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An Independent Scotland? Scottish Americans As Divided As Scots

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On Thursday, people in Scotland will decide whether to break off from the United Kingdom. The world is watching — especially people with roots in Scotland.Polling in Scotland shows a nearly 50-50 split, and it seems to be the same among Scottish Americans, according to Margaret Frost, who chairs the 200-member Scottish American Society.

“I think we are just as divided as they are over there,” said Frost.

Nearly 30 million Americans identify as having some Scottish descent. As media coverage has increased and the vote approaches, Reverend Peter Preble of the St. Andrew’s Society of Massachusetts says he has seen growing support for independence among Scots in the U.S. With the American Revolution in mind, Preble says Americans understand the desire for home rule.

“It’s that desire for its own nation, own identity and the desire to be in control in of that destiny,” said Preble. 

Frost, who has lived and worked in Scotland, explains some of the calls for independence may sound familiar to students of the American separation from England.

“The Scots like their whiskey,” Frost said. “But they don’t buy their whiskey in Scotland because the English have put such a high tax on it. They buy their whiskey by taking special shopping trips across the channel to France. A lot of the tax revenue for England is derived from Scotland on the backs of the Scottish people. They’re tired of it.”

Alan Bain is chairman of the American Scottish Foundation, which has roughly 400 paying members. He says the uncertainty of what an independent Scotland would look like may influence voters.

“Why take the risk when you really already have significant powers,” Bain said. “Additional powers have been promised, you’re just not going to be an ‘independent’ country. But, Scotland has always been sort of recognized as somewhat independent because it has its own legal system and so on.”

Independence wouldn’t be uncharted territory for Scotland. It was its own country until 1707 when Great Britain, and ultimately the United Kingdom, was created. The voting age for the independence referendum has been lowered to 16 as the outcome is expected to affect generations to come. Frost says there may be a divide among young and old.

“The yes votes are very loud and enthusiastic,” Frost said. “It’s all the young people. They want to see it happen. The older, conservative people, my people come from the highlands and the outer isles, they’re not in favor of it. They would just as soon stay where they are.”

Preble says he hasn’t seen anything that would suggest a clear divide between age groups. Only those living in Scotland are able to vote, excluding Scottish citizens currently abroad and including non-Scots living in country. The Scottish National Party is behind the independence movement. Frost explains its current leader and First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, may put a bad taste in Americans’ mouths.

“He was the one who was responsible for the release of the Lockerbie bomber, which many Americans did not appreciate,” Frost said. “He virtually thumbed his nose at America and released the man supposedly on humanitarian grounds.”

Bain says the American Scottish Foundation received many angry letters following the 2009 release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people, including 35 Syracuse University students returning home for winter break and several with ties to the Capital Region.

The Libyan perpetrator died of cancer, the basis for his release from prison in 2011. Bain doesn’t think the Lockerbie decision will specifically cause a strain between the U.S. and an independent Scotland if Salmond were to be a leader, but questions remain.

“For example the removal of nuclear arms from Scotland and what happens to the Scottish military that has been such a significant force for 300 years in the British forces,” said Bain.

Though it’s been around for years, Bain, who was born in England to Scottish parents, says the independence movement is coming to fruition now because the United Kingdom has become London-centric and Scotland is now under essentially one-party rule. If independence does not pass, he believes the British government will be more sensitive to the concerns of areas beyond the mainland. He adds the seemingly even split between those for and against independence may also be a problem.

“The period of reconciliation…that is going to be the biggest challenge no matter what happens,” said Bain.

Frost agrees.

“There are families where they are so totally on one side and totally on the other,” Frost said. “The Scots are a passionate people. They really can get into some arguments. They’ll be intellectual arguments. They’re really not great fighters, but they will discuss endlessly. This has caused hard feelings that will linger after the election whichever way it goes.”

Preble expects to see a surge in Scottish national pride among Scottish Americans if independence is achieved, while Bain believes global Scots may return to their ancestral home.

“There’s going to be a big need in Scotland for international experience because they are going to have to drive their own economy,” said Bain.

Preble adds the democratic action could resonate beyond the United Kingdom.

“A drop of blood has not been spilled and perhaps this is the wave of the future for independence for other nations,” said Preble.

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