This is one of a two-part series. For the article on extreme Scottish unionists, click here.
In 2014, David was fresh out of university and in his first job. A Labour MP, Jim Murphy, had decided to tour Scotland, with the plan of holding 100 public meetings in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. David, a Better Together campaigner, was part of his team.
Initially, the meetings were rowdy, but civil. But that began to change, as the same group of Yes supporters turned up in high street after high street.
Then one day, David found himself in Kirkcaldy, a coastal town north of Edinburgh once known for its linoleum factories. The Yes supporters were waiting.
“It was genuinely terrifying,” David remembers. “The Nats had formed a tortoise formation the way Romans do with shields, but with Yes placards. They were just advancing towards us.
“You just think ‘this is mental’”.
Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists
That day in Kirkcaldy would ultimately lead Murphy to suspend his tour, after an onlooker pelted him with eggs. But for David and the other campaign workers, this wasn’t the worst of it.
Yes supporters would frequently abuse them as “traitors”, “quislings”, and tell them to “go back to England” (the campaigners I interviewed were both Scottish). They filmed them at meetings, and began to identify David in particular as “Murphy’s lapdog”. He received a death threat, and the police advised him to step down from the frontline campaign.
“The worst thing that happened was when I had one day off in the campaign,” says David. “I was walking down Sauchiehall Street [one of the main shopping streets in Glasgow] with my mum.
“I had my No badge on, and as I passed a Yes stall this man pointed at me and went “there goes Murphy’s lapdog’.”
“They crowded around me. One asked my mum: ‘Are you proud of your son? A traitor to your country?’”
Ultimately, the “traitors” were in the majority. Scotland voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK, and David found a new job. But with a second Scottish referendum looming, he worries this behaviour will return.
But where does this aggression come from? Unlike the traditional left and right, the independence movement does not have an obvious extremist reference point. Were the Yes centurions in Kirkcaldy merely caught up in the heat of the moment, or representative of something else?
Settlers and swords
Screenshot from the Siol Nan Gaidheal website
The Scottish National Party likes to present itself as the moderate, liberal face of civic nationalism. But in the early 1980s, when it was a protest party, the modernisers rubbed shoulders with ethno-nationalists like the Siol Nan Gaidheal.
Gordon Wilson, the SNP leader at the time, called them “proto-fascists” and kicked them out of the party.
“People throw plenty of abuse about the SNP’s nationalism,” Wilson says when I call him. “But it has never countenanced any solution except the democratic route.
“When people come along with objectional views on that or ethno-nationalism they get hammered.”
But the SNP and the independence movement are not one and the same. Siol Nan Gaidheal survived its expulsion, and still exists today in a rejigged guise. Its latest incarnation, according to its website, seeks “to liberate the Scottish people from the worst excesses of English/British Cultural Imperialism” but will “leave party political action to the Scottish National Party”. However, during the Scottish referendum, The Telegraph reported that Siol Nan Gaidheal activists were deliberately disrupting Jim Murphy’s tour.
SNP modernisers have also tried to play down the jingoistic elements of Scottish nationalism. “The one thing you always have to keep an eye open for is militarism,” says Wilson. “Thankfully the Siol Nan Gaidheal were only equipped with swords and dirks.”
Violent Scottish nationalists may have had more in common with a historical re-enactment society than the IRA, but they could still be intimidating to their targets.
Recently, the Daily Record reported on Sonja Cameron, who was a member of the group Settler Watch in the early 1990s (“white settlers” is a slur for English-born Scots; Cameron herself was originally German). The group daubed the homes of English families with graffiti.
Cameron’s onetime friend, Andrew McIntosh, took more drastic measures. Dubbed “the tartan terrorist”, he was jailed for 12 months in 1993 after carrying out a letter-bomb and bomb hoax campaign.
“Go back to England”
As Wilson is keen to stress, these cases occurred in the 1990s (although embarrassingly for the SNP, Cameron’s story recently came to light after she passed the party’s vetting process for council candidates).
Most of the post-2014 independence movement subscribes to a blend of Scottish patriotism, mixed with anti-austerity and anti-Westminster rhetoric.
Its leaders have tried to distance themselves from anti-English sentiment (“English people for Scottish independence” is a popular Facebook group). Nevertheless, on the ground, the feeling persists. Another Better Together campaigner I spoke to told me about an incident on Murphy’s tour: “This English photographer was just taking pictures, he didn’t express a point of view, and these men shoved him and shouted ‘You go back to England’.”
A second strand of extremism overlaps with sectarianism. The links between Scottish independence and Catholicism are not exclusive – Murphy, the beleaguered Better Together campaigner, is a practising Roman Catholic – but have been talked up by some political tribes. The press officer for Scottish bishops, Peter Kearney, also appeared to handle press enquiries for SNP top dog Jim Sillars during the referendum campaign. (You can read about sectarianism and the pro-union campaign here).
David Scott, of the anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth, says some independence campaigners used “dog whistle” language to appeal to a sectarian base. He points to former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond’s claim that Catholics voted Yes, and the links drawn by grassroots groups between Scottish independence and the Irish republican movement.
This kind of language is likely to increase if the polls are tight, Scott says: “Particularly as you get closer to elections, in my experience, politicians will tell you anything to vote. A nudge and a wink saying ‘I’m one of you’.”
In fact, it seems after the referendum, this kind of rhetoric has not gone away. In March, Brian Wilson, a former Labour MP and director of Celtic, accused independence campaigners of a “deliberate attempt to sectarianise Scottish politics”.
A new religion
Setting out her demand for a second independence referendum in early March, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged that any vote would be about “informed choice”. She has previously condemned abuse by independence supporters as “wrong”.
Note to my fellow independence supporters. People who disagree are not anti Scottish. Does our cause no good to hurl abuse (& it’s wrong)
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) October 18, 2015
According to Scott, Sturgeon “doesn’t do faith” in the way her predecessor did, which may leave the twigs of sectarianism unkindled for now. The discipline the SNP leadership wields over the party is legendary.
The Better Together campaigners I spoke to, however, are not optimistic about the quality of a second debate.
David, the campaigner who received death threats, believes the independence movement itself has become “the closest thing to a religion”.
He says the atmosphere of the Scottish referendum is incomparable to the EU referendum, divisive as it was: “In the depth of feeling and level this went to, it was a world apart from the EU referendum.”
As for his colleague, a veteran Labour campaigner who had “never experienced that sort of hatred” before, she has only one thing to say about a second referendum: “I think it will be worse.”
Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists