Belfast Telegraph

Scottish independence: A matter for the head and heart

Malachi O'Doherty talks to those with an emotional investment in a debate across the Irish Sea

Belfast is closer to the Scottish coast than it is to the Irish border, to Dumfries than to Donegal town. If we travelled more easily on water than on land we would have more Scottish neighbours than Irish ones.

And that's how it was right up to about 100 years ago, when a wee boat would have taken you to Islay or Campbeltown a lot quicker than a horse-drawn carriage would have got you to Enniskillen or Monaghan.

Now we think of the sea as dividing countries. Our recent ancestors saw it as connecting them.

The rough forest terrain of the Irish interior kept people apart from each other and coastal communities were linked together by water.

The evidence of this is everywhere, on the Scottish and north English coast. In Heysham, just a mile from where we used to get off the ferry, there is a little ancient graveyard for Irish monks, locally called The Barrows, in the grounds of a ruined church dedicated to St Patrick.

In north Antrim the Gaelic name of a town like Portballintrae is closer to the Scottish usage than to the Irish of Donegal's Ballintra.

This proximity to the Scottish coast enriches the most scenic drive in Ireland, the route from Larne, through Carnlough, hogging the edge of the land and round to Bushmills. From the eastern stretch there is a view of the Mull of Kintyre, only 16 miles from Ballycastle.

From the northern stretch, you can see Islay. Between Ballintoy and Ballycastle, the Scottish islands open to view like a garland on the horizon. On a clear night you can see beyond to Highland peaks.

None of this is going to disappear if Scotland votes for independence.

Politically we may remain in union only with England and Wales, but they are invisible to us and Scotland will still be beside us.

The traffic across the little bit of sea between us has imprinted Scotland on Northern Ireland.

Perhaps half of our population is descended from Scottish planters.

Some of them retain that link in the celebration of Ulster-Scots culture. Some fly the Saltire, the Scottish flag, from lamp-posts. Some invite Scottish bands every year to join the Orange celebrations. And many from here have at least as much interest in Scottish football as they do in local teams and leagues.

Scotland sometimes seems like a space in which we can fight our home battles less bloodily, somewhere we can look to for allies on both sides of the sectarian quarrel.

None of these expressions of Scottish affinity will be much use as symbols of unionist ardour if Scotland leaves the Union and becomes as politically relevant to us as Denmark is today.

Maybe then some of the cultural unionists will take up Morris dancing.

Nationalists who express their Gaelic culture through support for Glasgow Celtic might find that symbol diluted in meaning for them in more subtle ways. The green and white jersey will hardly stand as strongly as a rejection of Britishness when the fight over identity has ended and Scotland has moved on.

Ulster's clinging to Scotland might begin to look even more chauvinistic and outdated than it currently does.

Those Scots who don't already see us as a stranded relic of Reformation days will see more clearly that we and they share few common cultural concerns in the future.

Some here might be enthused with the idea of independence for Northern Ireland, even a future union of Northern Ireland and an independent Scotland, but the prospects of that will remain remote.

And yet still, Scotland will be on our seascape to the east and north. It will still be most obviously our neighbour.

On an overcast day in Ballycastle, the Mull of Kintyre sits like a ghost in the mist. On a clear day you can make out individual houses. At night you can see the lights of traffic.

Drive out to Bushmills for a glass of local produce and you will catch sight of Islay to the north and might wonder how whiskey came to be nurtured on both sides of that stretch of water, if not by the same people.

Those from Scotland who live here say that they feel at home in a way they could not in England.

Anna Hainey was ordained into the Cross and Passion Order to teach children in the mining towns of the Lothians and moved to Drumalis Retreat Centre in Larne 18 years ago.

She says: "I think that in my heart, I am totally at home here and the culture of Northern Ireland and of Scotland are more akin – and they are different from England."

What inclines her most to favouring independence is a sense that Scotland has indigenous values and culture which do not have full expression in the Union. Scottish people want a strong welfare system. They don't want to go the English way of eroding it. So she is moving towards a hope that Scotland will vote for independence and leave the Union.

She says: "I think it would be good if they got the chance to develop their own culture and values."

Another Scot, James Fairbairn, takes the opposite view, yet agrees that there is an affinity between Northern Ireland and Scotland that draws them closer to each other than either is to England.

James came over here when he was 15 and went to Ballymena Academy, which he says was then a Scottish colony. He is retired now, lives in Bushmills, and enjoys a drink in the Scotch Inn.

He says: "It is interesting that the accent and culture here is very Scottish. That goes back to the day when it was easier to go to Scotland by boat than to Belfast by road."

He says that English is spoken on the north coast of Antrim in ways similar to those in Scotland. "Like using the word starving to mean cold, where everywhere else it means hungry."

He is not keen on independence for Scotland. "I think the Scots will be sensible enough to look at the economic side of this and the unionist vote will prevail."

He's afraid that Scotland leaving the Union would set a precedent and that England might start to think of divesting herself of Northern Ireland and Wales.

What you find discussing this with people in Ballycastle and further along the coast is that they do not have strong feelings. It's as if they have not thought it through or don't really believe that Scottish independence will happen.

We have not had this debate here or really faced up to how we would feel to wake up into an era in which Scotland had voted to go.

Alfie and Hazel McPeak have a daughter in Edinburgh and a son-in-law who is Scottish.

They are unionists from Coleraine and worry that independence would be a big economic gamble for Scotland.

Alfie is afraid that Scotland would go broke.

Hazel says: "I think sometimes nationalists would like to see Scottish independence. Then they want Northern Ireland out of the Union. So I think it divides on those lines."

Nigel Dobbin, who was enjoying fish and chips with Maureen Roberts at the harbour in Ballycastle, says that he would personally feel he had lost something if Scotland left the Union.

"I had friends in the Navy and a lot of the bases are up there. It would be a loss. It would change the nature of the Union, you would feel a bit like the poor relation in the Union."

Maureen is Canadian and thinks also of the movements which were looking for independence for Alberta and Quebec. She says she worries about the welfare of the people, that they might be taken into independence and then be impoverished.

"My grandfather was Scottish. He emigrated to Canada to the mining towns in Northern Ontario, and then he worked on the railway."

She says: "I have a strong sense of being Scottish because I had a good relationship with him." And feeling Scottish, she says, makes her feel perfectly at home in Ireland.

Carl O'Hagan grew up near Ballycastle and went to Australia. He is currently at home to introduce his Australian girlfriend Jackie Trott to his mother.

On that question of the easy affinity between Scottish and Irish people, he says that when he travelled abroad he was often asked what part of Scotland he was from.

He says being Scottish or Irish abroad gets you a welcome that being English would not.

Jackie says Australians feel they have a history of difficulty with England and that a wariness of the English does not apply to the Scottish and Irish.

She says: "I think a lot of people are friendly to the Scottish and Irish but not to the English; they see them as close, with similarities in music and dance and the way they celebrate and the way they drink."

She worries about Scottish independence.

"How are they going to survive? Good luck to them, but I think they'll survive 10 years max and then they'll come crawling back."

For all of these people there is a contest between heart and head over Scottish independence. For some, like Anna Hainey, the excitement of the adventure of independence is what stirs her. For others, like James Fairbairn, the emotional attachment to the Union is as strong as the practical argument for it. In all of them, the head says, "maybe not; maybe the risk is too great".

Dae ye taak Ulster-Scotch?

Oany mair o that an there'll bae less o it! (I will put an end to your bad behaviour!)

A cannae get mae heid roon it ava. (I can't understand it at all)

Stick yer heid through the dure. (Open the door and come in)

Awa oan ir that wae ye! (I don't believe it!)

Dinnae burn the hale barn joost tae get rid o mice. (Do not over react needlessly)

A creakin gate hings lang. (Someone who complains a lot about their health tends to live a long time)

Dinnae burn me fer a fool ir ye'll rake gye wise ashes. (I'm not as foolish as I may seem)

Burnin the cannel at baith enns brings oan the darkness aa the quicker. (You must learn to pace yourself)

Ye cannae sell the coo an sup the milk. (You can't have your cake and eat it)

Whinever ye want, your freens are scarce. (Friends can be hard to find when you need them most)

Belfast Telegraph


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