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Scotland, A Land Apart

Scotland can trace its links to the United Kingdom to more than 400 years ago, when James VI, King of Scots, ascended to the thrones of England and Ireland upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1603, thus uniting England, Scotland, and Ireland under a single monarch, with each keeping its own parliament and laws. When England’s Parliament passed the Union with Scotland Act in 1706 and Scotland’s Parliament passed the Union with England Act in 1707, England and Scotland were formally united into a single kingdom of Great Britain.

The growth of Scottish nationalism after World War II led to calls for greater autonomy.  A referendum in 1997, which supported the creation of a Scottish parliament with devolved powers from the United Kingdom, led to the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. In the 2007 Scottish parliamentary election, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which advocates  Scottish independence, was able to form a minority government.  Just four years later, in 2011, the SNP was able to form the very first majority government since the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. This allowed the SNP to push for a referendum on Scottish independence.  After considerable negotiations, a deal was worked out between the UK government and the Scottish Parliament on terms relating to the referendum. The referendum on Scottish independence took place on September 18, 2014 and was voted down by a surprisingly large 55-45% margin.   

Robert Houston, who served in Edinburgh from 1953-54 and who was interviewed by Horace Torbert beginning May 1990, recalls a humorous story regarding the Stone of Scone. For the non-Anglophiles, the Stone of Scone, often referred to in England as the Coronation Stone, is a block of red sandstone that was used for centuries in the coronation of the monarchs of Scotland and later the monarchs of England and the Kingdom of Great Britain. It remained in England for nearly  600 years and was last used in 1953 for the coronation of Elizabeth II.  In 1950, a group of  Scottish students removed the Stone from Westminster Abbey for return to Scotland; they left it on the altar of Arbroath Abbey.

William Woessner, who later joined the Foreign Service,  was a Fulbright Scholar in Edinburgh in 1952; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning November 1999.  J. Phillip McLean,  interviewed Kennedy starting  in January 1999, discusses the gloom in Scotland in the 1960s and the widespread desire to emigrate.  Richard Melton and Jack Binns, interviewed by Kennedy starting January 1997 and July 1990 respectively, provide some political background in the tensions between Scotland and England in the 1970s and 80s.

The Stone of Scone

Robert B. Houston
Edinburgh, 1953-1954


HOUSTON: I was to be the number two consular officer in our Consulate General in Edinburgh. It was a two-man post. I might note that Edinburgh was my fourth Foreign Service post, and I was going to a slot that could be performed by someone who was brand-new. The Consul General there was a very kindly man who would have just loved to have a neophyte to educate. Edinburgh had never been on my April Fool’s wish list, (read more about this old State Department tradition link )but one did not think then of challenging an assignment, you did what you were told.

Edinburgh… was a delightful place to be. I had Scottish ancestry. My names are Robert Bruce and they treated me like one of them. My fondest memory, I think, was of going to a celebration, at the ruined Arbroath Abbey, of the anniversary of the declaration of Scottish independence. Afterwards, we all repaired to a local restaurant for a proper banquet, with all the things Scottish people eat and drink. Some of the speeches there were extremely fiery. I thought that Scotland Yard could break in at any time and arrest the lot of us for treason. This was not so far-fetched.

This was during the time the Stone of Scone was still missing from Westminster Abbey, secreted somewhere in Scotland. It turned out later our Public Affairs Officer had unknowingly been the custodian of the Stone of Scone for a period when Scotland Yard was looking for it. Friends had foisted it on him unknowingly.

He had it in his basement, he was just storing a trunk for a friend. It later turned out that the trunk had the Stone of Scone in it.

[Note:  After its whereabouts were discovered, the Stone was returned to Westminster. It was not until 1996, when the House of Commons announced that the Stone would be returned to Edinburgh Castle, where it sits alongside the crown jewels.]  

“Scotland has many of the features of a separate country”

William M. Woessner
Fulbright Scholar, Edinburgh, 1952


WOESSNER: It is a distinct culture, a distinct nation. Scotland has its own educational and legal system, its own established church and many of the features of a separate country. National pride and cultural nationalism are very strong. I just ate it up. I visited many of the historical sites and spent a lot of time in the Burns country. It has been a powerful influence in our married life. My wife is a Scot. You see it in all of the children. We celebrated St. Andrews night last year. The three boys were all in their kilts and the girls their tartans.

Scottish nationalism, the Scot Nats were in their first full flower. It was during my year there that Ian Hamilton and other students stole the Stone of Scone, carted it off in the boot of a small car, and broke it! My wife knew Hamilton and we met up with him about a year ago in Florida, but that’s another story. So, you had the Scot Nats. It was also the year of the coronation.

I went to London. Classes ended in May. I hiked through the highlands, went with some friends to the Isle of Skye, those sort of things. But I was in London in time for the coronation. It was a year of powerful emotions. I loved these people. I loved the experience. I loved everything. To be young and so impressionable. It’s hard to capture it all in words, the friendships I made.

At the end of the year, when I left the hall of residence to go to the train station to take an overnight train to London, nobody had alerted me to this, but virtually all the guys of the hall came to see me off. They stood on the platform and sang, “Will ye no come back again.” I was bawling my head off.

“Generally, Scots would talk about emigrating”

Phillip McLean
Edinburgh, 1964-1966


McLEAN: Nothing happened in Edinburgh in November. The consulate at that time was basically a visa operation, and there were no visas to give at that point. But in February it just picked up amazingly, and we worked very hard….

In that period [I]went out and tried to do some political work. And I guess I went out and I was one at that particular period that rediscovered the Scottish Nationalist Party. I imagine that the people back in Washington who were reading the stuff I did thought that I’d gone a little bit nutty out there because my name was McLean, a Scottish name, but, no, I did in fact find this party that was not getting a lot of attention in the country at that time, had no representation at any important level in Britain or in Scotland even, but I tapped into what became identified as a very strong feeling and a movement that had a lot of momentum.

Shortly after I left Scotland, they elected their first people in certainly a generation or two to the parliament, and they’ve been represented ever since. Many of those people that I got to know at that time did rise to some prominence in the Scottish Nationalist Party. One of the more interesting things I did was I developed a contact with a man who had been the head of the Scottish courts, Lord Sabrandin, and he gave me some very surprising sense of how Scots really feel about independence. Not that he was advocating it himself, but he was expressing the very strongly held point of view that turned out later….

Q: The thing that really seemed to give the spirit to the Scottish Nationalist Movement was the discovery of oil in the North Sea, wasn’t it? I mean the sentiment might have been there, but there was almost no economic basis for doing it on their own.

McLEAN: I don’t think that’s right, and I think quite the contrary. Maybe oil in fact distracted them. There was a very strong movement ahead of time, and there was a sense among Scots already at that time, before oil because this was 1964-1966 and they were only doing some minor work in the North Sea at that point. They would cite statistics at that time that Scotland exported more and was contributing more to the economy of Britain per capita than the English were.

Q: Did you have any feel for the labor movement? I know for much of this period, up certainly through most of the ‘70s and all, the labor movement was looked upon by many in the United States as being the thing that was holding Britain back.

McLEAN: That was something I noticed, perhaps not so much in the labor union contacts, because I did not in fact do labor reporting at that time in my career. I didn’t go out and make contact with them, but what I did find was this enormous psychological depression that the Scots felt, and maybe Brits felt in general at that time, that their country wasn’t going anywhere, that things were stopped, that there was very little real initiative going. There was a little bit of the technology industry just getting started. I had some contact with them. I did some export control checks.

But generally Scots would talk about emigrating out. One of the things I did when I was there was I did a lot of speechmaking. About every two weeks I’d go out and give my speech. I remember going to a high school in a semi-rural area, and the principal, in order to get control of the group I was speaking to, was saying, “Now listen, a good third of you will be immigrating to the United States, so please pay attention to this man,” which I though was very depressing. It was not the view that I was taking.

Scotland at that time was full of this public housing. I was told that 97 percent of all the housing built after World War II was public housing. Most of it were just tall, depressing housing parks that didn’t give much stimulus to anyone. So it was a down period for Britain in that sense, and Britain had also turned away from the European Community. There was a lot of nostalgia for the glory days of empire, but there wasn’t a new focus on where Britain was going.

At one of the groups I spoke to, I remember one time they asked me rather aggressively did I not think that blood was thicker than water and that, therefore, Britain should be part of the United States rather than part of Europe? It was that type of sentiment that they didn’t let go.

Q: How did you answer that? 

McLEAN: Well, I think, playing off my Scottish heritage, I said, no, I didn’t think so, that wasn’t practical, because in fact I frankly recognized that Britain was more European in its traditionalism than they would be in the United States. But it was an interesting period….The sense of “us against them,” …it wasn’t just the unions, it was right across the board. That for me was a little bit hard. I had come up from…a labor union family, a family that was moving ahead, as we thought, and that was a big difference. With the Scots, many of them did not think of moving ahead. They wanted more security in their particular situation.

Q: Britain was swinging and the Beatles were beginning to come on the scene and there was a lot of mod stuff coming out of London, Mary Quaint fashions and all that. One, is my timing right? and two, was there any reflection of that up in Edinburgh?

McLEAN: It was the time. When I lived in Scotland and then went down to London–and I didn’t know London well before then–I was stunned. In fact, I became a little bit of a Scottish Nationalist myself, because you would see that at least the London area was richer.

Once I was invited down to go to Ditchley Park outside of Oxford, and we went down to London and drove back up, and even in the countryside you could see a richer, more prosperous area than you did in Scotland. You didn’t get much of that flavor in Edinburgh itself. Edinburgh, of course, is a university city, and of course I went over to St. Andrews, but, no, Scotland was a little bit more uptight and less modern.

To the degree that there was a class system, it seemed like you could feel it more in Scotland than you could in the south, and it was certainly not…. Well, you take something like rock music. There was very little rock music on the radio stations. There was a poor old Radio Scotland on a bouncing ship out in the middle of the North Sea that you could hear sometimes at night, but it was comical because you could actually hear the crashing of the vibrations going on inside the ship that was bumping up and down. Those were illegal pirate radio stations, but the three radio stations you could hear in Scotland, during the day anyway, carried very limited amounts and often not the Beatles. I’m sure that my colleagues in the States heard more Beatles music than I did up in Scotland….

I can remember one time driving home for lunch and coming back, and the three radio stations, all three, in the middle of the day had programs that were nostalgic about Empire, and it was an enormously boring situation that that’s what they wanted to talk about. Some lady was recalling her days in Africa, and another somebody was in India, and something about the Queen. It just was a strange, somewhat quaint atmosphere obviously….

But obviously on the other side of it there were a lot of really wonderful things, fun things about it, because Edinburgh, being a fairly small town, did have an extraordinarily rich cultural life. What we did feel was this enormous enthusiasm around the time of the festival, and it was a great learning experience for me, the opera and the music, the theater. For several weeks Edinburgh became a center of European culture, but not so much the swinging culture. There was something called the fringe of the festival, and there was the Travis Theater, which were rather advanced and modern, but it wasn’t such an atmospheric impact on the city.

 “Scottish nationalism raised its head periodically”

Richard H. Melton
Political Officer in London, 1979-1982


MELTON:  When I arrived in London, my job was deputy in the Political Section. It was a large section with about ten officers….The political situation in the UK had changed considerably from the days when a Labour government–Jim Callaghan–had been in power. Now the Tories, in the person of Margaret Thatcher, were in charge. The expectations were that Labor would take control again, probably relatively soon. The last election had been close. The sentiment for unilateral disarmament was strong and growing and that was Labour’s issue. The basing of cruise missiles in Europe was coming to a head with the UK being one of the countries in which this would be based. In order for the program to go forward — and it was one of the cornerstones of the defense strategy — required a critical mass of European participation with the UK being a pivotal country.

The Labour Party originated when an ideological split occurred in the orthodox socialist and Marxist parties. The hope was that this new party would be able to achieve a socialist society, balancing individualism and communitarianism, through democratic means. There were many philosophical strains represented in the British Labour Party, but support for democracy was the thread which held them together.

There were some authoritarian views expressed while I followed the Party; a major issue was whether the Party should remain the voice and instrument of the trade union movement or whether it should strive to be something larger. Increasingly, economic development and political necessities answered that question; the Labour Party, to return to power, would have to have a broader constituency than the trade union movement. The British unions, as their American counterparts, have declined in membership. A party that was an exclusive trade union party would not have prospered at the polls; that was the key factor which eventually drove the Labour Party to seek a truly national constituency. It was apparent then, and became clearer subsequently, that the Labour Party could not afford to remain in lock-step with the big unions. The people who had dominated the Party–and perhaps even a majority of the members–really didn’t want to change to a broad-based institution. They preferred to control the Party, even if small, rather than giving up some of their powers and beliefs in the competitive process of competing for national leadership. That was the essence of the debate.

There was some concern in the Embassy about the future directions of the UK. Devolution was a subject of major public debate as were the various economic difficulties that the UK was facing. The issue of Northern Ireland was very much alive as it is today. Scottish nationalism raised its head periodically. The United Kingdom at times did not seem to be very united. The independence of Wales was less of a factor, in part because that part of the UK was well represented in the upper councils of the Labor Party — Party leader Michael Foote and his heir apparent Neil Kinnock.

The Scots were also well represented within the Party, but pro-independence sentiment was prospering, to a large extent, at the expense of the Labour Party. In fact, the Scottish Nationalist Party was largely formed by defectors from the British Labour Party. The England-based Conservative Party majority in the House of Commons was mirrored by a solid majority of the Labor Party in both Scotland and Wales.

Scottish Devolution, 1979

Jack R. Binns
London, 1974-1975


Q: What was the status of the Welsh and Scottish nationalities issues at the time?

BINNS: There was a major interest concerning Scotland. The national problem of Wales is basically non-existent. There was an opportunity in 1979 for the Welsh and Scots to vote on what the British called “devolution”–essentially the return of powers from the central government to regional governments, which at the time didn’t exist. The regional governments would have to be established. In Wales, about 70% of the people voted against devolution.

In Scotland, of the people who bothered to vote, about 60% voted in favor, but the referendum was so drafted that in order to be approved, it required the support of 60% of registered voters. In Scotland, the vote fell short of it. So there was no devolution there either. However in Scotland, nationalism is alive although not well. In Wales, it is a dead issue.