'Bus Party' asks Scots off the beaten path: What kind of country do you want?

A group of artists and authors touring Scotland is looking to include Scots living outside urban centers in the country's debate on independence.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Postcards are displayed outside a shop along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, in May 2014.

In a careworn old industrial town in central Scotland, a busker in ripped tartan trousers leads his band through a Scottish folk standard. "What kind of Scotland do you want?" asks a seven-foot tall stand. A leaflet for passersby reads, "The Day after the Referendum," 

This is the Bus Party, an innovative tour that has been hitting the road ahead of on Scotland’s eagerly anticipated Sept 18. referendum on independence. The aim is not to tell people how or what to vote, but rather to stimulate debate using prose, poetry, and song. Its perambulations bypassed the bright lights of Edinburgh and Glasgow, concentrating instead on Scotland's small towns and cities that are often forgotten in the referendum debate, from the northerly Orkney Islands to central Scotland as part of an eight-day, 16-date tour.

There are already over a thousand miles on the Bus Party odometer by the time I clamber onto the gray 14-seater minibus, lifting an unopened bottle of red wine and a box of leaflets off the nearest free seat.

I soon fall into conversation with celebrated Scottish novelist James Robertson. "How many countries have the opportunity to have this kind discussion about their future?" says the author of "And the Land Lay Still." "I think that’s a fantastic thing that we can show to the world. We can have this conversation and the day after we can still get along whatever the outcome." 

After half an hour on the bus we reach our next destination – a bookstore in a shopping center in Livingstone, a new town about 15 miles from Edinburgh, the capital of a prospective Scottish state. 

Hamish Moore’s bagpipes signal the start of the gathering. James Robertson reads a comic story about Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon last year, followed by a tale set in fin de siècle Istanbul from Glasgow-based Turkish writer Defne Cizakca. Afterwards, performers chat amiably with their audience.

"Things like this never come to West Lothian," says Ellie Stewart, from Livingston. Her sister, Janet, recently moved back after almost two decades living in Italy and is struck by the polarized debate. "The way the referendum is set up, there is a danger of seeing it in a binary way and not looking beyond that to the values underlying what people really want in Scotland," says Janet.

The Bus Party is not a new idea. In 1997, writer Neal Ascherson, inspired by German novelist Gunter Grass’s "Citizen’s Initiatives," convinced artists including William McIlvanney to embark on a similar journey during the campaign for a "yes" vote in a referendum on Scottish devolution. The referendum passed, leading to the creation of a Scottish regional parliament. Now the push is for full independence. 

Eighteen years later, Mr Ascheron is back on the bus. "It’s quite different this time," he says as he gets back on the bus after the Livingston event. "People are less astonished to be asked what they think by a stranger. Years ago people were slightly alarmed to be asked ‘what do you think?’ Now people are quite used to it."

By far the largest crowd of the day waits in the final destination, Coatbridge, a former mining town on the outskirts of Glasgow with a large Irish population. During a lively discussion, a man in a turban says that he wants "a Scotland where everyone’s difference is respected." Across the room, a man in skullcap says that "wealth is not riches." People clap.

"The more I hear people talk like this, the more I think that we are going to get a fair Scotland, non-judgmental, accepting others with less racism," says Temitope Oyedepo, a teenager, as the bus party draws to a close for another night. Along with all 16- and 17-year-olds in Scotland, Ms. Oyedepo will have her say in September’s referendum.

"This is our future they are talking about," says her friend, Fredlina Thompson-Clewry, 18. "The Scotland that we create is the Scotland that we youth are going to be living in, so they have to include us."

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