In the weeks and months leading up to September’s referendum, Peter Geoghegan travelled across Scotland – and Europe – meeting people on all sides of the independence debate. In this extract from his new book ‘ The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be The Same Again’, he journeys through the Scottish Borders.
“We’re looking for the cairn.”
The woman behind the counter in the Cadbury’s outlet store in the Gretna Gateway shopping centre stared silently over my shoulder. All around her, piled precariously high, were clear plastic bags filled to bursting with Roses chocolates and mini-Wispas. “Any 2 for £6,” declared signs in red dotted across the shop.
‘”We’re looking for the cairn,” I tried again. “Rory Stewart’s cairn.”
There was a flicker of recognition. “Oh yeah, that.”
The directions were not great, but they were good enough. After wandering through the sprawling Gateway car park, myself and my companion, a young bearded Greenie from Edinburgh, finally spotted a homemade sign on the edge of the road: “The Cairn”. An arrow pointed into a field.
The Auld Acquaintances Cairn was the brainchild of Rory Stewart. The Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border had opened the cairn a few months earlier to give “ordinary people the chance to show how they feel.” Stewart’s solution was a circular pile of rocks and scree behind a car park on the border. Behind it flags of all the nations in the union fluttered in the stiff breeze. Traffic whirred past on the road just beyond the hedge. It was very loud.
Stewart had hoped, he said, that the cairn would reach nine feet tall, but three weeks before the referendum it was barely a third of that. A short walkway connected the cairn’s outer and inner walls. It looked more like a miniature golf course than an archaeological relic.
We spent half an hour wandering around the site. There was nobody else there. The whole scene could have been borrowed from an episode of Father Ted. There was a gazebo in blue and white with Stewart’s name above it and a pair of empty deck chairs. A sign invited visitors to add a fresh stone to the pile. You could even paint your lump of rock. Open tins in shades of red, white and blue stood adjacent to a plastic bag filled with used gloves. On the ground, an orgy of spilt paint bore a passing resemblance to an A-level student’s pastiche of Jasper Johns. Some of the rocks on the cairn carried popular unionist slogans. One said “Better Together”, another “Let’s Stay as One”. The menacing “All One Blood All One Nation” was more the exception than the rule.
One particularly ornate slab of drystone, decorated with the Union flag and a Scottish Saltire, declared “Proud to be Scottish. Proud to Be British. Please Let’s Stay Together.” The ‘Please’ was underlined, as if to emphasis the essential politeness of it all. Even the “yes to independence” scrawled in the cairn’s well-thumbed guest book appeared more mischievous than malicious.
As we stood in the field, I found myself feeling sorry for the people who have taken the time to come to Gretna and carried their stones to this unloved hillock of rocks. Throughout the referendum, Better Together – dubbed Project Fear on account of its oft-unrelenting negativity – spoke of economic uncertainty and “the pound in your pocket”, not of four nations united. Where was the heart in the Union? Where was the emotional case for why these four peoples really were better together? Earlier that day, we had visited a food bank in Dumfries run by “Yes” activist – and amateur novelist – Mark Frankland. Born in Lancashire, Frankland had moved to Dumfries with his wife and two children in 1996. Westminster’s welfare reforms had, he said, convinced him of the need for independence.
Before we left the cairn, my Greenie friend and I walked across a molehill-filled field to the River Sark. “So this is the border?” I asked. “I believe so, yeah.”
We stood staring in silence at an inert stretch of water, about ten feet wide. A rust-coloured leaf fell from an overhanging tree. It felt very peaceful.
* * * * * *
Everyone admits the Border countryside is of another world, of a limpid beauty, tranquillity and gentle intensity that stuns if only because the visible gawping tourists are almost nil.
John Murray, Reiver Blues, 1996.
Borders are defining lines, creating places and people, nations and nationalities. The Scottish Borders is often depicted as a peaceful land of picturesque villages, panoramic valleys and horizon-filling peat bog. But the more than 80-mile long line separating Scotland and England was not always so tranquil. Between the 13th and the 16th centuries this was a wild, dangerous place. Borderers could rarely go to sleep without the fear of attack from Reviers, the rough balladeering men who launched frequent raids into enemy territory, stealing livestock and disrupting quotidian life. Nonetheless, in the same partisan manoeuvring seen today across borders from Kosovo to South Sudan, trouble at the frontier often served a political purpose for the Scottish and English potentates. Nowhere was this truer than “the Debatable Lands”.
The Debatable Lands, as the name suggests, were held by neither Scotland nor England but claimed by both. Local clans controlled the territory, about 40 square miles extending from the Solway Firth at Gretna to Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway. The names of the clansmen have a familiar ring: Armstrong, Elliot, Scott, Charlton, Robson, Bell, Graham. These are the surnames of many of the largest landowners on both sides of the border today. Four centuries ago these were the families that, backed by a clan-based devotion to banditry and romantic notions of honour, marshalled some of the most ferocious of the Reivers. In Scotland, the Reivers were cursed by the national churches and even excommunicated. English Reviers (who were often related to their Scottish foes) suffered a similar fate. But business was good; the thievery continued.
What eventually sealed the Reivers’ fate was the same event that spelled the end of an independent Scotland: the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Overnight, the strategic rationale for allowing the Reivers to run amok vanished. King James set about destroying the Reivers and the conditions that allowed them to thrive. Strongholds on both sides of the border were demolished. The ordinary law of the land replaced the cruder Borders variant. The theft of goods or cattle “amounting to the value of 12d” became punishable by death. There are reports of broken men being hung in Hawick until the town ran out of rope.
Overtime the Borders were pacified. The belligerent reputation was replaced by a softer image of soporific bucolicism. The Borders, in the popular imaginary, became a place where change happened slowly, if it happened at all. The people voted Liberal or Conservative and displayed little appetite for radicalism. But it was not always thus.
* * * * * *
“Welcome to Coldstream – The First True Border Toon” declared a road sign just over the stone bridge that spans the River Tweed. On the High Street, a row of Saltires flew from the railings of a cark park. Further down the street, a Union flag with “Better Together” printed across it occupied most of a shop window display. Below it the faces of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon had been superimposed onto a pair of cartoon sheep, with a placard that said “don’t let this pair pull the wool over your eyes.” The shop’s owner was an amiable septuagenarian named, almost inevitably, Jock.
‘I’m against, definitely against,’ he said, shaking his head when I asked about the upcoming vote.
Coldstream felt like the most unionist place in Scotland that I visited during the campaign. There were Yes posters in some of the narrow terraced houses that lined the crowded High Street, but for once they were equalled, if not outnumbered, by No Thanks signs. Coldstream has a strong, material connection with the Union. It is the only town in the UK with its own army regiment. On the High Street, I called into an army surplus store called Walk This Way. The rails were filled with khakis and military fatigues, gas masks and army boots. The shop owner, Trevor Brunning was a veteran. “I think it’s a sad thing that we’ve come to this point. I’d like to see Scotland staying in the union,” said Brunning, a father of four from North London. “From my standpoint, I don’t see what the benefit would be of leaving.”
About a month after the vote, I passed through Coldstream again. It was the only place in Scotland that I saw where people still had “No Thanks” stickers in their windows.
‘Peter Geoghegan’s The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again’ is available now, published by Luath Press