Monday, 23 May 2011

Oh Scotland, won't you stay?


Today is the day when some of the implications of the Scottish National Party's stunning victory in elections to the Edinburgh Parliament become manifest. Alex Salmond (above) is to lay out his party's vision for what moves towards independence might mean. And he's in London for discussions with UK ministers - during which he intends to press for further devolution and more powers for Holyrood. It's a painful and an ominous day for those of us who don't want Scotland to leave the Union.

That opposition on my part is intuitive, emotional and sentimental as much as anything. The arguments and practicalities are for another day, and we'll have them out soon enough. But start with the personal. Where would my own life and sense of place be, I wonder, without looking up at Edinburgh Castle for the first time when I was eighteen? Or wondering at Kelvingrove Museum on a warm Glasgow afternoon when I was twenty? Or peering into the mist off Ardvasar and Armadale as I crossed over to Skye in my twenties? Plenty of the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland feel the same. Adam Nicolson's moving Sea Room, about the Shiant Islands off Lewis, summons up the lyricism and the wonder that many of us feel once we get past Berwick or Carlisle:

[Then] I went to stand on the heights of Garbh Eilean, nearly six hundred feet about the Minch at its most languourous and seductive. The sky was draped with the weighless trails of evening clouds... Below them... every inch of the horizon was rimmed with distant sunlit mountains. My eye travlled them like a fell runner... In Sutherland, eighty miles away to the north-east, Foinaven and Ben Stack. Going south, Quinag about Assynt, Suilven and Stac Polly. Above Lock Broom, Coigach matches the ragged notches of Ann Teallach on its southern side. Behind Gairloch is Beinn Eighe in Torridon, south of that, Beinn Bhan behind Applecross. Each mountain in... 'the opposite continent' is the bass note to the human settlement at its feet... Compton Mackenzi said when he stood here that he felt 'swung between heaven and earth'. No place I know feels more like the centre of the universe.

Nicolson's romanticism is instructive as well as infectious. As David Mitchell has pointed out, the SNP aren't anti-English. Far from it. The two nations would probably be happy neighbours. But they certainly are anti-British. For they want that state - and my membership of and attachment to it - to come to an end. So while I'm toiling across a peat bog in Lewis, driving over a misty pass in the middle of the night on Harris, marvelling at the wildflowers growing on the beaches and machair of western Scotland, whether I'm climbing in the Cuillin and looking out on the Isle of Rum, while I'm standing on the edge of the world on northerly Unst or just pottering about on Stonehaven's dockside, I'd be in someone else's land, not my own.

What consequences would this have for recent immigrant communities who define themselves as 'British', rather than English, Scottish or Welsh? What would be the impact on the still-fragile constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland? No-one seems to know - concrete and political examples of the emotional and biographical strands of complexity that would be wrenched apart were we to divorce.

The real issue for me isn't that Scots would be worse off in the brave new world (though they might be). It's that I would feel spiritually and emotionally impoverished without the sense of the mountains and the wilderness at my back. Many millions would feel cut off from part of what they regard as their country, too.

So I'll be saying this to every Scot that I can find: oh Scotland, won't you stay?

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