CRAIG GALLAGHER ScotsPolitics’ resident academic is based in Boston, meaning he has a great view of how the Independence debate is represented abroad
Last January, I was given a sense of just how momentous political events in Scotland really have been this last year when I happened across a New York Times article about Scottish Independence. The article confirmed an enduring American interest in my country of birth, ancestral homeland to so many in this vast country. But at the same time, it also showed just how tartan-tinted their views of Scotland are. While it demonstrated a firm grasp of recent Scottish political history, particularly regarding the creation of Parliament at Holyrood, it also included a photo of James Wallace, bekilted with the slogan “Let Me Vote” daubed on his chest, which the NYTimes thought referred to English attempts to frustrate the referendum, but in fact referenced Wallace’s own frustration with the Scottish government denying him a vote because he lives in London.
Americans see in the debate echoes of their own independence from England (by which they often mean Britain) after the American Revolution of 1774-1783. This is why American reports often open with a reference to Braveheart or to Robert the Bruce and the Battle of Bannockburn and characterise Scotland as struggling against a colonial power, something the Times piece touches on.
This is just one of many representations of Scots in the United States, images that can conflict with or complement one another. Since I moved to Boston a year ago, I have encountered Americans who identify with me because they have Scottish ancestors, often ones who lived in Nova Scotia for a period as well. Others want to talk whisky with me, asking for recommendations. Kilts are also a common conversation topic, with most delighted to find that I own “a proper one”. Still others think we’re essentially the same people as the Irish (although my surname doesn’t help with this confusion).
One or two have known that the oldest extant charity in America is the Scots Charitable Society of Boston and associate us with a Christian voluntary spirit and our legendary tightness with money. And then there is The Haven, Boston’s ubiquitous Scottish pub dedicated to Caledonian food, beer and music, where they manage to avoid the tackiness of a Royal Mile souvenir shop and instead come across more like a Stornoway tavern.
Media outlets and prominent Americans, meanwhile, have taken an interest in the details of independence, falling on one side or the other on matters of defence or national identity. CNN has recently joined the legions of British journalists declaring the London 2012 Olympics as a bad couple of weeks for Scottish Nationalists because of the boost for Britain it has been, for example. Meanwhile the Huffington Post reported on possible resistance from the American government to the relocation of Trident nuclear missiles from their base on the Clyde. Even comedian Craig Ferguson had something to add when he asked First Minister Alex Salmond what the relationship between an independence Scotland and the United States would be, earning the reply that it would be friendly.
Building on the late Gore Vidal’s belief that Scottish Independence was inevitable, it seems undeniable that our national conversation is encouraging more Americans than ever to take an interest in Scottish matters. In the last year, which I’ve spent living in Boston, it has constantly amazed me to find myself in passionate discussions with all sorts of Americans about the future of my country, and of Britain as a whole. It behoves the Scottish Government to capitalise on this increasing interest, not just because many Americans consider themselves sons and daughters of Ancient Caledonia, but because they have much to offer us, whether independent or not, as we discover our place in a British, European and global world.