KINGHORN, SCOTLAND — It was on the low cliffs looming over the white-capped Firth of Forth here that Alexander III, the last of Scotland's Celtic kings, plunged from his horse to his death one inky night 721 years ago.
England backed a successor, and ultimately invaded, touching off the wars of Scottish independence that inspired medieval verses about refusing to submit to "the bonds of slavery entwined" and opulently tragic films such as "Braveheart."
These days, Scotland's independence movement is still playing out on the Kinghorn uplands. Here George Kay is making his way, house by house, to a succession of doors ringed by pansy pots and "no milk today" signs. Kay is running on the Scottish National Party ticket in elections Thursday that could set Scotland on a course to break away from Britain.
"I was just wonderin' if you were considerin' castin' your vote for the SNP," Kay says diffidently, and he often elicits a stern nod in the affirmative. "Give us the next three, four years to show we can run things. And then people may have the confidence to go forward with independence."
This week, Scotland and England celebrate the 300th anniversary of their union under the treaty that ultimately created the United Kingdom. But the SNP, capitalizing on widespread dissatisfaction with the 10-year-old Labor government in London and overwhelming opposition to the war in Iraq, is vowing to try to end the union if it wins, pledging to seek a referendum on independence by 2010.
Party leaders are waving the prospect of seizing billions of dollars of North Sea oil revenue and turning this hilly region of 5 million people into a prosperous and independent northern European state, like Norway and Finland, with England as a neighbor within the European Union.
Enough Scots are buying it -- recent polls show the SNP ahead -- that leaders of both the Labor and Conservative parties are pulling out the stops and combing Scotland to convince voters that they are citizens of Britain first.
Unionists and nationalists
Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has called the election "a defining moment for Scotland," just made his fifth trip to the north during the campaign. (The Scotsman newspaper said the prime minister "sounded like an ailing emperor paying a last visit to one of his satrapies.")
Blair's likely successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who grew up a few miles from here, has been warning fellow Scots of dire economic consequences if they listen to the siren songs of the SNP, hailing his own Britishness, and cheering for the English football team.
Unionists argue that the 300-year-old marriage has been a resounding success not just for Britain, but also for Scotland. The region's employment rate and wages have been above the British average for most of the last four years; it has a booming financial services industry, joined at the hip with England.
"Nationalists conveniently forget that in 10 out of the 11 Scottish industry sectors, trade with the rest of the U.K. is a bigger market than all our trade with the rest of the world combined," Brown told business leaders last week in Edinburgh, the regional capital.
SNP leaders say it's time for a divorce.
"I say to my students, think of it as a marriage of convenience," said David McCrone, a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. "In 1707, Scotland entered this marriage and got a lot out of it. It got access to the empire.... But of course, by the middle of the 20th century, there was no empire. The bargain disappeared."
Many Scots drew a blank last year when Brown, the chancellor, proposed turning Remembrance Day, the equivalent of Memorial Day, into a new national day of patriotism to celebrate British history, "an expression of British ideas of standing firm for the world in the name of liberty."
But is that what it really means to be British?
These days, many on both sides of the border have a hard time defining what "British" means. Does it mean you are able to use the National Health Service? That you get misty when they play "Rule Britannia?"
Many Scots have the impression that the English seem to have co-opted Britishness.
"I'll tell you something that gets up the noses of Scots," said Ross Vettraino, a local council candidate for the SNP in Glenrothes, not far from Kinghorn. "If you say to the typical English person, 'What does the English flag look like?' They'll say, 'It's the Union Jack.' Well the Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland.
"If you ask them what the English national anthem is, they'll say it's 'God Save the Queen.' Well, it isn't. They're so bloody arrogant. The English think they \o7are\f7 the United Kingdom."