by Hope Whitmore
On Wednesday night, the haar descended over Edinburgh, moving east from the sea until it covered the whole city in a filmy fog, blurring the street lights and rendering anything more than a metre ahead nearly invisible. I left my glasses in the pub after my boyfriend’s birthday drinks, and had to run across The Meadows to retrieve them at one in the morning. It was Referendum Eve, the chilliest day yet this September.
The benches where, earlier in the day, YES campaigners had given me a bumper sticker — “But I don’t have a car!” “Take one anyway!” — were now filled with men shouting about communism, trying to drown one another out. Even the trees and bins wore blue YES stickers, the brightness of which cut through the mist.
Earlier that day, I had interviewed Lindsay Jarrett, a woman who scaled the eighty-metre cliffs below Edinburgh Castle to put a foil YES poster in place, despite needing a double lung transplant. Having cloistered myself away for a whole day to work on the interview, she had become huge to me, a symbol of the passion of the YES campaign. I’m English, but apart from brief spells in France and London, I have lived in Scotland for the past ten years.
To cross either box seemed cruel to my friends and people I had interviewed on both sides; I was so torn about what to vote that I almost didn’t.
In August, I was interviewing printers for a story on businesses that might profit from the referendum. “We have done some YES campaign posters,” an assistant eventually told me, contradicting what his boss had told me earlier. “We did the ones for Graham.”
“Oh, we did do those,” the owner said.
“Have you spoken with Graham?” the assistant asked. “He’s interesting, you should go and talk to him, he runs the supermarket on the Royal Mile.”
I went to the wrong shop first, a corner newsagent. I figured the it was the nearest thing to a supermarket the Royal Mile had. I never shopped in that part of town; it was overpriced, tartan-y, not for locals. Then I found it: Just up the street from the Scottish Parliament, a store covered in bright orange posters, demanding in aggressive capital letters:
A solid man in a pink shirt with grey hair was standing outside, blocking the door like a nightclub bouncer. He looked up and down the street with a proprietary air, watching the passing crowds like a guardian or a jailer.
“Hello,” I said. “I was wondering, is this Graham’s store?”
“Who’s asking?” he replied.
“I was just at the printers,” I said, motioning vaguely in its direction. He looked down at me, and said nothing for about ten seconds while he quietly studied my face. “That’s me,” he finally responded. He pulled a small wooden table and two rickety chairs out from his shop. He explained that he believed Scotland would vote YES, comparing doubters and NO voters to the Vichy French. “After the referendum, they will be shunned,” he said. “No decent people will speak to them.”
As we talked, he called passersby over to him. “You’re a YES?” he asked of everyone until they conceded. Some he knew, others he didn’t. A festival goer walked up the street, a mewling baby strapped to his front. “I know this fella’s name,” Graham said. The man paused. “Dad,” Graham said, beaming, and the guy smiled and walked on.
“The YES Voters are everywhere” Graham said, leaning in close, and lowering his voice. “See that shop across the road? She’s a YES. And down that alleyway, they’re all YESes. Soon the day of reckoning will come, but until then…” He glanced around uncertainly. “…until then, we cannot say.”
In Craigmillar and Niddrie, the poorest boroughs in Edinburgh — and at one time in recent history, some of poorest communities in Western Europe — I met Sean, a young man with red hair, numerous health problems, and a self-declared chip on his shoulder. He’d grown up poor, and like many in Craigmillar and Niddrie, he wanted to escape from the clutches of what he saw as a callous Tory government — to allow Scotland to become its own, more socialist state. He became involved in the campaign after meeting Margo MacDonald, a member of Scottish Parliament and fervent advocate of independence who died last year. For the past year, Sean has volunteered as a canvasser and campaigner seven nights a week. I traipsed around the estates of Niddrie with Sean and his comrades for two nights, knocking on the doors of undecided residents. One woman called down to us from her upstairs window, saying she couldn’t come down, but asking how it was looking. “It’s looking good” Sean said. He slotted some YES Posters through her post box.
I spent much of yesterday outside the Scottish Parliament talking to YES and NO campaigners as the voting was taking place. The building is often described as a modernist monstrosity, but I kind of like it. It’s full of deliberate symbolism: The sprawling complex is in the shape of a tree, and the smaller buildings are leaf-shaped — or as some people say, boat-shaped, showing Scotland’s connection to both the land and the sea; it looks at once as though it is putting down roots, and as though it’s about to sail away. In the center is a horseshoe-shaped chamber of pale wood, in which the members of Parliament decide policy. Above it is the viewing gallery, where the seats are designed to look like speech marks (though once, I heard a child say he thought they looked like big fishes trying to eat “littler” fishes, their mouths open as they swam along).
Out front were flags, cameras, banners and balloons. The papers and TV stations were restricted in what they could report, and many journalists stood around, waiting for ten o’ clock, so they could explode onto the internet or airwaves. Most of crowd were fervent YES supporters. There was a man dressed as William Wallace from Braveheart. “My real name is William Wallace,” he told me, and waved his flag in my face. I spoke with some Basque separatists who had come from France, keen to see Scotland become its own country so they too could secure their independence. If Scotland voted “yes,” one woman told me, they were next in line. I also spoke to some Italian visitors.
“Do you know Sardinia?” one asked.
“I know it’s an island off Italy,” I said.
“It’s far more than that,” he told me, and then walked away.
It was only later I met the NOs; they were not as easy to find. A man who called himself Saint George slowly played land of hope and glory on a shrill bone whistle, while a woman stood close with sparkling union jack earrings. Near them, a child sat close to the edge of the bench with a “No Thank You” balloon. “I’m YES and NO,” he told me. “And I’m FIVE.”
Later I went over the Salisbury Crags, and up to Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano in the heart of Edinburgh, which was once compared to a “couchant lion of massive size” by Walter Scott. In summer it is filled with people and an infinite sense of being young. Below the rocky top, people write their lover’s names in pebbles, which can be seen from above. People also gather here on bonfire night and the New Year, climbing the slope even when, as it was one year, seventeen degrees below zero and the ground is frozen solid.
The haar was thicker than it was the night before. Though from the parliament I was able see a saltire on the rocks — which the police viewed with interest — from the crags and Arthur’s Seat, I could hardly see anything, the mist thickening as I got higher. I strained to look down at the city and the people and flyers below. I thought something would be going on, but it was vacant, apart from two hill runners and a burst YES balloon lying deflated near the peak. I took a picture of it. Feeling that this made me responsible for it and any rabbit that might decide to eat it, I picked it up and put it in my bag, then slowly felt my way back down to the city.
When I got home I wrapped myself tightly in my duvet and shivered, suddenly cold after the long day.
I arrived at my friend’s results party at half past one in the morning. They thought I was the pizza delivery guy. “It’s pizza — crap, do you have a quid? I’m a quid short. PIZZA!” someone shouted from behind the door. A guy I hadn’t met before flung open the door. I explained that I didn’t bring pizza, but there were some Maltesers in my bag if anyone wanted them.
We watched as council after council declared “no,” and wondered if it was for the best. Even the celebrations of the fervent NOs at the party seemed somewhat muted. The Green Mantle pub, which had been granted a 5 a.m. license for the referendum, reportedly closed early — the landlord, a YES supporter, apparently sent everybody home. Outside the window, the city was weirdly silent, even though my friend’s apartment sits on one of the main thoroughfares.
We drank wine while we waited, and at 3:51 in the morning, the results from the city of Dundee came in: Yes. The NOs at the party put on comically exaggerated frowns to hide their fear as, for a moment, it looked like things might change. Then council after council called, quickly, one after the other: No, No, No. Gutted politicians were interrupted by newsreaders every minute, it seemed, for an incoming result. A guy showed me a video of cell division he made as part of his research into pig viruses; apparently there was some comparison between this and the incoming results. I couldn’t follow. Some YES people left. I logged onto Twitter and Facebook and saw hearts breaking all over the internet.
In the early morning, the politicians made their statements, but no one really listened or cared any more. I had already fallen asleep and missed hearing Edinburgh called. Apparently some people drank prosecco and said, “Cheers to whatever,” before the TV was switched off. Eleven hours after the results, Alex Salmond, the outspoken first minister who led the campaign for independence, would announce his resignation.
When I walked home, I saw the clean-up operation to pull the YES posters from the trees, the windows, and the lamp posts hadn’t started yet. It will soon. Ian, who hosted the party, sent us all a message this morning. “Thanks for coming folks, see you in twenty years.”
Hope Whitmore is a young writer who currently wanders between London, Edinburgh and Carcassonne, staying with family and friends, while seeking out interesting things to write about and people to interview.