With Scotland on brink of independence vote, N.J. Scots watch and wonder about future

KEARNY – For over 100 years, Scottish culture has been a part of Kearny’s culture as waves of Scots came to this Hudson County town to start new lives. The Scots who remain in Kearny after decades of steady dissemination to the suburbs are now transfixed to their televisions. On Thursday, they will watch what could be the end of an over 300-year relationship back home – the potential breakup of the United Kingdom as Scotland votes on independence. 

“I’ve been reading it could be very close, or an outright landslide for the ‘yes’ vote,” said Alastair Stewart, 58, the owner of Stewart’s Scottish Market on Kearny Avenue, as he watched footage of a pro-independence rally in Glasgow festooned with blue-and-white Scottish flags. 

Stewart’s grandfather, Albert, came to Kearny from his native Paisley, Scotland to start the store in 1931, not long after he fought with the Black Watch, one of the greatest of the Scottish Highland regiments in the British Army. Decades later, Alastair thinks that Scots should be fighting for themselves.

“I think it should be a ‘yes’ vote. If it’s a ‘no’ vote, nothing happens. Change is good,” said Stewart, of Kearny, as a portrait of famed Scottish poet Robert Burns looked down from the wall. “If they vote yes, Scottish people will have more control over their own destiny. Scotland could be the Switzerland of northern Europe. They could float their own currency and back it up with all that North Sea oil that they have. When people vote, it’s either about love or money. The people who are voting yes, they’re voting with their hearts. The money will come.”

Stephanie Miller paused from making traditional Scottish meat pies in the back of Stewart’s to agree that Scottish voters should make a new country on Thursday.

“It’s going to be risky, but change is going to be worth it, eventually,” said Miller, 25, of Kearny, whose aunts and uncles were all born in Scotland. “They could change from the pound to the euro and see what their options are. They would eventually benefit from being independent.”

The relative pluses and minuses of Scottish independence have been debated fiercely in recent weeks in the run-up to Thursday’s vote. Much of the argument focuses on issues such as what currency Scotland will use, who will shoulder the burden of public debt and will the revenue from the North Sea oil reserves be divided, among other concerns. 

Inside the Scots American Athletic Club on Patterson Street in Kearny, the local view of Scottish independence seemed to be divided much as it is back in Scotland – older Scots favor staying in the United Kingdom, while younger Scots support independence.

“Maybe I’m here too long, but as far I’m concerned, I think they should stay where they are,” said Tom Bradley, of North Arlington, 82, a retired telephone repairman who was born in Glasgow. “I think we have more to solve than we have to gain. There are so many things hanging in the balance that haven’t been resolved. I don’t know if we get a fair share of our whisky sales and from oil. If Scotland does go on its own, I hope that they become self-sufficient. But I think we’re tied in too much to the united system. The English and the Scots will never be at ease with each other. But we’ve become quote comfortable being separate but together.”

Alice Duffy, another native Glaswegian and Scots American club member who sometimes helps tend bar, also advocated a ‘no’ vote ahead of Thursday’s decision day.

“I’m hoping no. When they opened the vote to 16-year-olds, I thought that was crazy. That’s a plan and a ploy,” said Murphy in a deep Scottish burr, pointing to a compromise struck before the vote that allows the referendum to be open to voters as young as 16, even though the national voting age is 18. “What do they know at 16? I like Scotland the way it is right now. My brothers and sisters are all no, but my nieces and nephews are yes. If it’s up to the young ones, I think it’s a done deal.”

“I just hope they have the brains in their head to make a country if it does happen,” added Duffy, who has lived in Kearny for 36 years, as she served a Glenmorangie single malt Scotch whisky. “Then maybe in the end, it’ll prove to be a good idea.”

For Ken Davie, an attorney from Kearny who is the son of Scottish immigrants, whisky for courage is not necessary when looking towards Scotland’s future, which could include independence in 2016 if the ‘yes’ side wins on Thursday. In fact, all Davie needed was a look at the past.

“I’m totally in favor of Scotland being independent. The future of Scotland should be in our hands. We don’t have that now. There’s a lot of emotion out there. Look at the battles of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn – they were some of the greatest battles in history,” Davie, 67, said, referring to Scottish victories over English forces in 1297 and 1314, respectively. “The British crown felt that the Scottish people would be their indentured servants for another lifetime. But the Scottish people are not afraid of the future any more. And it shows people in New Jersey that if you want your government to change, a grass-roots effort, done in a lawful, orderly way, you can get it done. Scotland is within striking distance of making independence happen.” 

With Scotland on brink of independence vote, N.J. Scots watch and wonder about future