One of my best friends once told me she didn’t have a hometown. We’d met in St Andrews, my first year as a student, coincidentally become next-door neighbors the following year, and had kept in touch as she’d graduated and moved away to Edinburgh, Atlanta, Oxford.
By this time she was in Northampton, Massachusetts. I was still in Scotland, had been the whole time. Unlike Caroline, I had a palpable understanding of where I was rooted. She talked of home with unease—she’d fallen in love with Atlanta, and resolved to go back to the US for grad school. Within a year I’d followed suit, finding myself in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the furthest thing from Scotland and strangely a lot like it.
I’ve never been one for upheavals. The move to the American South was the biggest change I’d ever conceded to, and if I’d had time, I would have worried myself into nothing at the thought of leaving home for real. But the last couple of months were a bureaucratic blur: travel agents, medical records, house-hunting from across an ocean. A last-minute flight to London for a new passport and the visa interview. The memory of the stress is distant, like that of an acute pain.
Within three months I was waist-deep in Tuscaloosa life and head-over-heels for a real Southern boy. Ten months later, he was gone. He was my previous self in reverse: in almost perfect symmetry he packed his life into one suitcase and flew to Glasgow for a masters in film studies, which had been my field for two years at St Andrews. I could have given a master class in irony. Alanis Morissette would have learned a lot.
On September 18th, the night Scotland voted on its independence from the UK, I was standing on the porch of a Civil War-era mansion after a reading. It was storming. I watched lightning unzip the sky a piece at a time. Tyler called me via Facebook, his voice quieted by the distance, the Internet tenuously connecting us over four thousand miles of ocean.
“It’s amazing,” he told me. “Everyone’s waving flags and yelling freedom. It’s so cool, seeing history happen.” I was sullen and silent. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be with him, or with my parents, or with my friends. I wanted to watch my nation’s next tentative steps. I wanted to walk with it.
People in Tuscaloosa had been asking me for weeks, “What’s going to happen? What do you want to happen?” I answered them with shrugs. I had been a staunch “no” on matters of independence—economically, it seemed too uncertain. I’d seen so much destitution in Scotland already that a Norwegian model predicated on finite oil reserves was too flimsy of a hope for me to cling to. But in those weeks I’d watched British media outlets slam the Yes campaign ruthlessly, watched money and influence stream from wealthy royalist Scots straight into a cause that didn’t seem to represent the country as I knew it. The Scotland I knew was left-wing to a point that bordered on socialism. In Alabama, where socialist was a curse-word frequently hurled at President Obama by salmon-shorted young Republicans, the idea of a Scotland still bound to Westminster started to rankle.
As I write this, there is only one Conservative member of parliament holding a seat in Scotland. On the night of the referendum, it seemed suddenly insane to me that my country, who had fought for devolution, for control of its own interests, should persist under the yoke of a Conservative government. We were not, I realized, being represented. And here I was, in the South that a hundred and fifty years previous had fought a war for secession from the US. The South where among some, a northward grudge still simmered. While it was impossible for me to sympathize with the Confederacy’s cause, I certainly recognized the scenario. The difference was that the case for Scottish independence rang true with my own ideology. Maybe, in the final hours, I wanted freedom after all.
A few days before, another friend displaced from Scotland, this one in San Francisco, told me I could have voted in the referendum. She’d done the digging and found out she could vote by proxy. I’d somehow convinced myself this wasn’t an option. I knew then I should have looked harder. Hannah was relieved I hadn’t; she was a fervent Yes campaigner and knew that we disagreed. Which was why, until now, we’d kept the topic out of conversation. On the eve of the referendum, I told her it was probably for the best I’d missed my chance to vote—at that point, I wouldn’t have known which box to check.
Tonight I’m reading reports of riots in Glasgow, rumors of a stabbing, of crowds waving rival flags savaging each other in the streets. To anyone who’s grown up in Scotland, this isn’t unfamiliar. It’s a sad fact that sectarianism and a culture of violence have too often come together during soccer season or Orange Lodge marches. Poison has been spit on both sides. There have been deaths. It’s long and it’s storied, and I’ve seen it too many times. The only differences tonight are the colors being hoisted.
These are the times when it’s hardest, in Caroline’s words, not to have a hometown. I know that the riots have nothing to do with politics. I know that too well that my place has its share of hateful people, who will take whatever opportunity they can to break it. But even knowing that, I want to be among my people. The Yes campaign’s loss has been heartbreaking for many of them, and I can only hope that the disappointment will make them kinder. That the unionists will be graceful in victory, that Scotland will remain, in some ways, the home I left. It may not be the land of blooming heather and shining river that the songs describe. It may, in many ways, be already broken. But what’s broken can be fixed, and the prodigal can always return. Scotland is not the land I lost, though things I have lost do inhabit it. I told Tyler when he left that a goodbye can be an ellipsis.
I want so much to be proven right. If I don’t have a hometown, I know I have a body of land, the only body I can leave with some possibility of return. Being away from Scotland at the moment it exhales is difficult. America has opened itself to me, as its old dream promises. For that I’m grateful, as I’m grateful to Scotland for folding my loved ones into its music. I know above all things that the tune carries a refrain, if not the cry for freedom or unity, then a sustained note of welcome. The Atlantic can be the breath between verses. The lull before a song rejoins.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.