The View from Scotland’s Islands

DISPATCH

STORNOWAY, ScotlandChange comes slowly on the island of Lewis, 50 miles off Scotland’s west coast. The island of 20,000 people has been a stronghold of evangelical Christianity for more than a century and a half. It was only five years ago that the first Sunday ferry docked at the quayside that dominates Stornoway, the windswept town that is home to around half of Lewis’s inhabitants. Shops still obey the Sabbath. And beyond Stornoway’s narrow streets mobile phone service is patchy and broadband more the exception than the rule.

But change could be on the way for this island community, suddenly and soon. On Thursday, Lewis, along with the rest of Scotland, will vote on independence from the United Kingdom.

The main focus of the referendum debate might be hundreds of miles south in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but Lewis has not been left behind. Bright blue Yes signs are strapped to practically every second lamppost along the pier. Independence supporters are not the only ones displaying their colors: “Proud Brit Proud Scot” reads a sign in an upstairs window of one of the town’s numerous pebble-dashed terrace houses. Nearby the red, white, and blue of the British flag flutters in the firm breeze.

When it comes to independence Lewis, like the rest of Scotland, is split. Nationwide, the no side has a slender lead, according to most recent opinion polls. A straw poll taken after a referendum debate in Stornoway earlier this month finished in a dead heat: 99 in favor of leaving the 307-year-long union with England, 99 against.

The national debate has been dominated by big-ticket issues, such as what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether it would be allowed to join the European Union, but for many here on Lewis the key question is what the islands themselves would gain, either from staying with the United Kingdom or being part of a new state.

Scotland’s island communities all want more powers to be devolved to them and to have a greater say in how revenue raised in their areas is spent.

Scotland’s island communities all want more powers to be devolved to them and to have a greater say in how revenue raised in their areas is spent. Last year, the Western Isles, along with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, launched the “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign to bring the islands more autonomy during the referendum.While both sides appealed directly to the islands, Yes has certainly been the more energetic of the two campaigns, attracting political neophytes with promises of a new politics and a fairer Scotland. Stornoway, like many towns, has its own pop-up “Yes” shop, housed in an old storefront beside a bar on the main shopping street. Inside, Alasdair Allan, the area’s local member of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, is confident of victory.

“There has been a real change in mood in the last month,” says Allan, who moved hundreds of miles from Scottish Borders, which abuts England, to Lewis in 2006 specifically to contest the seat. The following year he was elected to represent Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles), a constituency of less than 30,000 people that stretches almost 130 miles from the tip of Lewis in the north, to the remote island of Barra in the south.

A giant foam Yes sign sits on the floor underneath Allan’s desk. “Vote Yes 18-09-14” is painted in blue on the shop window. In the space of half an hour, three local activists arrive for supplies, eating into a stack of campaign literature and stickers, fuel for their door-to-door canvasing.

When Allan joined the Scottish National Party in 1989, Scottish independence was a fringe pursuit. By this time next week it could have could have created Europe’s newest state. “I’ve spent my entire life campaigning for this week. I have an enormous emotional interest in what happens,” says Allan.

Next door, an elderly lady sits outside her house drinking tea, a copy of the fiercely pro-union London-based newspaper the Daily Mail on her lap. Above her door is a homemade poster in red with a single word: No.

There is no sign of discord between neighbors on the two sides of Scotland’s constitutional debate, but the referendum has created tensions on the island, says Iver Martin, a local minister in the Free Church, a smaller Scottish denomination that split from the Church of Scotland in 1843 over the role of the state in religious affairs. “For some people it has really become an obsession to them,” he says. “There will be a continual agitation for some time to come. I don’t think that makes for a healthy society.”

The minister is a committed no voter but his congregation is free to make up their own mind, he says. Martin has no problem entertaining opposing views, as the copies of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusionand Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes on his bookshelf attest. “The tradition I represent is not afraid of debate, not afraid of openness and honesty,” says the minister.

In many respects, the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, typify the diversity of culture and identity in the United Kingdom.

In many respects, the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, typify the diversity of culture and identity in the United Kingdom. Of the 15 inhabited in the chain, those north of Benbecula are predominantly Protestant, those to the south Catholic. There is a strong Gaelic tradition on the islands; road signs are bi-lingual. And the islands bear traces of not just Scottish and British culture but also Norse influence dating back more than a millennium.For centuries, Lewis was the redoubt of small farmers and fishermen. Life here, as close to Reykjavik as to London, is still hard. Winters are long, and the flat, boggy plains around Stornoway offer little respite from the elements. Incomes are still below the Scottish average and more than one in four live in poverty, according to official statistics. Many struggle to afford fuel to heat their homes. Lewis’s economy remains heavily reliant on the public sector — the Western Isles council and the local health board remain two of the largest employers despite shedding jobs in recent years due to decreased funding from the central government.

Still, there have been improvements in some areas. Harris Tweed, which by act of parliament can only be made on the island, is going through a renaissance: Once the preserve of elderly gents, everyone from Madonna to Gwyneth Paltrow has been spotted wearing the iconic hand-woven woolen fabric. Tourism has increased, too.

On the far side of Lewis, where flat bog gives way to sea cliffs and isolated sandy beaches, the biggest tweed mill on the island, Harris Tweed Hebrides stands a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. The mill’s chairman, former Labour minister Brian Wilson, says he is worried that independence could undermine the tweed industry across the island. Last week a number of business leaders including representatives from BP and Standard Life warned about the consequences of Scotland leaving the union.

Wilson, a longtime critic of the nationalist government in Scotland, is sure Scots will reject independence on Thursday. “I have to believe that the society I live in is not going to march to the precipice without noticing what is over the edge. It’s taken a long time but now the economic realities are bearing in quite rapidly,” he says.

For many on Lewis, the decision could come down to whether they believe staying in the union or going it alone will best serve the island’s interests. So far neither the UK government nor the Scottish National Party (SNP) that is leading the Yes campaign have struck a formal arrangement with the trio of the Western Isles, Orkney, and Shetland on more powers for the islands but there have been talks. Revenue from the Crown Estates, a public trust that owns and levies a tax on the seabed, is crucial.

“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line,” he says. Last week, in an attempt to block the independence surge, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed that more powers would be devolved to the parliament in Edinburgh if Scotland decides not to go it alone.

Whether warnings from business leaders or the promise of more Scottish autonomy are enough to convince voters to back the union will become clear early on Friday morning. On Lewis, the expectation is that life will revert back to normal whatever the outcome.

“It’s in our nature to just get on with it,” says a journalist who has worked on the island most of his life. “Whatever happens you take it on the chin and you get on with it.”

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.