September 19, 2014 3:08:55 am
An idyllic village with a population of just over 2,000, Gretna, unassuming and discreet amid the vast expense of barley crops, looks like any another north England village you’ve just left behind.
Except, it is not north England. It is Scotland. Right next to the river Sark that divides the two home nations, which may become two sovereign countries should the little brother opt for ‘Yes’ in Thursday’s vote for independence.
Last-minute opinion polls showed the race was too close to call, with the pro-union ‘Better Together’ campaign marginally ahead. Here in Gretna, however, it is no borderline case. It is an emphatic ‘No’ to breaking up the 307-year-old union.
In preferring so, symbolically, Gretna is not being any less Scottish. Gretna is just being Gretna.
For almost two-and-a-half centuries, Gretna has been where couples from all over Britain have come to unite, for life and thereafter. As the story goes, Gretna, the first Scottish village on the old way to Edinburgh, used to be the place for young lovers from England to elope to — to take advantage of a Scottish law that allowed them to marry at 16, two years earlier than in England.
In the event, tying the knot here became a tradition in the United Kingdom, and to this day couples flock to Gretna to seal permanently their love. And it is the first thing you notice when, coming from Carlisle, England, you cross the Sark bridge: the first building to the right, Old Toll Bar, welcomes you with a sign that reads ‘First House in Scotland’ and, next to it, another that says: “This place has seen 10,000 weddings since 1830.”
Lately, however, driven by the symbolism of Gretna and its location, a different set of romantics has been arriving here. These are the ones who want Scotland to stay in the marriage with England.
They have erected here a cairn, a monument of stones hand-painted by individuals from Britain and elsewhere in the world, pleading with the Scots to not walk away.
“British people care about keeping their country together, and this monument is an expression of that,” Rory Stewart, Conservative MP from Penrith and The Border, which is on the other side of the river, told The Indian Express as Scotland voted in the referendum.
Despite the romance associated with Gretna, it is not just romance that is keeping the United Kingdom united here. It is economics.
Being on the border, and a good couple of hours’ drive from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, Gretna is more dependent on Carlisle, the regional economic hub, which is just 15 minutes away.
John McMonies, having a drink in Scotland’s ‘first pub’ — or ‘last’, depending on where you are coming from — down the road from Gretna Inn, explains why.
“I live here in Gretna and I work in Carlisle. Like many others here. So ‘No’ was a fairly straightforward choice for us. We don’t want to face the prospect of losing out on jobs if Scotland becomes independent,” he says, as the friends he is with nod in agreement. It’s an English city that feeds them, they say, as the BBC blares in the reports on the referendum.
Sipping a pint of his favourite ale, McMonies announces he has voted nae twice over. Once for himself, and once a proxy for a friend who is in Australia.
There is an unmissable irony here. Half — if the polls are to be believed — of Scotland wants independence because they feel too distant from London and Westminster. And most here in Gretna want to stay in the UK because they feel too distant from Edinburgh.
Not everyone in Gretna is an Unionist, though. Halfway through referendum day, a bubbly young woman says she has still not decided, but will probably vote yes. An elderly gentleman says he has voted aye, but is too busy with his drink to explain why.
McMonies knows how close the race is — his own family is split on the vote.
“My mother is voting yes. Despite the fact that, in doing so, she is risking a lot in terms of pension and healthcare facilities,” he says.
“Because she is a fiercely proud Scotswoman.”
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