ISLE OF MULL, Scotland — In the breathtaking Inner Hebrides off the Scottish West Coast, there is no shortage of opinion on whether Britain should vote to leave the European Union. No one, it seems, is willing to take such a risk, as several people on this island said, revealing a sense of vulnerability that leaving Europe could entail.
Of the numerous people who were interviewed for this article who live and work in this rural setting of fisheries, farmers (or crofters) and tourism entrepreneurs, the reluctance to separate from Europe felt tangible. The vote, occurring June 23, appears to be weighted for a yes in England, but Scotland may swing the vote to a no to leave, say some London newspapers.
In remote pockets of Scotland, like Mull, Tony Francis, a hotelier, said, “You’d have to be crazy to leave the EU.”
Francis, who is English, is approaching his fourth season as the proprietor of Ardachy House Hotel, which is tucked at the southwest end of Mull, a 338-square-mile island of about 2,700 residents and one-lane roads that keep drivers alert for oncoming traffic.
The hotel couldn’t be more private. Set in a cove with a rippled-sand beach and grassy farmland for Hebridean sheep and Highland cattle grazing, other islands, like Jura and Islay, hulk in the distant Atlantic. When the sun shines — it made a recent showing — the northern tip of Ireland can be gleaned from Ardachy House.
For Francis, whose goal is to “live off the grid,” the Brexit vote is nothing more than a political ploy by Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, to become prime minister should the vote favor an exit.
“They’ll be bloodletting in the Conservative Party if they lose,” Francis said, referring to Johnson’s political nexus. (The Sun, a British tabloid, reported that Johnson said if the vote turns out to be yes, then David Cameron, the current prime minister, should remain in office.)
In the 2014 referendum to decide whether Scotland should depart from Britain, Argyll and Bute Council, of which Mull is a part, voted by a wide margin to stay.
Mull is a blend of hardy souls who live on the island year round, braving lashing, wet winters and an unrelenting flow of day-trippers and longer holiday visitors the rest of the year, especially in the summer. That is when the sun doesn’t set till late at night but also when midges appear, driving people into a swatting frenzy in August.
The island’s scenery of moss-green mountains, rolling slopes brightened with purple foxglove and yellow iris wildflowers and a curvaceous coastline casts a spell. Mull’s one-lane roads, with pullouts every few hundred yards to allow one vehicle to wait as another passes, can unnerve even the steadiest driver, particularly when tourist buses whip around narrow corners, unwilling to cede the road. Public signs are written in English and Scottish Gaelic, and sheep maintain the right to roam.
To stay in Europe, said John Henderson, a retired anesthesiologist who practiced in Glasgow and was visiting Mull by caravan, would be “the lesser of two evils.” Henderson complained that France dominated the European Union, but more problematically, Britain was beholden to EU rules, which he claimed had “destroyed” the fisheries of Scotland, whose offshore waters were opened to everyone, like Spanish, French and Portuguese, who can “go use our waters.”
“I really resent that,” Henderson added, waiting in Mull’s far-west village of Fionnphort to board the 10-minute Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Iona, a three-mile-long island of more fat green hills, sheep and cattle pastures and whitewashed cottages. Iona lures day visitors to see its stone abbey, a monastery founded by Columba in the year 563.
Henderson now lives in the Highlands, and like many other people who were asked about Brexit, he felt the uncertainties of Britain leaving Europe overwhelmed any positive results, adding, “I’m not sure of the savings if we leave.”
On Iona, with a year-round residency of about 120 people, including a Christian retreat community, the downside of dropping out of Europe influenced people’s thinking.
At the pristine Iona Gallery and Pottery, run by a “resident” of Iona for 40 years, as he called himself, Gordon Menzies (who first hailed from Motherwell, near Glasgow), said that some Ionians were “neutral” about the vote. But he felt that it was “always a gamble to go into something” when you didn’t know its outcome.
Like Henderson, Menzies cited the control that the European Union holds on Scotland — by default through Britain — over its fisheries. Yet given Scotland’s devolution status in Britain, he conceded Scotland’s flexibility in writing its own laws.
“I will probably vote to stay put,” Menzies said as a Royal Air Force jet roared overhead conducting exercises and a tourist bought a seascape painting from the gallery, which looked out to panoramic views of Mull. “It would be too much of a gamble,” much the way Scotland going independent from Britain would have been a gamble, Menzies added. “But the whole EU needs to be rethought.”
“Who am I to say, anyway? It won’t affect me.”
At the Iona Heritage Center down the single main road, Sara Macdonald, bearing one of the most legendary surnames in Scotland, admitted that she had been baffled at first about the vote. She thought, why are they doing this, and said that most Ionians — landholders, crofters and entrepreneurs — were most likely voting to stay in Europe. Macdonald, who said she descended from the clan on the island, recognized the “good things” from being in Europe.
As for the broken things, she said it would be “huffy to leave” and that Britain should stay in and try to fix Europe. “I understand we’re not in control in making lots of decisions, but I don’t think the current government in London will make better decisions.”
The Ardalanish Weavers in the village of Bunessan exemplifies one of the most audacious enterprises in Mull. Located on a farm up the hill from the Ardachy House, the mill encompasses 1950s power looms using wool from the resident sheep to produce tweed, fully reliant on wind turbines for electricity. A shop sells the woolens as visitors can watch Bob Ryan, the weaver, at work, wearing earphones to ward off the loud pulsations of the loom. Ryan, of Mull, has been weaving for 65 years.
When the shopkeeper, Cathy Jones, was asked about Brexit, she blushed, saying, “Are you asking what I think?”
Pleased, she delved into the topic: “I’m a big fan of small countries working together as a group. The EU is not perfect, but I don’t fancy being a minnow in the big sea.”
Scotland, she said, never wanted to leave Europe and hadn’t wanted to leave Britain, but “unfortunately more English” people want to leave Europe, though not those up north, as in Yorkshire, which she said was more inclined toward Scots than the English.
At the Ardachy House restaurant, a party of two English couples and a Scot from Stirling were dining on local langoustines as starters when the subject of Brexit came up.
“Horrible,” said one of the women, from the Lake District, followed by a stretch of silence, as if the thought of such a possibility stirred up nothing but dread.
“Quite right,” echoed another guest, from a town near Manchester, with the subject abandoned as the main course was served, only to rear its head during dessert, after much wine and a note of sorrow for Jo Cox, the British politician who had been killed that day.
Scotland wanted to stay in Europe, the guests from England theorized, in case it held another referendum to leave Britain again and needed the EU’s support.
Most important, one of the guests noted, is that “no one knows what will happen” if Britain exits Europe. It could take years to sort out.
“Quite right,” seconded another guest.
“It’s a lot like your situation regarding Trump” — a third guest piped up, nodding at the Americans in the room.
This article was updated to reflect the voting results of Argyll and Bute Council in the 2014 Scottish referendum, not the results of that vote in Mull alone.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.