching the vote with Scottish friends from their local football supporters' club, before "having a party and/or drowning our sorrows".

Public policy expert Jane-Frances Kelly, 43, from the Isle of Bute, has lived all over the world since she left home at 17. Currently a programme director for a think tank in Australia, she's planning on returning to Scotland next year because, whatever the result, "there will be change, and therefore fascinating and important work to do".

At the thought of what's coming next week she says: "My stomach turns over every so often.

"Half my head is in Scotland, which is quite awkward given that I have a book manuscript deadline here the week after the referendum."

Modern communications means that she can easily keep up with the news, but she adds: "The thing I really feel like I'm missing is the feel of things on the street, the town-hall-type meetings, the impromptu discussions in supermarket queues, being around the sense of possibility and change."

'Fantastic energy'

Image caption Jane-Frances Kelly feels she is missing out on impromptu discussions

Like the Halls, my partner and I currently have a nomadic existence - living long-term in a campervan - which makes it impossible to follow the daily debate in the way we normally would. Battling with inadequate Wi-Fi in campsites and petrol stations is no substitute for days at home with the radio, or chewing the fat with colleagues and friends.

The closest I get to hearing a radio phone-in these days is calling my parents on Skype and listening to them slogging it out over independence. For the first time in their lives they are completely opposed on a major political issue - split down the middle, just like the country.

Graeme McGregor, 32, grew up in St Andrews, and is now a refugee campaign coordinator for Amnesty International in Australia. He says his family and friends are also evenly split.

"There's a fair divide among the people I know... but I've found the level of grassroots debate extremely good-natured."

"I think it's fair to say I've become a bit obsessed with it. Though I love Scotland... national pride is something I find baffling. But I've found the referendum, in the main, has created a fantastic energy, imagination, optimism and sense of community, which I've never seen before."

He will be watching the results coming in with interested work colleagues while the family at home hold a referendum party.

Image caption Graeme McGregor says he is obsessed with the referendum

"I'm hoping I can Skype in to that. I don't want to get left out!"

Some have argued that expats should have a vote, like retired energy consultant Alan Burrell, 74, who is from Inverness but lives in the Philippines and wants "common sense to prevail" with a "No" result.

"For those of us born in Scotland of Scottish parents, educated in Scotland... and who own a home in Scotland, it is incomprehensible that we are forbidden to vote," he says.

But many others feel the decision to exclude expats abroad was fair, says 30-year-old "Yes" supporter Jamie Murray - a nurse from Glasgow working in Dubai.

"I do wish that I could be there for the referendum. But I think it's fair that expats don't get to vote - I think it sets quite a good precedent for an independent Scotland, that it involved people who live and work there, rather than trying to make it about ethnicity."

History unfolding

What we're all agreed on is that, all around the world, everyone is talking about it.

As we crossed the Brazil-Argentina border last week, an excitable customs official bent our ears for quite some time on the topic.

Like many people here, he - rightly or wrongly - felt an affinity with what he saw as a people "standing up to colonisation and oppression". After leaving his office we could still hearing him shouting "Come on, independence for Scotland!" from some distance away.

His assessment of the reasons behind the referendum was perhaps simplistic, but the whole exchange made me feel unexpectedly emotional and far from home. In the days that followed the campaign ramped up, polls narrowed, and seeking out the news became a daily necessity.

We're already making plans to have access to the internet or TV news on 18 and 19 September.

From a hotel room 7,000 miles away in Argentina we'll quietly watch history unfolding and - whatever the result - changing the Scotland I left behind.