In 2014, the people of Scotland will be asked whether they want to become an independent sovereign state. It is not often that a 300-year-old union is broken, so the vote will have ramifications far beyond a land of five million people.
Scots are a passionate, emotional bunch. I should know I'm one of them. Even though I now live in the south of England, I'm proud to call myself a Scot and excited by our national qualities of courage, warmth, ingenuity and our warrior spirits.
That is not to say that I'm not proud of being British too - it's just the Scottish strands of my DNA shout loudest.
Come the vote, how much will Scots consider the economic pros and cons of an independent Scotland? I think they are more likely to vote on the basis of frustration at being the poorest oil-bearing country in the world and because, frankly, they consider the English to be a miserable, snotty band of southerners.
Kilmacolm is a little village just outside Glasgow where I grew up and discovered what it means to be Scottish - from the work ethic and extreme friendliness I acquired at Pierry's cafe and deli to the Scottish country dance I learned with friends. But does this identity mean that I want to separate from my family and friends who live in the south?
For thousands of years kings and queens of Scotland sent their people to fight in the name of a free Scotland. That history is everywhere and was brought to life by the film Braveheart, with its portrayal of Scottish hero William Wallace. It may have been Hollywood's interpretation of the story, but it pulled at my heartstrings nonetheless.
The major thing about Indian independence was Gandhi going on hunger strike to bring the British Raj down. You can hardly see Alex Salmond going on hunger strike can you?
A monument to Wallace near Stirling Bridge now serves as a permanent reminder that 300 years ago England underestimated the Scots' determination for sovereignty.
Will they now be brave enough to undertake the adventure of independence, I ask historian Tom Devine.
When I first came home, I expected to find a country focusing on myths and history, Braveheart and Mel Gibson. But, actually, the debate seems to be more about a desire to assert a new political identity than anti-English sentiment.
"You've got to watch the term brave," he tells me. "This is about the future of them and their families. You've got to think about this prudently. This is not a melodrama, it's a political exercise."
Blair Jenkins, who heads the Yes Scotland campaign, tries to describe the mood: "There's an appetite right around the country. People like me who've no previous connection with any political campaign or any political party but who do feel this is a once in a lifetime historical opportunity to put Scotland on a different course ..."
"I think there's a huge strand in Scottish culture that people just don't take themselves seriously and they don't take the country seriously. I mean knowing how patriotic Scottish people are they really have a huge sense of sending up their own culture."
Struggle and strife
But this hardly paints a picture of the kind of struggle and strife behind other independence movements.
"Other countries have gone to extremes to find independence," says Scottish comedian Paul Sneddon, who also goes by the stage name Vladimir McTavish. "America had to fight a war, Ireland had to fight a war, one of the major things about Indian independence was Gandhi going on hunger strike to bring the British Raj down. You can hardly see Alex Salmond [Scotland's first minister and the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP)] going on hunger strike can you?"
A healthy sense of the ridiculous is always good, but even if Scots aren't engaged, the rest of the world is. And I hope Scots realise the ramifications this vote could have for others, like the Catalans who look to Scotland as a vision of what could be.
"It's a genuine beacon for others to say 'if Scotland can do it, why can't we do it'?" says socialist Rob McAlpine.
But there are some who believe independence is inevitable, McAlpine built his eco-house outside Scotland's political capital, his views, like his home, might be considered utopian.
"I think there's an awful lot of people looking on saying you know I want change, and certainly the degree of interest I've had internationally is enormous."He says: "I'm not worried about [divisiveness]. In the Scottish context there is very, very little element of ethnic nationalism.
Head over heart
Although I am beginning to see the advantages of independence, if Scottish history tells me anything it is 'beware'.
|Scottish culture such as dancing and traditional foods helped Julie form a clear Scottish identity [Layla Neal]
And, while there is no doubt that history will rub off on many a Scot when it comes to the vote, I have personally always been head over heart when it comes to decisions like this.
Back in 1997 I had the opportunity to vote for a Scottish parliament. I was working as a trainee journalist at the time and kept meeting politicians who seemed, to me, like a boorish and backward lot. I voted against but, fortunately for them, my vote didn't affect the outcome and on May 12, 1999, the Scottish parliament was reconvened.
Donald Dewar became Scotland’s first minister, and the Scottish parliament had power over education, healthcare and economic development. And there was more - guaranteed funding from Westminster, based on the formula devised by their top financial adviser, Lord Barnett. Last year Scotland’s share was a massive $54bn.
Some Scots feel their nation benefits from the Barnett formula, pointing to the oft-cited $2,900 a year more everyone in Scotland receives from the British government for public services. But, much like the Loch Ness monster, this is a myth. Scotland does not, in fact, receive a net subsidy, although this one misleading belief is regularly used to support the union by those who fear Scotland will be unable to stay in the black without the UK.
Alex Salmond has no such worries, which may have a little something to do with future North Sea oil revenues currently estimated at $2.4 trillion.
He tells me: "We’ve never claimed there’ll be free taps on whiskey, oil and water, but what we do claim is this is a country with immense human and natural resources which can be a highly successful country and a much fairer society. The best and most successful countries are the most just socially."
Glasgow is Scotland’s economic power house, but with pockets of deprivation so severe the life expectancy is actually better in parts of Iraq or the Gaza Strip, more people here are out of work than in the rest of the UK and more people die here prematurely of heart disease than anywhere else in the world.
But after spending a morning with the first minister, I'm still not convinced. Their economic policies seem a bit half-baked to me.
And in Glasgow, where the massive gap between Scotland's rich and poor is at its worst, this concerns me. Like successive British governments, it is a problem the Scottish government has been unable to crack.
Glasgow is Scotland's economic power house, but it has pockets of depravation so severe that life expectancy is actually better in parts of Iraq or the Gaza Strip. More Glaswegians are out of work than anywhere else in the UK, and more die prematurely of heart disease than anywhere else in the world.
Patrick Harvie from the Scottish Green Party is convinced independence offers an opportunity to put things right.Glasgow's problems are Scotland's problems, so how do you govern a country that has such disparity in wealth?
"If what you'd see when you look out of your window is society more or less as you'd like it, if you're comfortable with the level of poverty and inequality, you'll probably vote for the status quo," he says. "But ... Scotland's got the opportunity to be the model of a small, independent, peaceful, democratic society like many others in northern Europe and I think that's a far more inspiring future for our society than the status quo from Westminster."
When I listen to him, this vision of a stand-alone Scotland seems not just possible but preferable. Still it is money worries that plague me. And, travelling to the coastal town of Peterhead, I realise that every Scottish industry has become a pawn in this political game.
John Stephen, a skipper on a fishing trawler, shares some of my fears. "My personal view of independence is it's going to be a disaster for the fishing industry because the SNP has said it's going to take us to Europe," he says. "Now ... the Tories have already stated that if they win the UK election they'll give us the vote to come out of Europe. I think it would be better for Scotland to remain in the UK and part of Britain. It would be better for the fishing industry."
But the real money coming out of the North Sea is in the form of oil. It is Scotland's black gold and is right at the heart of nationalist optimism.
|An independent Scotland's financial future depends on the vast reserves of North Sea oil [Layla Neal]
An independent Scotland's financial future depends on the vast reserves of North Sea oil keeping it in the black.
Aberdeen is Scotland's oil boom town. The European Union buys 60 percent of its oil from this part of Scotland, and it is where I spent my university years, being taught by Scotland's leading oil expert, Alexander Kemp. He has his concerns about the volatility of oil revenues and says: "In terms of a governments budget it would be wise not to be very reliant on oil revenues for normal budget purposes."
Even if oil prices were stable there's still the question of how much North Sea oil an independent Scotland would control. An agreement would have to be reached with the rest of the UK, but there could still be another midge in the ointment - the Shetland Isles.
It takes a twelve-and-a-half hour boat trip to reach Scotland’s remotest corner. The 22,000 residents of the Shetland Isles have a very different sense of community and identity. They look towards the east and Scandinavia for a sense of belonging, and that gives the islanders a very unique perspective on the question of independence - and they claim that a quarter of Scotland's oil is theirs.
The East Shetland oil basin is one of Europe's largest oil fields and one of the big questions will be: who owns it? Tavish Scott, the Shetland Isle's member of parliament, tells me: "If you're a Shetlander, your argument is we're part of this, we're part of this debate and we want an interest in it because our interest in the petro-economy is very much not just about now but over the next 40 years .... Alex Salmond makes the argument [that] people best served to make decisions about Scotland are the people who live in Scotland. Well the same argument absolutely applies to Shetland."
Negotiating oil revenues with Shetland will not be the only economic challenge awaiting an independent Scotland. It will also have to accommodate a rise in some of its most significant financial outlays. One of those will be how Scotland defends itself, and that is a particularly thorny issue in Faslane, which is home to several nuclear submarines armed with Trident missiles. Although based in Scotland, the nuclear deterrent is vitally important to the defence of Britain.
But, if the nationalists get their way, this rural corner of Scotland will be nuclear free. And defence expert Phillips O'Brien foresees difficulties.
"There's a bit of a myth about independence that independence gives you authority and power," he says. "Actually what independence gives you is responsibility. You can't as an independent country decide to do whatever you want. No country, not even the United States, can do whatever it decides to do at any time. Those warheads are extremely vital, not just for Scotland or the UK, they're important within world politics, they’re important in European Union politics."
Scotland the Brave?
Polls indicate that most Scots either don't want independence or are unsure. I feel that Scots' hearts just aren't in this vision of a stand-alone Scotland. For me it's not a question of could Scotland go it alone. Absolutely it could, but should it? If you ask me, my answer would be, not right now.
More power for Scotland without absolute divorce makes the most sense to me and that is something David Cameron, the British prime minister, has hinted could be on the cards. But that's not the question being asked.
So should Scotland be an independent nation? That question is academic because socially it already is.
This is not the Scotland of my birth. It is a country more sure of itself than ever.
But is it ready to be Scotland the Brave? If not next September, it is a question that will be asked again because, like 300 years of history, it refuses to be swept away.
Follow Julie MacDonald on Twitter: @juliemarionmac or visit her website: juliemac.co.uk
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