The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the name of a political union of four distinct countries 1500 years in the making, and depending on where you reside within the British Isles, “united” may seem slightly sarcastic. Especially in Scotland, the nation occupying the northern third of Great Britain. A brief history lesson will tell you that the Kingdoms of Scotland and England merged in 1707 to create the Kingdom of Great Britain. And In 1801, the Kingdom of Ireland joined to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a century later Ireland left on what we’ll just call … terms. Now, while Scotland continues to belong to the United Kingdom, along with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, it is not, and has not been, the most loving relationship over the past 310 years. John Oliver put it best when describing the U.K:
“An archipelagic supergroup comprised of four variously willing members.”
Looking through the history of this union of nations will show you plenty of examples of Scotland and England acting passive aggressively towards each other, but the biggest flareup between the two came in 2014, when Scotland voted on whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom or become its own independent nation for the first time in three centuries. Scots narrowly voted to stay, with the stay vote gaining 55%, but only after the U.K. government practically begged them to stay, and promised to acknowledge some of their concerns. Their biggest concern as described to me, is England’s superiority complex, and a general disrespect by the British government and media towards Scotland.
Scotland is a nation of only 5.3 million, or about 8% of the total population of the U.K, and when compared to England’s 53 million, you could see how a superiority complex may develop. But Scotland is home to tremendous tradition, culture, and some of the most famous inventors and people the world has seen. Arguing against Scotland’s significance is an argument that is destined to fail, but it’s one that is seemingly always present. When leaving for the airport on our last day in Scotland, we had an interesting conversation with our taxi driver who was very vocal about his opinions of the English, but more importantly English media. The middle aged father and former football player from St. Andrews had no problem with the English people, but his disdain for English media made perfect sense when he applied it to sports.
I don’t remember the exact situation he described (it was 03:30!), but what it boiled down to is during a match he was watching between the old rivals, the British media was obsessed with the English national team and all it has done on the pitch, and just scoffed at Scotland, even though the Scots had been more successful recently. All I could think about was how the media in America can act in such a similar way with sports, like with Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. No matter how successful Michigan State is on the field or in the classroom, it will always play second fiddle to Michigan in the eyes of some media members, and to think of that being the case for an entire nation, after 300 years, I could better understand their circumstance.
To see something come apart after over 300 years however would be something special and obviously historic, and while the relationship between Scotland and England isn’t nearly as toxic as that between the U.K. and Ireland when they separated, the two still have their differences. Something happened in 2016 that made it very visible, the “United” Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The map below is a color coded representation of how each county voted in the referendum, and the divide between Scotland and England is very hard to miss. Scotland, along with Northern Ireland, decisively voted to stay within the European Union.
Dianne Henderson, from the Edinburgh International Film Festival, mentioned that vote quickly in her presentation to us. She said she voted to stay in the U.K. in 2014 because as a Scot she’s always identified as British at heart, and the idea of Scotland leaving the U.K. seemed preposterous. But, by a vote largely fueled by England and Wales to leave the EU, she said she’d vote for Scottish Independence if given that option again, and from the looks of it, I have a feeling she’s not alone.
But enough about politics and major media companies. I want to talk about that taxi driver, not necessarily him in particular, though he was very nice, but the conversations I had with everyday people like him are what I enjoyed more than anything during this program. While I learned a great deal from our scheduled events and great guest speakers, I learned far more by interacting with locals who, like myself, just want to talk and learn. And as I’m sure most of my peers will agree, I love nothing more than talking to strangers 3800 miles from home. Spontaneous, off the record conversations are how you learn about individuals and those around them. Perhaps you pick the wrong man at a bar and the conversation becomes awkward, but without those awkward conversations you’d never be able to experience the ones that you’ll remember for life.
Looking back on the past month, as much as it currently hurts to do so, I could not be more happy with my irrational, late night in a New York City hotel decision to look up study abroad programs. I met amazing people in the British Isles, and I made great friends that I hope to surround myself with going into the future, and together cherish memories of singing Hey Jude, Mr. Blue Sky, and Summer of ’69 in an Edinburgh karaoke bar, and Country Roads with locals more times than John Denver himself.
I did something new and exciting every day, from seeing the Queen on her birthday, to tracking down a classmate at 3am the night of the London Bridge attack with the help of a friend. I consumed far too much kabob, fish & chips, too little ranch, and just the right amount of alcohol. And in that time I learned about an entire foreign culture, an industry, and to fulfill the cliché, myself. Thank you to everybody on this trip, and to those who made it possible. Glad to be home, but I will never view it the same way.