By Órla Meadhbh Murray (Staff Writer)
An unsuspecting tourist to Edinburgh wanders down the Royal Mile. Standing in the shadow of St. Giles’ Cathedral they raise their camera to take a picture of a statue, when suddenly a fella’ walking past spits at their feet and strides on. They look down to see a mosaic heart, and the offending glob of spit which has landed right on their shoe.
The Heart of Midlothian is one of my favourite Edinburgh traditions. And whilst the uninitiated might find the spitting confusing and a little intimidating, it is a tradition everyone can get involved with. You can see the stone mosaic on the pavement beside Parliament Square, and whilst many residents seem to abide by the ritual out of habit there are an array of interpretations on why the custom began. The short video, ‘Spitting on the Heart’, provides a lovely compilation of spitting complete with bagpipes and some ‘vox pop’ style interviews. Explanations from passers-by on why they do it range from the vague “it brings good luck” to the historically rooted anti-tax or anti-prison rationale, which suggests people engage in the practice because the heart sits on the site of the old Tolbooth jail.
When I first arrived in Edinburgh over six years ago a fellow fresher told me that he spat on the Heart as a Hibs supporter to disrespect Hearts. For those unfamiliar with sectarian division and football politics, Hibernian (Hibs) and Heart of Midlothian (Hearts) are two Edinburgh football teams with a long-standing rivalry. Traditionally, Hibs fans are Catholic and Hearts fans are Protestant, similar to the Glasgow rivalry between Celtic and Rangers. As an Irish (lapsed) Catholic from Belfast, my initial response to this reasoning was, well I’ve left home to escape all that sectarian shite, why would I begin to engage in it here? But there is something perversely comforting about Scotland understanding sectarian division only too well which makes me feel more at home here. And whilst I don’t spit on the heart, it fast became one of the things I love most about my adopted home.
As a white Northern Irish migrant to Scotland I’m lucky enough to have no bureaucratic barriers, no immigration process to undergo or visa to get, no racist slurs are shouted at me in the street and I feel no need to ‘justify’ my presence here. I have experienced the odd suspicious comment: a taxi driver who aggressively asked me why I’d come over here to get a job if there were jobs in Ireland; and, two drunk guys who, on hearing my accent, asked ‘which side of the community’ I was from. But these minor incidents only serve to remind me that ‘we’, the Irish, are no longer the scapegoat of choice for most bigots in Britain.
The scapegoat has changed into the eastern European migrant looking for work, the Pakistani Muslim family making their home in the UK, the Syrian refugee, and of course the ever paranoid British state obsession with ‘fake’ gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer asylum seekers. For those living amidst war, facing persecution, or having left home and trying to settle somewhere else, that feeling of home is precarious and continuously under threat. And yet, instead of a compassionate and humane approach to immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers, a right-wing hysteria seems to have taken hold of the UK. Whipped up for electoral gain by they-who-shall-not-be-named and implicitly endorsed by the ongoing racist, exclusionary and abusive behaviours of UK Visa and Immigration, the Home Office and their private sub-contractors, feeling at home in the UK is increasingly difficult for all who do not pass as the quintessential white Christian Briton.
When hearing the right-wingers, one would think everyone in the whole world wanted to move to the UK and that they were all on their way as we speak! But if you look at the larger picture of global migration over time it becomes apparent that this is not the case. Indeed, why would it be? The UK is cold, rainy, and fast becoming one of the more exclusionary countries for migrants. Who can forget the immigration vans with ‘Go home or face arrest’ written on them? Or the inhumane treatment and sex abuse scandals against people detained in the Yarl’s Wood detention centre? And whilst these ‘mistakes’ or ‘oversights’ can be explained away by politicians or deemed necessary for ‘national security’, they are in fact one end of a spectrum of ‘acceptable’ racism against those who are seen as not British, particularly people of colour and Muslims.
The discussion in Scotland has been slightly more progressive, particularly in the lead up to the independence referendum last year. Primarily focusing on a liberal economic argument of Scotland needs more working-age people, with immigration being one way to address that, alongside the proposed changes, an independent Scotland looked set to implement a more open immigration policy. Of course we cannot know whether the SNP or any other independent Scottish government would have introduced more progressive immigration policy, and the proposed changes weren’t particularly radical but they are an important counterbalance to the ‘tough on immigration’ posturing down south.
Yes, some commentators such as The Economist have highlighted that increased migration to Scotland may in fact increase resistance to immigration, and the gap between politicians’ pro-immigration rhetoric may not accurately reflect public opinion polls: BBC News summarises it well saying, “It could be said that Scots do not seem to be "pro" immigration but they do appear to less "anti".” But these distinctions are important. The immediate impact of politicians saying “Welcome to Scotland” rather than “Go home” must be enormous on the recently arrived trying to make their home in the UK. Compare the information pages from the UK Visa and Immigration website and the Scottish government run Scotland.org page on Moving to Scotland: the Scottish government are actively advertising themselves for migrants guaranteeing a ‘friendly welcome’, whereas the UKVI are focused on ‘national security’ and ‘customer satisfaction’.
Immigration is still a reserved power and Scotland has little clout when it comes to UK-wide immigration policy, but the more welcoming and open tone of immigration discussions in Scottish politics is a much needed counterbalance to that of Westminster. When it comes to refugees specifically, there are differences in the Scottish and UK-wide approaches, despite this not being a devolved issue. The Scottish Refugee Council research on integration explains the difference in approaches: Scotland sees integration of refugees beginning once the person arrives in Scotland rather than when they officially change status from asylum seeker to refugee. Whilst this change can be more symbolic than substantial due to limited powers, the tone towards immigration in the Scottish government appears to be much more inclusive, including involving refugees in the review process on refugee integration.
And it wasn’t just Scottish government policy that made Scotland seem a more inclusive place to call home. The civic nationalism that characterised the Yes campaign and the residency based voting requirements for the referendum made a sense of belonging to Scotland more open to those who live here rather than those who necessarily identify as primarily or solely as Scottish. As discussed by Elliott Green of the LSE, the Scottish nationalism of the SNP and broader Yes campaign saw a marked departure from the right-wing ethnic nationalism that often typifies independent movements and garnered a disproportionate Yes vote from ethnic minority groups, particularly in Scottish Asian communities. Being part of Scotland’s future was all about ideas and a willingness to call Scotland home, not five generations of residency and having a family tartan.
What I am trying to get at is that for people perceived as ‘the other’, notions of home are often marred by the governmental level hostility. These discussions are only going to become more pertinent as global warming triggers environmental refugees, states continue to persecute minority groups, and governments keep bombing civilians in an unending cycle of war. With right-wingers fuelling the fires of racism and the continuation of austerity policies across Europe, those most recently arrived become easy targets.
Like spitting on the Heart of Midlothian, maintaining a sense of inclusivity about what traditions mean and who can participate in them is key. People should feel at home and included wherever they come from or however long they have been here: equal members of a society that, let’s not forget, has made much of its fortune off the back of colonialism and the stolen resources that this brings. Whilst Scotland is not some idyllic land for migrants and the debate is far from radical, maintaining a different political rhetoric around immigration does make a difference to peoples’ sense of home. In the current climate that is no small thing.