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Bagpipes without borders: The Germans backing Scottish independence

As Scotland heads to the polls, we meet the dedicated supporters fighting for the country’s independence from afar.

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On September 18, 2014, Scotland voted ‘No’ to independence. “My birthday is on September 19,” Marco Görlach explains mournfully. “I really hoped it would be my birthday present and that we could have had a massive celebration, but we were all heartbroken.”

Görlach and his old friends had stayed up all night for the results. “We were speechless,” he remembers. “It was awful.” This group of pals wasn’t sorrowful Scots abroad in Berlin, but rather a group of middle-aged East Germans in the tiny town of Pößneck in Thüringen, mourning what they thought was a historic missed opportunity. These Scotland-loving Germans, together with an online network of UK expats and other allies, have taken to the cause of Scottish independence with uncanny dedication, particularly through regular demonstrations in Berlin.

At the heart of the movement is Görlach, a 48-year-old factory worker and trade unionist who was born and raised in Pößneck. “When the Wall fell,” he says, “my best friend and I scraped together all the money we could and booked a bus to London.” The two 18-year-olds had planned a pilgrimage inspired by English new wave band Depeche Mode, but after driving their rented VW Gold up past England’s northern border, Görlach found a different passion that would stay with him for life.

“The first time I arrived in Scotland,” he explains, “I was welcomed by the people, but also by the country. It’s a feeling of homecoming.” With perhaps a stereotypical German love of the outdoors, Görlach attributes his sense of belonging to the landscape as much as to the locals. “The Alps are beautiful but so angular and candid,” he says, “not congenial like the highlands of Scotland. They are rugged, but hospitable.”

An outsider’s cause

Since that fateful journey, Görlach has made over 20 trips to Scotland. But in January 2013 when his mother fell ill and his wife became unemployed, Görlach was unable to travel. He began to miss the foreign country he loved. “I felt a Heimweh for Scotland”, he remembers. “I thought, ‘what can I do to feel closer to Scotland if I can’t be there?’”

Up in Scotland, the independence campaign was heating up for a ‘once in a lifetime’ referendum. After stumbling across an ‘Americans for Scottish Independence’ Facebook group, Görlach felt inspired to begin campaigning. Yet, even with a decades-long love of Scotland, he was unsure which role he was entitled to play in the discussion surrounding its future. “I hesitated for a while and wondered if I was allowed to speak up as a German,” he says. “I wondered how it would come across.” But Görlach is convinced of Scottish independence as an issue of transnational importance.

“It’s about nuclear weapons,” he insists, referring to the UK’s Trident missile submarines based near Glasgow, which the independence campaign promised to remove in the event of winning the vote. “It’s about peace, climate change and so much more.” Armed with this conviction and no shortage of enthusiasm, he started the “solo effort” of founding Germans for Scottish Independence from his red-brick house in Pößneck.

It quickly gained momentum. “The group grew to 1000 Facebook followers,” Görlach explains, “and shortly before the 2014 referendum we were receiving press requests.” Coordinated by Germans, Scots, English and Italians throughout Germany, the group soon had enough support to organise an annual demonstration in Berlin. This international crowd – donning saltires (Scottish flags) and with bagpipers in tow – marched from Brandenburger Tor past the UK embassy to Alexanderplatz. But, after a year and a half of campaigning, the group were met with the news they had been dreading: a ‘No’ result from the referendum. While spirits were dampened, Görlach and his group continued the campaign. This time they waved colourful banners reading “Still Yes”.

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Sam Watt, a Scot and Wahlberliner of 15 years, recalls the night of the referendum. Having lived in Berlin for so long, Watt had no registered Scottish address and was therefore ineligible to vote, but he did take a trip back home to be in Glasgow for the occasion. “It was quite a strange day,” he says. “I remember being with friends, and feeling optimistic and nervous about what might happen – then, at a certain point, even before the results came in, there was just a complete change in the atmosphere. The streets were dreary and down.” Determined not to give up hope on his return to Berlin, Watt found the Germans for Scottish Independence group on Facebook and contacted Görlach directly to offer his help with organising.

Watt admits that, when he joined, he was puzzled by the enthusiasm this group of Germans had for fighting the cause of his home country. He is not alone in this bemusement. Phil Butland, a supporter of Scottish inde- pendence who originally hails from Northern England, has lived in Germany for 25 years. Butland is an old friend of Marco Görlach – and even made the trip from Berlin to Pößneck for that tearful birthday party gone wrong – but confesses he is sometimes still left stumped by his friend’s commitment.

“It’s something that bemuses me,” Butland says, “how viscerally he believes in Scottish independence.” He originally met Görlach through the anti-war movement in the early 2000s. “He had been driving his Land Rover to Iraq,” Butland exclaims, in awe at his friend’s determination to deliver letters to people he knows there. “That’s just the way Marco operates. If he feels deeply about getting something done, he will get up and do it.”

Good nationalism, bad nationalism

Görlach has certainly taken Scotland to his heart. His house in Pößneck is named Wee Caledonia – the Scots word for ‘small’ and the Latin word for ‘Scotland’. He reminisces fondly about his post-Wende trip to the UK, which culminated in a tour around Scotland. “It was a very formative experience,” he says.

Being active in the Scottish independence movement in Germany, Görlach works to reckon with the nationalism of his own country. Born and raised in the GDR, he was considered an East German until 1989. “Then, suddenly, the GDR was not just gone,” he recalls. “But it was also considered wicked.”

Görlach admits to a complex relationship with his identity as a German. “It took a long time for me to get used to saying that I was German,” he says. “I felt alien in my own Heimat. Suddenly everyone was excited about reunification, happy about Germany conquering football, and none of it mattered to me.”

Scottish nationalism – at least in its current form – is a reaction to oppression and exclusion, not an attempt to impose more

While Görlach is proud of his ties to Scotland, he is uncomfortable with German nationalism. “I’m a German, but I’m not proud of that,” he says. “I’m not proud of something which is not my doing – it’s a coincidence that I was born here.” Watt’s experience playing with folk bands in tiny towns across Germany has given him a broader impression of how Germans’ disastrous history informs their connection to Scottish nationalism. “I think people like to feel that sense of belonging to something, but they don’t feel it with Germany,” he says. “And they reach out for other nations where they can feel that belonging.”

Butland attributes his own ‘outsider’ sympathy for the Scottish independence campaign to his experience as a northern English person. “There are a number of resentments that Scottish people feel about a government and media concentrated in London,” he explains, “and it’s something we understand.”

Yet he finds that many English people treat the Scots’ independence movement with an unease informed by England’s own nationalist history – a contrasting response to that of the tartan-clad Germans. “I’ve had many discussions with left-wing people who, because of their experience with English nationalism, really distrust Scottish nationalism,” he explains. “In England, the dominant form of nationalism is the insidiously racist English nationalism, which celebrates Empire and white supremacy, and is entirely reactionary. There is a tendency among some left-wing English people to see all nationalism as the same.”

But Butland believes there is an important distinction to be made. “Those English critics”, he argues, “miss the fact that Scottish nationalism – at least in its current form – is a reaction to oppression and exclusion, not an attempt to impose more of it.”