The recent referendum in Scotland saw national identities contested, at times fiercely. It wasn’t, of course, a new debate. Rather it was one which commentators and academics have long sought to make sense taking a new turn at a particular moment in the story of Scotland (1) (2). This article, an earlier version of which was published by the think tank British Future, reflects on how the referendum created a significant episode in my own ‘ongoing story’ (3). It explores my highly reflexive account of self-identity and the extent to which it influenced my vote.
Fluidity in contrast to fixedness is central to contemporary sociological notions of identity (4). In popular culture, TV programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ and ‘Long Lost Family’ trade on the tension between the two. Like many of their subjects, my story is one of fluidity and yet I crave some of the fixedness they too appear to seek. I came home to Scotland in 2003, strange perhaps for someone born in Sussex. But I was born out of wedlock to Scottish parents in the early 1960s and given up for adoption as a baby. Mine was a story typical of its time, sad maybe but not uncommon. My birth mother had left Scotland to have me.
In adoption the term ‘forever family’ is used to describe the family of destination. Yet sometimes it’s the family of origin, often a family that never was, that remains the ‘forever’ family. And so it was for me. I knew little of my birth heritage growing up. There was no life story book, just the odd reminder that I was two things, Scottish and Catholic. When it came to Scottishness, there were just occasional and tantalising snippets of what I might have been.
On my 11th birthday my adoptive parents gave me an LP of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Around the same time my adoptive dad took me to Scotland in our old Humber estate. We drove through the Gorbals and slept in the back of the car on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. We were to go to Skye, but the clutch broke and we ended up on Mull instead. A twist of luck as it turned out, not least a trip to a Highland Show in Oban with men in kilts everywhere. Extraordinary glimpses of another, somehow exotic world, one that I knew I had some connection to even if making sense of that was difficult.
I grew up down south, but up north. From the age of five until I left home I lived fifteen miles from Manchester. So my formative years were spent in England, but as I grew up my allegiance was decidedly northern. Manchester still passes the top deck of the bus test. Close my eyes and familiar accents take me back. Strange really because I don’t have a northern accent beyond some flat vowels which get flatter when I’m drunk. My adoptive mum was keen that we should speak properly. And so I was denied an accent. Twice.
Growing up, Scotland was a place we went to on holiday. It was as far away as it got back then and also a reminder that at least a part of me belonged elsewhere. That sense of otherness was enthralling. On one holiday, to my adoptive mum’s annoyance I wanted a Scottish accent, though in my head it was more Fraser in Dad’s Army than anything I hear on the bus today. I wonder, if I’d been allowed to talk northern whether the idea of a Scottish accent would have been so alluring.
In a poignant twist I couldn’t have predicted when I agreed to write the original article, my adoptive mum became seriously ill in the summer of 2013 and died days before it was published. Her last gift to me earlier this year was a small cheque towards the cost of a kilt. It was an unsolicited gift which reminded me that whatever the many twists in our relationship and despite her frustrations with my childhood pretensions, she had played a part in nurturing my sense of Scottishness. How far that was out of a sense of responsibility to my birth right and how far a call to her own Scottishness (her paternal grandfather was a Fife miner) I’ll never know.
In 1981 I visited Edinburgh as a student, the first of a number of visits which reeled me in. Eventually in my 40s, after 20 years in London, I relented. I came home, without going back. That would have been to a different place, to the north of England. But by then I’d delved further into my birth heritage and Scotland was where I wanted to be. Fast forward 10 years and I spend weekends in a Fife village, just a few miles from my other home city of Dundee where both my birth parents came from. Yet until I was 35, it was a place I’d never been.
Did coming home make me feel Scottish? I’d always known growing up that I wasn’t English even though I was born there. But I’d never claimed to be Scottish or even talked about it much. And while Britishness wasn’t something I rejected, it somehow never offered the rootedness I yearned for. Moving here was reclaiming the home I’d never had. But it was also a reminder of what I hadn’t become, of where I hadn’t been. It reinforced a new sense of difference, of loss. When you’re adopted you can retrace your steps, but you can’t go back.
When I’ve been asked what brought me here, I’ve told my story. Usually the response has been welcoming, perhaps because it reaffirmed the questioner’s sense of self. There is a certain pride that someone might make my choice. It’s not a choice I’ve been denied, even in Glasgow where I now work and where an English accent stands out a lot more than in Edinburgh where I live.
Can I claim to be Scottish? Scottish Social Attitudes survey data from 2006 and 2009 suggests that I’m most likely to be accepted as Scottish by Scots if I’m white, I was born here and I live here. I could still be accepted as Scottish by most Scots if I wasn’t born here as long as I’m white, my parents are Scottish and I have an accent. Without Scottish parents, it’s still most, but becoming more marginal. Take away the accent and the proportion who’d accept me as Scottish falls below 50%. On the other hand, asked in 2011 how Scottish I could claim to be if my parents were born here but I was born in England and lived there, Scots were divided, with just under 45% backing my claim.
But none of those categories quite fits my profile, which leaves me with how I feel. Like many of us I’ve often been asked where I’m from. For years my response was, ‘I’m not really from anywhere’ or ‘it’s complicated’. Now, in middle age, it’s clearer. The two things that matter most to me are my birth roots in Scotland and my formative years in the north of England. I loved my time in London, but I was always a migrant there. If I’m anything English, it’s northern.
What of Britishness? For the time being at least, the high point of my Britishness (and I suspect I’m not alone here) came on a long hot night in August 2012 when Rutherford, Ennis and Farah struck gold for Team GB in London. I was proud to revel in their success. But given the choice I’d prefer to wrap myself in a Scottish flag than the Union Jack they draped over their shoulders that night. And as I watched my Edinburgh AC club mate Lyndsey Sharp adorn the Saint Andrew’s Cross on a rather cooler night in Glasgow this summer, I was reminded why. It was not about flags per se, but about where I came from and where I’ve made my home.
When I originally discussed writing the article for British Future in March 2013 I was in the No camp, reflecting the position of the Labour Party which I first joined in 1980. But my Noness was ambivalent, not so much because of my sense of Scottishness but because I had doubts about whether separation or independence would really be a bad thing for Scotland. Or rather I had an inkling that they might offer opportunities which the Better Together campaign was not prepared to acknowledge. I was a devo max supporter. But importantly I had long taken the view that if the settled will of people in Scotland settles in a new place, that’s fine.
On September 18th 2014 I voted Yes. Of course my vote was influenced by my sense of Scottishness. And I know of No voters whose vote was influenced by their sense of Englishness. But was identity the determining factor for any of us? I doubt it. My journey from No to Yes was long and complicated. In the end for me the dominant argument was about governance. As each of us approached the ballot box identity was one of were many things to contemplate which took heads and hearts in different directions.
My partner, a Borderer and proud Scot, voted No. For him the clinching arguments were economic. He also supports greater devolution, but didn’t feel the case for separation had been sufficiently made. As we returned home from the polling station, he reflected on what his late father, an SNP supporter, would have made of his choice. Our own quiet conversation like many between Scots has contrasted with the shrillness of the media debate, but has been no less searching.
My Yes vote nodded to trends and bucked them (5). I was amongst a minority of Yes voters born outside Scotland, but a majority of those who would say they are more Scottish than British (which if forced to choose I would). Just as the binary choice on the ballot paper didn’t reflect the myriad complexities at stake, neither can my voter identity be neatly typologised.
For many adopted people identity is blurred too. The term ‘permanence’ is used to refer to the legal security of the adoptive family, a family for life. But wider definitions of permanence acknowledge the importance of concepts like connectedness, continuity and belonging. They acknowledge the past as well as the future. For me the most permanent thing about my identity, the thing that really endures, is Scotland. Does that make me Scottish? I don’t know, but it’s where my ongoing story has arrived. I’m glad I came home and I’ll be staying here whatever happens next.
(1) David McCrone, Robert Stewart and Richard Kiely, (1998) Who are we? Problematising national identity, The Sociological Review, 46(4), 629-652
(2) Frank Bechhofer and David McCrone (2014) Changing claims in context: national identity revisted, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(8), 1350–1370
(3) Anthony Giddens (1991), Modernity and self-identity. Self and society in the late modern age Cambridge (Polity Press), p. 214
(4) Richard Jenkins (2000) The limits of identity: ethnicity, conflict and politics.
(5) John Curtice (2014), So who voted Yes and who voted No?
Chris Creegan is a social commentator based in Edinburgh. He blogs and writes for a range of online publications including Left Foot Forward, Gender Politics and British Future. Chris is Chief Executive of the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability, Chair of Scottish Adoption, a Trustee of the Scottish Association of Mental Health and a member of the Advisory Board of Pod Academy. He was previously Director of Corporate Affairs and Deputy Director of Qualitative Research at NatCen Social Research