Hailing from West Lothian in Scotland, Alexandra Baff is currently in her final year studying English and Film at the University of St Andrews. Alexandra enjoys writing about Scottish history and culture, and hopes to become a journalist after graduation.
To be in a country divided
Stirling, 1603 Elizabeth I of England is dead. The Queen of England died just a few weeks ago and her death threw her nation into turmoil. The Virgin Queen left no offspring behind to inherit the weight of the English crown, which had made her deteriorate from a strong young woman into an old feeble lady after so many years with its weight on her head. There were fears of another civil war and my sisters gossiped that England would soon fall. I was not so sure, if England were to fall, I thought it would be only to later rise from the ashes like the Phoenix. Our King, James VI was Elizabeth’s nearest living relative. The only son of the deposed and decapitated Mary Queen of Scots, the English were not exactly keen to have him as their ruling monarch. They would have taken anyone else had there been any choice, but there was not. It was James or civil war. “How ironic it all is Agnes.” My mother muttered to me the day it was announced that a Scottish king would sit upon the throne of England. “His mother was killed for aiming too close to the English crown and now her boy will sit upon it.” Ironic it is, tragic it is more so. Mary Queen of Scots’ greatest crime was the Tudor blood than ran through her veins and the idiocy of the men she married. When Mary was but six days old, her father died, leaving his daughter surrounded by men who wanted to marry her off to a foreign power for their own benefit. He lamented on his death-bed that the crown 'cam' wi' a lass, and it'll gang wi' a lass', fearing that the birth of his daughter marked the end of the Stuart dynasty. How wrong he was! Mary may have been condemned as a seductress and weak-ruler, but she birthed the man who would finally bring peace between England and Scotland. T’is just a shame that Mary’s three husbands were all so useless. Elizabeth I had the right idea – never marry. To do so for is female monarch is to give away all of her power. Although, I suspect that the English now wish very much that Elizabeth had married. Celebrations lined the streets of every city in Scotland. Edinburgh rejoiced and mourned simultaneously for the success of their king who was now to leave the city of his birth for London. Stirling breathed a sigh of relief, its fields would no longer be the sites of bloodbaths in battles against the English. We were now to be as one with them and there would be peace, after so many deaths and so much heartache. Perhaps the future children of Scotland will only know peace and will not spend their youth fearing the arrival of the English as I have. There was a sense of relief as well as achievement across Scotland that week. “Things are going to change now.” My mother told me, although the tinge of worry I could sense in her voice alarmed me. “We will all have to adapt now, it is a changing world.” I looked at her puzzled, “But why are you sad?” I asked, confused as to why my mother seemed to be the only Scot in Stirling feeling melancholy. “The King will have to leave now for London.” Was all she replied, and upon seeing my puzzled expression she explained: “People tend to forget where they came from when there is a distance between them and their hame.” Her auburn red hair glinted in the early summer sunshine, the orange flakes bouncing off the glass in front of us. It is as if the sun itself gave her some of its bright rays to dye her hair, for it is so bright that there could be no doubt as to my mother’s heritage. “But our interests will be taken care of in London! Just think mother, it will be a Scot upon the throne in London.” My mother continued to look out of our kitchen window, out onto the fields where the castle lay in the far distance. I knew that her mind was elsewhere in moments where she fell silent and I think now her mind is far away, all the way in London. Her silence is ominous and fills me with a sense of dread that makes me begin to wonder if I am wrong about the succession of England’s throne, that perhaps it is not as good as it initially seemed after all. Eventually, she replies, but her words are barely a whisper, “He will no be a Scot for much longer.” My mother’s words linger in the air and I find that I am even more confused now as to what she means than I was before. He is the King of Scotland, surely he will always put us and our interests first? Her words float out of our little croft and out into the fields of Stirling, flying over the fields of Bannockburn where many a Scot died fighting for Robert the Bruce. Those days may have been hundreds of years ago, but the atrocities committed by the English in the name of Longshanks have not yet been forgotten. So many men killed, women raped, the head of William Wallace stuck upon a pike on London Bridge for all to see, the crows plucking out his eyes and devouring his very soul as the English tried to devour our country. But perhaps a union may heal the scars of the past, perhaps even Wallace himself could forgive his murderers for the sake of peace. My mother’s words land at the castle, sitting upon its volcanic rock in the distance. The castle is not as majestic as it once was, its walls are crumbling a little at the sides but the structure is mostly intact. There has been some debate as to whether or not it is worth repairing, what with the king now preparing to leave for London, for when he does return to Scotland he will most likely return to Edinburgh. But many, myself included, want the castle to be repaired. It has stood atop its volcanoes for as long as anyone can remember, but the people of Stirling are divided on this matter, much as I feel myself, for I do not know whether the joining of the monarchies of England and Scotland will be a triumph or a failure. My mother’s words snap me out of my reverie, for they are very frank and open. “Aye my little Agnes, be prepared. Scotland has lost another king.”
Edinburgh, 1945 The war is over, we are free again. This small island has defeated the greatest evil that there perhaps ever was. England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have defeated the Nazi’s and saved our futures. Had we been separate, we may have failed, but our strength in numbers and sense of British pride helped us succeed in sending the Nazi’s back across the channel. The day it was announced that the war was over marked a fresh start for all of Britain. Even those who had lost so much during the six years of hell and torment were jubilant with excitement. Now was not the time to mourn for the dead, but instead, to celebrate their sacrifice and acknowledge their valiant efforts in the name of democracy and freedom. We had been robbed of six years of our lives, many of us being robbed of it all in its entirety. But we could celebrate that no more lives would be lost under the control and threats of the Third Reich. Everything would soon be well again. I rushed out of my house along with my friends on the afternoon that Winston Churchill told us all the news that we had been dreaming of for years. We ran out into Princes Street, meeting crowds of other revellers who were rejoicing in the victory. British flags were flying, people were cheering and crying and just for a brief moment, I felt like a child again. I had been only twelve years old when this war began, and it had cost me my final years of childhood. There had been no first kiss with a young boy, for all the young boys had been sent to France. There had been no opportunity to continue my education, for I was sent to work in the factories along with my mother. I looked down now at my hands, they were only eighteen years old but they looked much older. They were wrinkled and tinged with yellow. I may only be eighteen years old, but I feel as though I have aged a hundred years. Looking around at the faces of my friends, I see that I am not the only one. Their hair is thinning, their eyes are sunken, but they are happy. Their broad smiles light up their entire broken faces, the pain of hunger and light-headedness vanishing in their ecstasy of relief and bliss. Edinburgh castle watches the revelations with a sense of pride. The grand castle has stood for hundreds of years, not even the Nazi’s could bring it down. Its strong walls could not be broken and I imagine that it will stand for years to come, everlasting and whole. The flock of people below it stand united, as equally proud of their Scottish heritage and their British history. We may have all just came through hell, but we are going forward in this life as we started the war – together and strong. For as long as we are together, we can defeat anything. “Sarah!” My friend hastily grabs my arm, pulling me over to the side of the pavement. People seemed to have stopped marching along and are instead standing still, an eery silence falls upon the city of Edinburgh until a voice calls out the words “O flower of Scotland… When will we see…” Instantaneously the whole of Edinburgh becomes alive with the sound of the national anthem. My heart pounds in my chest as I realise how poignant the lyrics of our beloved song are at this very moment: “O flower of Scotland When will we see Your like again That fought and died for Your wee bit hill and glen And stood against him Proud Edward's army And sent him homeward Tae think again” Everyone has joined hands in this strange moment of unplanned unity, our bodies moving like waves in the sea. A small wave never did anyone any harm, but a big wave can wipe away an entire movement, never mind one small little man from Austria. “Those days are passed now And in the past they must remain But we can still rise now And be the nation again That stood against him Proud Edward's army And sent him homeward Tae think again” These are words that were once sung against in the English, in times when peace between our two nations was non-negotiable. But now they are sung in unison with the rest of Britain, a marker of how far we have come and the new nation that has been created. Edward is long gone, our old wounds have had time to heal, we must go forward together and continue to tackle our joint enemies, and stand together in the days to come. The last words of the song slowly fade out into the sky, the crowds standing still in a moment of remembrance for those that have been lost and will never get to return home again. Dark clouds begin to form above the castle and the crowd starts to disband, our moment of unity broken up by the typical temperamental Scottish weather. As I rush home, my jacket over my head to protect what little hair I have left from the cold rain, I smile up at the sky above me. I have survived to see the end of the war, I can feel the rain on my skin and the sun on my face. I no longer care if the sun burns me or the rain soaks through my clothes, it means that I have a life to live. Many were not so lucky.
Drumnadrochit, 2015 What have we all come to? The referendum on whether or not Scotland is to remain in the United Kingdom is to take place tomorrow. My stomach churns and I feel physically sick, whatever happens tomorrow, our future will change. Whether we stay or leave, the divides that have been created by Alex Salmond, I fear, will never heal. Not in my lifetime at least. We have become so preoccupied with deciding whether we should leave or stay, that we have become oblivious to the damage we are inflicting upon ourselves. We need to stop focusing on the state of the union, just momentarily, to see that Scotland is crumbling before our eyes. Politicians are not just at each other’s throats, saying sweet words to convince us to exchange our votes for their false promises. Now, families and friends are falling out over it, rallies are held in the streets of Glasgow and no-one knows how to prepare for the future. How can we prepare for anything when everything is so uncertain? If Scotland becomes independent, where does it end? There was once a time when Highland Clans ruled their own lands and saw no loyalty to king nor government. The Isle of Iona, which I am named after, was ruled by the Lords of the Isles, only pledging their allegiance to the ruler of the mainland when it suited them. By becoming independent, Scotland risks going back to a time when a union with England was out of the question because there was barely any hope of Scotland being united within itself. I cannot vote, I am just months away from my sixteenth birthday, and thus too young to participate in this referendum. A part of me is glad about it though, at least I do not have to worry that I could be making the wrong decision when I put my cross on the ballot paper. Whatever happens tomorrow, I will have had no part in it. And I imagine, that no matter what the outcome is tomorrow, that there will be those unhappy with the result. If we leave the United Kingdom and go it alone and something goes wrong, unionists will say we should never have left. If we remain with England and Wales and there is an election result that Scotland is unhappy with, then the SNP will use it as the mandate for another referendum. How can we hope to move forward when the entire country will be calling for a do-over of a once in a lifetime referendum? The pain this referendum is imposing upon our country has only just begun, and I fear it will grow steadily worse after tomorrow. Each day I hear slurs and insults geared towards unionists from leavers, and from unionists to leavers. This referendum is not just political, for many it is personal. A vendetta against the wrongs of the past, which could never hope to be resolved with a referendum. We should not forget the past, but it should remain there. We have moved on from the days of Bruce and Wallace, we need to stay where we are and make our decision based on the present day. Not on hurt pride and egos from days where it was every man for himself in a world where war and conquest was part of the natural order. The castle on the loch can be seen from my bedroom window, its open tower and roofless walls left at risk to the elements. Tourists flock to it even on this cold and miserable September day, blissfully unaware of the weight that hangs over this country and its citizens. I envy them, I cannot remember what it feels like to belong to a country that is whole. One where your political stance will not result in insults and broken friendships. What must it feel like to come from a nation where everything is certain and the people stand as one, rather than tearing at each other’s throats over a vote. My Granny Sarah comes into my room, looking out over to the castle with me. Her hair is a white wisp upon her head and her hands are wrinkled with the weight of years, although I suspect that most of the wrinkles upon her hands are from the war – nothing can age a body like starvation. “Look!” She gestures, thrusting a sheet of paper in front of me. It is a list of names, a family tree. She has been working on our family history for some time, a way to take her mind off the impending political turmoil that tomorrow will bring. “It goes all the way back to 1600, the furthest back I can get is your great-great-great-great-great gran, Agnes. Isn’t it great what you can find out on the internet these days?” She leaves the list with me for closer inspection and I peer down at Agnes’ name, my fingers tracing the letters of her name. I will never know her, but somehow I feel an affinity with her. She lived through a time of change and uncertainty, where nothing was set in stone, just like I am now. I think how strange it must have been, to have gone from an independent country to one joint with another and remark to myself that I may get to experience just the very opposite after the referendum. Come what may tomorrow, but we are a divided country once more and will be for some time to come.