Britain Before Brexit: a portrait of Scotland and its people
The Independent’s photographer Richard Morgan is examining his own country in the midst of Brexit’s chaos, scrutinising the contrasts of contemporary Britain and the ambivalence of modern Britishness. This week: Scotland
Britain is divided, by 12 regions, a statistical arrangement designed to help governments see the life of the population in graphs, charts, and tables. I’m looking at Britain through these regions too, but not statistically, not through numbers that ignore the brilliant details of everyday life, but through the lens of my camera, on the ground, up close.
My first impressions of Edinburgh are formed at an exhibition of 60 black and white photographs, taken by Robert Blomfield on the city’s streets in the 1950s and 1960s. The exhibition is on at the City Art Centre, located just across the road from the railway station. And as I move from one picture to the next, falling further and further in love with Blomfield’s work, I begin to question my decision to go there straight off the train, not taking the time to look at the city in advance. For every picture reminds me that my maiden voyage in Edinburgh is taking place through time not space: a journey through Blomfield’s Edinburgh of the mid-20th century; a postwar perspective on postwar Britain. And I know that the 21st-century city that still awaits me outside, the city beyond the gallery walls, could never live up to this carefully curated introduction, to this highly stylised, delicately presented vision, and remains as yet unframed, unordered and formless.
I leave the City Art Centre for the Old Town, a Disney Land for adults where tired stereotypes and outdated traditions are commercially pushed and swallowed en masse. Tourists search for and consume an “authentic Scotland”, a place that exists only for the benefit of their money. Tour guides dressed as wizards lead foreigners through a make-believe world with wands. I breathe in the view from the castle: a skyline punctured by sharp, charred-looking spires. I meet some vegan protesters, writing their ethics on the pavement in coloured chalks – “You can’t love animals and eat them too”, “Humane slaughter is a myth” – trying to catch the eyes and morals of head-down city strollers. They assure me their writing is not graffiti, not a permanent marking, but a temporary manipulation of the public space, one that will wash away with the next rain and vanish completely. That night it pours.
I arrive in Dundee feeling as if I’m back once again in closing-down Britain, boarded-up Britain, betting-shop Britain. The contrast with Edinburgh is sharp: fewer people, fewer among them tourists, less commercial vitality. And the city centre seems even sadder after a visit to the new V&A Museum, an architectural vessel magnificently and expensively docked on the banks of the River Tay. The building looks stunningly out of place on the inside as well, hosting exhibitions, interactive family-friendly workshops, a posh restaurant, a cute cafe and a shop selling overpriced multicoloured pencils. As is the case for many local people, the V&A tears me in two: half believes it’s part of a regeneration process; the other half thinks it’s been built for people who not only want to spend their money, but their cultural capital too, giving them art that, while making their life worth living, cannot keep other people alive.
The next morning I climb the Dundee Law, egged on through the rain by the promise of a 360-degree panoramic view of the city. I reach the summit and look to the south, over the city centre, the V&A, the Tay Rail and Road bridges and the hills beyond. I notice another element in the frame: a Polish football-hooligan sticker on a bollard right in front of me, reading “Szczecin: Hardcore City”. Memories of Szczecin involuntarily come to mind, affecting the view of Dundee. I’m looking at both places simultaneously, like a double-exposed photograph in which two images blur in the same frame. Later, on my way back down the hill, I put the experience down to immigration and the movement of people – the Pole in Dundee who stuck that sticker there, and the two years I lived in Poland – and wonder why in all the fact-rich, data-heavy discussions of immigration in this country, such subtle, yet important experiential consequences of it are so rarely part of the debate.
I’m getting lost in Aberdeen, disorientated in a grey maze, walking from one concrete structure to the next: from stairways to underpasses, overpasses and flyovers; along pavements through alleyways, tunnels and subways; across courtyards below high-rises. I take a break in a bar whose balcony overhangs a duel carriageway and its rush-hour traffic. Eventually I get to the beach where I lean against railings and watch surfers thrillseek at dusk. They remind me of the city’s William Wallace statue and the inscription it bears – “Liberty is the best of all things” – and I think how distant Britain is from that idea now, valuing not freedom, but preservation, protection and security above all else.
A Flat-Earther in Inverness tells me we’re living in a conspiracy, a whole web of spin in which hundreds of lies are connected. He owns a “conspiracy shop” west of the River Ness called The Flat Earth, tucked away in a residential area. Inside he explains how he had an “awakening” five years ago and can now see the world for what it really is: the world is flat; 9/11 was an inside job; planes are spraying poison over Inverness; the moon landings took place in a Hollywood studio; gender is a form of mind control. I leave and walk to the empty Cathedral. I sit on a pew in silence and regret not asking the Flat-Earther about Britain and Brexit, about this unfathomable reality in which all sides accuse the other of telling lies and faking news. And I have the unsettlingly realisation that he’d come to the same conclusion as many non-conspiracist commentators who daily try to untangle the Brexit knot. I think he’d say it’s a divisive mess, keeping the population in a state of ignorance, in which their futures are uncertain, and in which the most pressing social problems are forgotten and put on hold amid the suffocating crisis of the “in” or “out” debate.
Polish kitchen staff offer me a Scottish breakfast in Glasgow. I decline. Later I eat lunch in a Russian cafe. I walk it off in the Necropolis, a hillside of burial graves where I wonder why I’ve been brought up to expect graveyards to be flat. I stroll the length of Byres Road in the West End and the length of Duke Street in the East End. In the centre I become transfixed by American Christians on Buchanan Street, who take it in turns to preach from a foot stool. There’s a vindictive venom to their judgement, a self-righteous joy in believing they can identify and condemn the sins of the high street. Later, leaving Scotland, I share a train compartment with six Glaswegian women geared up for a party in Liverpool. And I could not have hoped for a more charming and generous gang with whom to discuss identity politics on International Women’s Day: “Scottish first, British second”, they tell me.
For more of Richard Morgan’s work you can visit his website here