Scotland – a tale of two cities
By Suzanne Plunkett
I find myself waiting in a featureless hotel conference room in the Scottish town of Kilmarnock. I’m here to photograph an informal meeting about the benefits of voting for independence in the upcoming referendum on whether Scotland should break its union with the rest of the United Kingdom.
But if attendance at this gathering is anything to go by, the vote in favour of secession may be in serious trouble.
According to some observers, Kilmarnock, a down-on-its-luck manufacturing town in the west of Scotland, should be a pro-independence heartland. The economically depressed, so the theory goes, are more likely to vote for change.
Yet, here in the Fenwick hotel, 15 minutes past the time the meeting should have started, barely anyone is here. It’s so empty I can hear the tick of a wristwatch from three rows away. We all stare awkwardly at the rain sliding down the windows and wait.
Then – bang!
The door flies open and two chattering volunteers breeze in. They bustle to the front of the room and begin stacking “Yes to independence” campaign leaflets and draping a Scottish Saltire flag over a desk. They are oblivious to the settled gloom until one of them turns around and notices something is missing.
She raises an eyebrow and, without missing a beat, says: “Ah, the others must be in the bar! I’ll go fetch them.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later, dozens of jovial locals file into the conference room. The air of despondency is replaced by one of anticipation. There’s a sense of excitement too, although it is unclear whether this is caused by the election that lies ahead, or by a round of drinks.
What is clear is that in Kilmarnock, the campaign for an independent Scotland is underway and the people here are – despite their late arrival – engaged in the process.
This seems to be the case elsewhere in the town too. Later, I end up at the Kay Park Tavern. From outside, this neighbourhood pub is deceptively large, a long, low building resembling a grand old coaching inn. Inside, it’s cramped and dimly lit.
It’s a pub for locals. Walking in, I might as well be an out-of-town gunslinger barging through the swing doors of a Western saloon. Conversation halts. Drinks slam onto tables. Everyone swivels to stare at the newcomer. If anyone had been playing at the dartboard over in the corner, I’m sure the dart would’ve frozen in mid-air.
With all eyes on me, I sidle in to speak to the bartender. I ask permission to take photographs, anticipating the scrape of barstools as drinkers rush to eject me.
The barman is called Jimmy Lund. He puts on a stern expression after listening to my request and asks, “Why on earth would you want to photograph this lot?”
To my relief he quickly adds, “Aye, of course you can!”
I am immediately ushered around to his side of the beer pumps to face a panel of barroom political experts – all with differing opinions about September’s referendum.
Lund puts his opinion succinctly: “I don’t want to be part of the Union Jack!”
Customer William Francis, sipping his pint of cider, agrees: “We could survive without England!”
Another, Isabel Creighton, sides with the “Better Together” campaign (as the No voters call it). “There aren’t enough guarantees,” she says.
The crux of the debate in the Kay Park Tavern and elsewhere, is that the vote represents a choice between the familiar and the unknown.
The risks are heightened because there is only one vote. It’s not a political term of office that will simply be voted against in four or five years if it doesn’t work out. And it isn’t hinged to a particular candidate.
Denise Campbell, out for a stroll with her husband and 16-week-old daughter, worries that some people are confusing the referendum with Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, which has championed the cause of independence.
“Some people don’t particularly like Alex Salmond and the SNP,” she says. “They think they are voting for them. But they’re not voting for them, they are voting for an independent Scotland.”
A few weeks later I’m in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh – a wealthy city that should, in theory at least, be the anti-independence flip side to Kilmarnock.
At the 150-year-old Cafe Royal’s Circle Bar, a stylish Victorian pub adorned with ornate ceramic murals depicting famous Scottish inventors, men in sharp suits swarm the bar and buzzing conversations bounce off the high baroque ceilings.
I could easily be tourist in this part of town. So could a few others in the bar, and there are no slammed pint glasses when I enter.
I strike up a conversation with retired widower Archibald Anderson, a refined-looking Scot.
Anderson is happy to talk politics and reminisces about serving in the British military alongside soldiers from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Between sips of his pint of Tennent’s he says, “I can’t imagine why we would want to be separate.”
This was a typical response when I pressed other voters who sided with the Better Together campaign. Change is risky.
But trying to predict the outcome of the referendum is no easy task. Opinion polls have offered varied forecasts and simply trying to guess the voting outcome by dividing Scotland into zones of prosperity and decline doesn’t work either.
A case in point is Stuart Knapp, a 39-year-old electrical engineer whom I met back in Kilmarnock.
Knapp plans to vote no to independence and eagerly discussed the gravity of the vote while walking his dog in the town’s Dean Castle Country Park.
“Let’s say we vote for independence and 10 years down the line it hasn’t worked and we want to change back,” he said. “We won’t be allowed to … we’re going to be stuck in our independent Scotland.”