The Scottish Play

Edinburgh’s Quest for Independence and the Future of Separatism

The monument to Sir William Wallace stands near the city of Stirling, a castle town not far from the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. On blustery days when the sun peeks through the clouds, the sandstone memorial glows golden and majestic. That is exactly the effect its Victorian-era creators intended: a tower of imagined antiquity meant to evoke the spirit of a freedom-loving Scot. In the late thirteenth century, Wallace helped lead an uprising against England's King Edward I, for which he was eventually hanged, drawn, and quartered. There are no contemporary images of the hero depicted in the 1995 epic Braveheart, but when tourism began to boom after the film came out, enthusiasts made up their own. Until a few years ago, a bas-relief panel introduced the warrior-martyr to tour groups visiting the tower as they walked from the parking lot to the gift shop. The likeness was unmistakably that of Mel Gibson.

It is easy to snicker at the more inventive excesses of Scottish nationalism. The kilt-and-bagpipes version of Scottishness was the creation of fantasists such as Sir Walter Scott and Queen Victoria. Family tartans came about as a way of marketing Scottish woolens. Bagpipe bands were organized to keep British infantrymen in step. Even the shaggy Highland cow, with its ginger hair and barbaric appeal, was a feat of nineteenth-century genetic engineering that would have been a curiosity to cattle drovers of ages past.

Yet Scottish nationalism is alive and well -- and a more powerful force now than at virtually any time since Wallace's day. The question of Scotland's place in the United Kingdom is currently the single most pressing issue in British politics and a point of growing concern across Europe. The Scots opted for their own regional government in 1997, and a referendum planned for the fall of 2014 will offer them the chance to create their own country, a goal to which the Scottish National Party (SNP), the majority faction in Scotland's parliament, is expressly committed.

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