Two days after she was appointed by the Queen, the UK’s new prime minister Theresa May flew to Edinburgh. It was a bold gesture that reaffirmed her call to honor the “precious, precious bond” between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after the EU referendum had put into question the future of their union. Scotland was especially high on May’s agenda: while 53% of England backed leaving the EU, the Scottish voted by 62% to remain, reviving the idea of the country’s independence two years after a failed campaign. British photographer Rob Stothard had documented part of that campaign, in 2014, in the villages near the Anglo-Scottish border. Far from Downing Street and Bute House, the Parliaments and the motorcades, he spent that summer meeting and photographing those who would be most affected by Scotland’s secession. Now that it might actually happen, we revisit his project “Borderlands.”
Roads & Kingdoms: This is one of the first projects you shot at home, in the UK. How did it feel after years of work abroad?
Rob Stothard: I really like working at home, I think it’s the place you can do the best work. It’s the place you know more than anywhere and you can bring a lot more personality to it. I think one of the reasons why I made that work in Scotland was seeing people really get involved in politics, which I hadn’t seen in southern England. A lot of people think Westminster’s a ways away. It’s been the seat of power for Scotland and England for over 400 years, and imagine having a local politician who has to be in London during the week and who has to fly back in to check on the people he’s meant to be representing. It’s really not a surprise to me that people feel very isolated.
Residents of Selkirk, Scotland gather for the Common Riding, an annual equestrian festival celebrated in towns throughout the Borders region. Selkirk’s version honors the lone survivor of the 80 local men who followed King James IV into the Battle of Flodden against the English army in 1513.
R&K: Why did you specifically want to document these villages?
Stothard: I wanted to do something about the referendum on Scottish independence, but if you’re working in Westminster, it ends up being the only way you can see politics. In the UK, the photos you see of your political party all come out of London. It’s quite controlled, and it’s quite repetitive. This person walks out of a door, or this person stands in front of a lectern, and you try to chase people around the streets so you can get something different now and again. I was trying to think of a way to tell the story of Scottish independence without having to go stand outside the Parliament. I thought about the parts of the country that would be most likely to vote one way or the other. I didn’t have a clue, there wasn’t any polling out at that time, but I thought the areas around the borders would be where the vote could be won or lost.
R&K: What did you expect to find in these border towns?
Stothard: I have always been interested in borders and nation-states, and the identity that comes with them. I guess that’s what drew me to that area. It’s in these regions that day-to-day life can be more tangibly affected by the political decisions. But when it comes to this story, in my opinion, it was about people who were unhappy with the status quo. I don’t really think it was all that much about nationalism. There is this sense that England controls the way the entire United Kingdom goes. During the Brexit referendum, interestingly, all of Scotland voted to remain in Europe, but almost all of the areas in the north of England voted to leave. To me, that’s a clear sign that the people of Scotland want to have another chance to vote for independence.