Roots Hebrides

Is the Hebrides a country?

“You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline,” that great American philosopher Frank Zappa once proclaimed. “It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”

Widsom indeed lies within the pithiness, and we may use Zappa’s quote as an informally arrived-at cultural barometer defining that construction called “country” which we all presume to know how to define. It’s at least a decent excuse to dive into an independent culture shared by the Hebrideans regardless of home island.

Right, then. Thought experiment- Are the Hebrides a country?


Beer in the Hebrides

Are you kidding? You know Zappa’s quote comes from the pre-microbrew days, because if ever were a country(?) built for the microbrew world, it’s the Hebrides.

The Hebridean Brewing Co. on the Isle of Lewis was established in 2001 and within two years of its first production had reached the mainland thanks to a deal with the Morrisons (formerly Safeway) chain. Hebridean has since gone on to win prizes at international festivals and produces the fantastic Berserker Export Ale.

The Isle of Skye Brewering Company goes back even further, having produced its signature Skye Red since 1995. And then there's the eponymously-named Colonsay Brewery, the beer brewed on the least-populated island in the world.

So yes, the Hebrides have beer.

Is there a Hebrides-based airline?

Sadly, no. Although five airports in the UK alone fly direct to spots in the Hebrides daily and dozens of charter flights or other private flights are available. But no Hebrides Air – yet.

The Western Isles representative Football Team

FIFA, that grand authority on matters geopolitical, kinda sorta treats the Other Hebrides (a.k.a. the Western Isles) as an independent national entity. Most likely the FIFA lot figure the Outer Hebrides have a football *association*, so … and they counted their money.

In any case, Team Western Isles traditionally gets together for the biennial Island Games, playing against the likes of Gibraltar, Greenland, the Falklands and the Faroe Islands. Not huge competition, but internationally-sanctioned football competition.

Nuclear weapons

Certainly the Hebrideans don’t want any nukes on their isles, so Tapadh leat but no thank you.

Other cultural stuff that might have changed Frank’s mind

How about a national superhero? The Rev. Donald Caskie, a.k.a. The Tartan Pimpernel, was born in Bowmore on Islay in 1902. As an adult, after preaching about fighting the Nazis for a good half-decade in France, Caskie fled Paris for Marseilles, where he used his position in the clergy to assist up to 2,000 Allied troops escape the Nazi-held country. Caskie ultimately spent the last two years of the war as a P.O.W.

Or consider Niall Campbell, who would hold the title of Hebridean national(?) poet. In 2014, his debut published collection Moontide took the biggest poetry prize in the United Kingdom. Campbell’s award was announced at the Edinburgh international book festival and puts the Hebrideans on the English-language literature map. In Scottish Gaelic, one must make note of Màiri Mhòr nan Òran of the 19th century.

And speaking of Scottish Gaelic, what more effective establisher of borders is there than language? English is still the official language in the Hebrides, but the average Hebridean is over *375 times more likely* to speak fluent Scottish Gaelic than the average mainland Scotsman. Scottish Gaelic isn’t unique to the Hebrides, but it’s spoken in higher proportion there than anywhere else on the planet…

So should- is the Hebrides a country?

Ultimately, we’d have to begrudgingly say “no.” While the bare-minimum standards of having a national beer (or two or three) is met by Hebrideans smashingly, same fairly major hallmarks of true nationalism are missing.

Apparently, the relative lack of national independence would bother a majority of Hebrideans as such. Judging solely by the vote, Hebrideans are loyal and consider those loyalties very seriously. Folks on the islands voted 53.6% “nay” in the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence from the U.K. On the other hand, in the infamous Brexit vote of 2016, Scotland as whole voted “stay” at a whopping 62.0% clip – but just 55.3% of Hebrideans voted pro-EU.

One can’t help but wonder how the results of these earthmoving referenda of the 1990s will affect Hebrideans in the 2020s or whether Millennials and post-Millennials are as aggressively progressive in Hebrides as elsewhere, but for right now the islanders remain at the behest of others. 

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