Life in the Lowlands: Braveheart Didn’t Prepare Me for Scotland

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In the two weeks I’ve been in Edinburgh, I have yet to see even one blue-faced, kilt-wearing warrior, much to my dad’s disappointment. I’ve actually only seen a few kilts at all, though in the tourist section, there’s a sword store. They start at £30, so don’t worry, I’m thinking about it.

This semester I am studying at the Parliamentary Internship Program(Programme?) at the University of Edinburgh. 25 Americans are taking five weeks of classes on Scottish society, British Politics, and Scottish Politics. In mid-October, we will begin an internship with a Member of Scottish Parliament whose political identity resembles our own. The MSPs generally have staff of between 0-1.5 (meaning they share), so it sounds like they need more than just coffee-fetchers. I will be spending half my time doing a research project and about half doing whatever I am asked.

A bit of background: The Acts of Union of 1707 merged the prior Scottish Parliament into Westminster. Despite conflicts between the two in the past, the union was relatively peaceful. There were periodic calls for the creation of another Parliament over the next 300 years, but it was the discovery of, who’d would have thought, Oil in the North Sea that really prompted devolution. Running on a platform of “It’s Scotland’s oil,” the Scottish Nationalist Party, previously just a fringe, gained a sizable block of seats in 1974 Parliamentary elections. A referendum for a Scottish Parliament was defeated, however, in 1979. Soon after, Margaret Thatcher was elected.

The full suit of armor seems to be overkill, but I suppose it would fend off zombies.

Scotland has an historically chilly relationship with the Tories, and as one professor said, it is really Thatcher, a staunch opponent of devolution, who the Scots have to thank for their Parliament. Her less than stellar treatment of Scottish needs convinced the country it needed more independence. In 1997, a new referendum was passed, and in 1999 Scottish Parliament 2.0 was born.

One thing that makes now an especially interesting time to work with this 129 seat body is that the SNP, for the first time, won a plurality of votes in 2007 elections, though only with one more seat than labour. Because no parties were able to form a majority coalition, the SNP runs a minority administration with the Greens. Each party needs to treat carefully. I’ll probably be with Labour but any party could be fun. But I’ll get more into that once the internship starts.

Edinburgh is a wonderful city. Its cosmopolitanism is evident in the variety of languages spoken, complex ethnic makeup of the citizens, and (yes!) the availability of tons of interesting food. It still maintains, however, a strong link to a uniquely Scottish heritage. The castle overlooks the city and for however many Starbucks or Subways there are (for some reason the only chains which appear to have really taken off), there are twice as many traditional pubs that look like they’re older than the Constitution. It rains here. My apartment is barebones. The UK has a much stronger system of public transportation, so very cheap buses run all around these historic streets, and an extensive system of trains needles through the country.

This is Freshers week, so I get to see what the rest of the University looks like (my program arrived early), and, surprise, they look like a predominantly white group of teenagers who like to drink and dance to blaringly loud music. No thanks, I’ve already been a freshman, and once was enough. Still, studying abroad seems to mimic some of the essential challenges of the first year of college; I have to make new friends and learn a new social code and navigate a new place, emotionally and geographically. I like that. I’m so happy at Swarthmore that it’s easy to fall into patterns which work for me, and I appreciate the challenge to make a new life.

Having said that, it helps to have a small, cohesive program to fall back on, and most importantly, it helps to have a flatmate who has worked as a cook for 6 years. I’m about to go take advantage of that. If I haven’t enticed you yet to study abroad, all I can say is that weekly trips in a hot air balloon cost £10 per semester. But more on clubs and societies next time.