If you have even a passing interest in Scotland, you’ll be interested to learn that their recent elections have changed the political landscape of the United Kingdom. On Friday last, Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, basked in the glory of a stunning electoral victory.

His party won 69 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament. Based on the SNP’s lead over Labour, Salmond should be able to push through a program of policy and public service reforms for Scotland. But will he be able to persuade his people, who currently disapprove of leaving the UK by more than two to one, that they should  strut down the path of independence? That dream is heady stuff.


Last week, we had a window between the end of the teaching term and the beginning of exam marking. It seemed as good a time as any to make a pilgrimage to Scotland. My wife does have ancestral connections, after all. I had been to Edinburgh once as a child, when my father was working overseas and there was a conference that coincided with our return to the USA through Europe.

I remembered the castle, of course, and being utterly baffled by a local’s response to my request for directions. I knew the man was speaking English, but I had no idea what he was saying. We were returning from Iran,  so I knew a thing or two about the vagaries of my mother tongue. But I think I realized for the very first time that this was not limited to people who spoke English as a second language. The man was speaking his native tongue.  It was English, just not my English.


In the “keeping chamber” of our house in Nova Scotia, there is a name scratched in a window pane in very small cursive script. It is the name Robert Leard (or Laird), the man for whom the house was built. He had come from Scotland by way of Ireland and New England. No one knows for certain what made him take up residence in Nova Scotia, but it may well have been the fact that settlers from Scotland found the place agreeable after the expulsion of the Acadians.

When Robert was trying to decide between going out West or heading northeast, he stood his staff on its point and let if fall, like a dowser looking for water. His staff chose the northern course. Robert’s daughter married another Scot, John MacNeil Stewart, who had been impressed into the British Navy, but jumped ship when his vessel put into port at Pictou, a village on the Northumberland Strait. He was on the run. He made his way to Windsor, not far from Grand Pre. Eventually, he met and married Elizabeth Leard and our home came to be known as the Stewart House.


What with the religious wars, massacres, soldiering for the Empire, Highland Clearances, and the desperate departures in search of work and fortune, Scotland has exported so many people over the years that it seems a wonder anyone is left. The current population is a little over five million, and it is falling.

There must be five or ten times that many with Scottish blood around the world, but, unlike the Irish, they do not seem bent on returning home, despite the current prosperity. For North Americans, Scotland is the land of “Braveheart” and bagpipes, castles, whisky and curious foodstuffs. Castles are great places to visit, but you can’t imagine living in one or paying the utility bills.


The more Scottish history we learned, the more questions we had. Did the Covenanters from Scotland settle in Nova Scotia? How did this place produce so many first-rate physicians and economists?  Why did the people to the South want the land badly enough to do battle for it?  Time and again the fierce Scots were goaded into defending their turf.

The English paid dearly for every conquest.  If Bonnie Prince Charlie had not been intercepted by a clever Irishman within spitting distance of London, the history of the UK would have been very different.


I’m not the kind of traveler who leaps on a bus to see an entire country in six days, but I may have been under ambitious on this trip. I had booked a place in Edinburgh for the entire week. We had the option of renting a car to see some of the countryside, or taking the train to Glasgow or even Aberdeen. In the end, we did neither.

Our only adventure out of the City was a one day tour into the West highlands with Rabbie’s, a small group tour operator. Mackenzie Dalryrmple did himself proud as our guide, regaling us with story after story and history lessons to boot. Mac even played the pipes at one of our stops. You can check out his performance on my Flickr site. We were blessed with sunshine for much of our trip. That is extraordinary for Scotland.


Apologies to generous friends and family members who flooded me with suggestions on where to go and what to see. There is certainly plenty to do on a return visit and I am looking forward to it. The photos my son took on his honeymoon trip there with his new bride have whetted my appetite to see more of the highlands and the West coast.

What struck me was how imbued Edinburgh seems to be with its history and its stories. The buildings and volcanic landscape speak directly of a dramatic past that haunts the place, mesmerizing storytellers from Robert Louis Stevenson to Ian Rankin, from Robert Burns to JK Rowling. Everywhere you go, from the castle to Holyrood Palace to the stunning new Scottish Parliament, there are tales that appear to transform and transfix the city.


Whether Scotland will pull off the dream of independence hinted at in the wonderful film “The Stone of Destiny,” that is another question. As the Bloc Quebecois learned to its dismay in Canada, it is one thing to land a referendum, it is quite another to pull off independence. Whatever happens, I’m sure the future of Scotland will be brighter than its dark and bloody past. Perhaps the weather gods will favor us again on a return journey. We’ll listen to the dark stories and sip the whiskey, pay the haunting pipers and haul ourselves up the steep slope of Salisbury Crags and down again. Cheers ’till next time.


Addendum:  from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, May 10, 2011

Last week David Cameron reacted to the election of the first Scots nationalist majority government by saying he would “campaign to keep our United Kingdom together with every single fibre I have”. Dare we ask why? Cameron has no political interest in Scotland, where the Tories have had just one MP in 20 years. He would have a strong Tory majority at Westminster were it not for the Scots Labour hordes.

Scotland’s economy sucks England’s taxpayers of £8bn in annual subsidy. Its first minister, Alex Salmond, is Dracula at Cameron’s milk-white throat. Yet when Dracula wants to kick the habit, Cameron pleads for more.  Scotland, like Ireland, has always turned English politicians mad….What is a continuing mystery is why London does not call Salmond’s bluff, if bluff it is, and give him what he wants. If the Scots want to order their own affairs, England should not complain….