By Chloe Elder
As an expat living in Scotland, I often find myself in conversations disparaging the state of my homeland. My American accent simply seems to invite a political discussion. Even a trip to the local fish and chip shop welcomes remarks like, “Oh, you’re American? That’s too bad.”
The sentiment, however, is one of commiseration rather than accusation.
The Scots are not pro-Trump.
The U.S. presidential election, coming just five months after the stunning vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, did little to soothe the upset caused by Brexit here in Edinburgh.
Donald Trump is a frequent topic of news reports on the BBC and around town, but the Scots have been talking about him for a long time.
The country has had a contentious relationship with Donald Trump since before the presidential election, sparked by a venture building a golf course resort in 2012.
Initially, Trump’s attempt to purchase land on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire was met with resistance from neighbors and apprehensions about the projected environmental damage on nearby protected dunes. The Scottish Government at Holyrood, however, was persuaded to allow the plans to move forward after hearing Trump’s promise of 6,000 new jobs to the area alongside an increase in tourism.
Despite this green light, Trump tested his luck again at Holyrood. He appeared before the economy, energy and environment committee to register his disgust with plans to erect wind turbines off the coastline – and in view of his resort.
Trump claimed the turbines would ultimately harm the nation while only serving to meet “totally random” CO2 standards. This time, the Scottish Government declined to agree with Trump’s accusations. The subsequent row continued characteristically – with Twitter insults directed at the then-First Minister Alex Salmond.
“Please understand that I am doing this to save Scotland,” Trump insisted.
The president of the United States claims to have a deep connection to Caledonia, by virtue of his heritage.
Trump’s mother was born Mary Anne MacLeod in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, before emigrating to New York in 1930 where she met Fred Trump, a successful real-estate developer. Trump says his golf course in Scotland honors his mother.
“I think this land is special, I think Scotland is special, and I wanted to do something special for my mother,” he said.
A section of the website for Trump International Golf Links (on the contested Aberdeenshire land) is dedicated to “Trump’s Scottish Ancestry.” It outlines his mother’s genealogy, the geography and social history of Lewis, and a short history of the MacLeod Clan.
“I feel very comfortable here,” Trump has said. “It’s interesting when your mother, who was such a terrific woman, comes from a specific location, you tend to like that location. I think I do feel Scottish.”
The Scots are less comfortable with Trump’s presence.
Since the opening of Trump’s resort in 2012, his Aberdeenshire neighbors have been openly hostile. They spray-painted anti-Trump statements on walls, a woman was arrested for urinating on the golf course, and one particular neighbor continuously flies a Mexican flag on his property in order to upset the presidential proprietor.
More recently, in 2016, Trump further proved his disconnect with the Scottish people in the aftermath of Brexit. Visiting Scotland in June after the referendum, he tweeted:
“Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!”
Scotland voted in favor of remaining in the European Union by 62 percent to 38 percent.
Indeed, there are similarities between America and Scotland in that the majority of their populations did not vote for the current administrations. Just as Scotland opposed Brexit negotiations, most of America (including Palm Beach County) did not vote for Donald Trump as president.
In both cases, most everyday citizens oppose their nation’s government.
The situation has taken a more global scope for both Americans and British citizens with the implementation of Trump’s travel ban. On the same day of the executive order, Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May were photographed holding hands during her visit to the White House. The British prime minister also failed to immediately condemn the ban.
The people of the U.K., however, made their stand clear.
Tens of thousands gathered in major cities and smaller towns across Britain on Jan. 30 in an “emergency demonstration” against Trump’s executive order. Another march against the travel ban was held in Edinburgh on Feb. 4. And a Scottish national demonstration against the Trump administration on the 11th of February saw even more in Edinburgh marching to demonstrate at the Scottish Government building at Holyrood.
I was among them.
I arrived around noon, dressed with layer upon layer of warm clothes and waterproofs – practically looking ready to climb the hills of the Scottish Highlands. But despite adverse conditions – otherwise known as “the Scottish winter” – the event drew crowds in the thousands.
Demonstrators of all ages convened in one of Edinburgh’s many green spaces, a central park called The Meadows. Groups of friends and families chatted while sociopolitical organizations passed around leaflets, until everyone was too cold to stand still any longer and the march moved forward.
The protest completely filled each street it passed, from George IV Bridge through the cobbled streets of the Royal Mile, with crowds that rivaled even those generated by Edinburgh’s famous festival season. It must have been at least 5,000 of us to have stretched the entire length of North Bridge before winding upward toward Calton Hill.
Escorted by police, the mass made its way across to the city to pass as near as we were permitted to the American Consulate building before culminating – as all protests in Edinburgh do – at the Scottish Parliament building.
Once at Holyrood, the crowd was rallied together through a series of speeches by local activists. We chanted in unison — Say it loud! Say it clear! Refugees are welcome here! — and vowed to resist hateful policies and rhetoric with our fists raised in the air in solidarity.
Meanwhile, marchers’ signs contributed a markedly Scottish character. Alongside universally popular sentiments such as “No Human Is Illegal” and “Love Trumps Hate,” colorful local insults included calling the American president a “bawbag” and a “twat.” One particularly Scottish sign told Trump: “Haud yer wheesht!” (Translation: Shut up!)
I held a less inflammatory poster, one of many that were handed out by Amnesty Scotland.
The unmissable neon signs read “We Stand Together #AgainstHate.” The message is simple, strong and far-reaching – applicable to any number of policies or oppressive speech. Indeed, the signs had already proved their worth by the time of the first U.K. demonstration against Trump’s administration.
My friend Tom Sparks, an Amnesty Scotland activist since 2008, told me that the posters were in fact leftovers from the summer’s Brexit referendum.
The #AgainstHate campaign was launched in response to the rise in hate crime after the results of the European Referendum – the same xenophobia we have seen in the States since the election of Donald Trump.
“Amnesty wanted to challenge that trend,” Sparks said.
While Amnesty International is distinctly non-political, its efforts overlap with political arenas where human rights are concerned.
After the demonstration, I asked my friend about his personal views on America’s situation.
Sparks said, “I have been really quite dismayed by some of the early policies of the Trump administration. The disregard for the human rights of the people affected by his absurd travel ban was quite simply shocking. These aren’t just vague principles: they’re rules of international human rights law contained in treaties the U.S. has signed and ratified.”
Sparks was especially concerned about Trump’s ban on refugees and drew parallels to the U.K.’s own decision to drop the threshold for accepting unaccompanied child refugees from 3,000 to 350.
“Both our countries are failing the great moral test of time,” he said.
Instead, Sparks urged that “the U.K. should be criticizing [Trump’s] policies which infringe on fundamental human rights, and the U.K. should be leading by example.”
While the British government has done little to send an opposing message to the American administration, the protests speak for themselves.
Sparks said, “Scotland, perhaps even more so than the U.K. as a whole, is very pro-human rights and fundamental freedoms. I think Trump’s policies have upset a very large number of people in Scotland.”
The upside of anger, however, is activism.
Many like myself – who have previously shied away from political speech – are finding their voices in the growing community of protesters across the world. The accessibility to political discussions via social media and online video streams is establishing a population that is more aware, more engaged, and more educated.
Who would have thought that I would find live proceedings of the U.K. House of Commons so compelling?
And those parliamentary discussions have only become more interesting since the 29th of March with the invocation of Article 50, triggering the start of formal Brexit negotiations. Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon seeks authority for a second independence referendum to be held before the U.K. leaves the European Union.
Sturgeon argues that considering the consequences of Brexit will be “imposed” on Scotland, an independence referendum would give the Scottish people the right to choose their own path.
The question of democratic choice echoes across the U.S. and Scotland. If American and British administrations continue, in separate but parallel moves toward xenophobia and isolationism, they will inevitably be met with a diverse community of resistance.
Chloe Elder holds an M.Sc. in book history and material culture from the University of Edinburgh and a B.A. in comparative literature from the American University of Paris. A Palm Beach County native, she currently resides in Edinburgh, where she is pursuing a future career in archives.