When I remember my childhood, two memories in particular stand out: a little red hat and a long shingle spit on a beach.
The first, I called my ‘airhostess hat’. It was a red with a navy blue ribbon and can only be described as a sort of squashed bowler. I wore it every time we made our regular flight from Glasgow, to Bristol and on to Cornwall, when we left behind Scottish grey skies and arrived down South to spend days picnicking on a beach called ‘Portwrinkle’ or picking raspberries in my grandparents' garden. Rainclouds were ignored as we scrambled through rock pools in our jelly shoes or swam in water that, to me, seemed as azure the bays of the Mediterranean. Days would end with my grandmother calling us in for dinner and us racing up the garden, our faces smeared with the juices of sharp red fruit.
The second memory is quite different. It’s my mother helping me put my bright red wellies on the right feet and, with my baby sister in her pram, holding my hand as we walked through the graffiti smeared estate, down the hill to the beach. There, along with some other mothers and children, we would wait.
In my mind, hours passed as we waited there on the beach for a small black spec to appear on the horizon, when everyone would race down the spit and all try and fit onto an abandoned concrete block at the end. The waves would crash over us, washing our small island in foam but we would wait patiently for H.M.S Trident (later it was H.M.S Superb) to make her way majestically into the notorious Fas Lane. Through the grim Loch Lomond rain, ten or so figures would be visible, standing on deck in their uniform. As we watched them proudly saluting, every single one of the children would smugly claim ‘that’s my daddy! That’s him!’
It later turned out that my father was only on deck on the last of these occasions, when I was six. But, nevertheless, the whole ceremony of running down the beach and later, my exhausted father trudging into our tiny kitchen, my tired mother putting away the map on the landing on which we plotted his patrols, remains a defining experience of my childhood.
It was a childhood spent, primarily, not on the sun-soaked beaches of Cornwall, but in the bleak storm-infested highlands; a childhood spent in Scotland. To my five year old self, the beach was either the pebbled spit on the shore of the greying waters of Loch Lomond or it was the thin, sandy land surrounding its estruary where the water was so cold that even my mother, the most hardy of Cornish-bred swimmers, refused to go in. Snow was an annual occurrence; it was expected that when the ground was covered in white, all of the service kids and the parents home from patrol would trek to the top of the Married Quarter houses and plummet back down at breakneck speeds on flimsy plastic red sledges. Although sunshine was something my mother vehemently lamented the loss of, our friends all lived within a five-minute radius of the house, there was no shortage of trees to climb and it left me with a memory of a perfect childhood, providing you exclude the fact that my father was at sea for months at a time and missed the births of both my sisters.
When we returned to England, I pined for Scotland and those happy years. Now, fifteen years later, I read daily pieces in newspapers entitled ‘an Ode to Scotland’, praising a country more often than not in the hope that praise written from a desk somewhere in London will entice more voters to vote No. However, some cite tartan, highland warriors, kilts and shortbread as reasons why Scotland can stand alone alongside a significantly weakened United Kingdom. In a flurry of nationalist pride, tokens of Scottish identity are fought over as both sides of the debate stake their claim to represent the true flowers of Scotland.
When I remember Scotland, I forget these tokens of nationalist pride and, it seems, both sides of the debate have forgotten me. The children, both English and Scottish born, running down a spit in the rain to welcome home men and women who had served both countries overseas play no part in either side’s arguments. Normality and examples of routine, day-to-day Scottish life, it seems, are worth little in comparison to imposing national landmarks like Edinburgh castle.
Running round London as one of the city’s many over-ambitious interns, I obviously have no say in the debate next Thursday. Yet I do have a childhood spent in the foothills of the Scottish highlands, a childhood that has left me with memories of a country with enough eccentricities and quirks to more than match the UK. It is a country similar to the UK in so many ways, yet more than capable of going it alone. If, next Thursday, Scotland vote to leave the UK, like so many people I will be sad to see a border spring up between England the country where both my sisters were born. But I will also respect the choice of Scotland’s inhabitants, all the while hoping that the country I grew up in doesn’t change too much from the place where I ran down a beach in red wellies, screaming at the top of my lungs ‘Daddy’s coming home!’