Small town, big independence questions in Scottish Highlands | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 23.06.2014
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Small town, big independence questions in Scottish Highlands

You don't need national polls to understand how divisive Scotland's independence vote has become. Just head to the small seaside town of Oban and watch the locals go head to head.

Seven hundred years ago, Scotland scored a major victory in what would be its first war of independence by winning the Battle of Bannockburn. While Scots aren't looking to take up arms against England as Robert the Bruce did against King Edward II, a referendum set for September 18 on whether Scotland should be independent divides the country's population.

When long-time friends Calum MacLachlainn and Paul Sloan get together, heated debate is inevitable. Both are passionate about Scottish independence.

The two have been close for many years, running a string of restaurants located in Scotland. As close as their friendship has always been, they fight viciously when it comes to independence.

In the run up to nationwide referendum vote on September 18, their conversation centers around MacLachlainn's vision of an independent Scotland - a horror scenario for Sloan, one of his friends and business partners.

While other diners, most a bit older, feast on sea trout and fresh mackerel at the Waterfront Restaurant in Oban, a pretty harbor town with ferry links to islands on the west coast, MacLachlainn makes his argument: An independent Scotland , he says, would gain new confidence. And, as a much smaller country, with a population just over 5 million, it would be able to react much more quickly to difficult situations.

"Look at Iceland during the financial crisis," he says. "They jailed their bankers immediately and came out of the recession very quickly."

Financial implications

Independence would also give Scots the power to decide whether they'd like to stay within the EU, MacLachlainn says. While he isn't a strong supporter of the EU, he'd like Scottish people to be able to determine EU membership for themselves. Since Scotland's population represents only around 8 percent of the UK's population, their influence is not large enough at the moment.

Waterfront Fishhouse Restaurant Photo: Birgit Maas

Paul, left, and Calum debate Scottish independence at their restaurant

Business partner Sloan is unconvinced. "We have had 300 successful years within the UK. Why dismantle it?" he asks.

He also worries about the financial implications. For him, independence doesn't stack up economically: He's convinced Scotland doesn't generate enough revenue to maintain its own infrastructure.

Also, as a businessman, he worries about a potential Labour government; Scottish voters traditionally lean left.

"They would tax the wealthy and give to the poor," he says, adding that he's happy that the Conservative government in London controls welfare spending.

Fighting words

MacLachlainn, however, is in favor of wealth redistribution - just like most supporters of independence.

Take the Oban Gaelic choir, for example. Just before their weekly practice, many of their members were working on a battle song called "Cabar Feidh" ("The Stag's Antlers"). The song refers to the Clan MacKenzie, seasoned fighters with a crest that includes a deer's head and antlers.

Asked about the benefits of independence, members of the choir are enthusiastic and effusive:

"We want a more equal society" - "a better health service" - "a voice for peace in the world, not tied to the Americans who have dragged us into appalling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

A dozen locals sing in a small room Photo: Birgit Maas

Singing to the tune of independence: The Oban Gaelic choir

Swiss-born Margaret is the lone voice against independence in the choir. Like Sloan, she's concerned about the financial side and sees "the money dwindling away."

But supporters of independence are certainly passionate in Oban - and more so than the skeptics. Even Margaret admits that she's infected by her fellow singers' enthusiasm.

While opinion polls show a narrow lead for opponents of independence, many voters are still undecided, whether in Oban or in other parts of Scotland.

In the end, it could be those undecided voters who swing the referendum and decide the fate of a 300-year-old union.

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