The Scottish Question

By Mike Muroff | October 27, 2022

Across Princes Street in the city of Edinburgh stands two flags atop one roof: the British Union Jack and the Scottish Saltire. Much of Scotland’s political identity has revolved around this supposed contradiction—a semi-independent country fitting into one United Kingdom, uniquely represented by two flags. Calls for Scotland to break away from this arrangement have only grown in recent weeks, prompting Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to petition for a referendum in October of 2023. With Queen Elizabeth’s recent passing and a post-pandemic economic frenzy taking hold across the globe, Scotland’s streak of independence could not have reemerged in a more tenuous time.

Scottish citizens faced this question of independence head-on once before. In 2014, Scotland held an independence referendum with an astounding 85% of its citizens from the Highlands to Glasgow heading to the polls. While the motion ultimately failed, the margins were narrow—55% voting no and 45% voting yes. Now, nearly eight years later, some polls for the potential 2023 referendum suggest that those margins may be susceptible to further narrowing.

During my semester abroad in Scotland last spring, I saw this controversy unfold firsthand. Although the tension between Scotland and the rest of the British Isles started in the late thirteenth century, it is still very much alive today—and certainly present in the sites I visited.

The crown jewels of the now-dissolved Scottish monarchy are emblematic of this struggle. Housed in one of Edinburgh Castle's historic exhibits, the Scottish Crown Jewels are only bestowed upon the inheritors of the Scottish throne—not to be touched by anyone else, including the British royal family. One visitor remarked how there seemed to be talks in the streets about a possible move for independence, months before Sturgeon made her announcement.

In the nearby Stirling Castle lies another Scottish hallmark: a reproduction of the famous “Unicorn Tapestries,” which have become integral to the Scottish identity. The unicorn, representing Scotland, makes up one half of the British royal crest while the other, the lion, symbolizes England. One museum worker explained how the immortal and mythical unicorn was a fitting symbol for Scotland—a land that has remained “unconquered” by the English and the Romans before them.

In the coming weeks, the UK Supreme Court will decide whether Scotland can legally secede from the nation. And while it is unclear whether my anecdotal stories from Scotland will amount to any real change this time next year, the Scottish spirit of independence undoubtedly persists today.

Edited by Maggie Reddington