Sunday 20 July – Come to the Laying of the Foundation Stone for ‘The Auld Acquaintance’

Please come and place a stone on our cairn, at Gretna, this Sunday afternoon, 20th July. There will be music, poetry, face-painting for children, and food for all. If you have a stone, please bring it.  If you don’t have one, there are stones on site. Everyone’s welcome. It’s free. All you have to do is turn up. We are calling the cairn, ‘the Auld Acquaintance’. We are building it, with stones from around the country, to demonstrate that Scots, English, Welsh, and Northern Irish care about each other and are still committed to building things together.

Trying to organise the cairn, has been a glimpse of just how much is involved in any “event” in Britain, from an agricultural show, to the Bampton sports-day. It’s not simply the “the risk management”, planning regulations and the rest. My blackberry packed up by four today – its battery run down by what I think were seventy phone calls in nine hours. But the real work has been done not in emails but by volunteers, working past midnight, on a hundred separate tasks.

Some of it has been artists’ work – Paul has given days of his time to designing and drawing the cairn (modelled on the neolithic structures of Scotland and Cumbria). Steven Allen, one of Cumbria and Britain’s best wallers, has been on site repeatedly, working out how to build a dry-stone inner chamber, fifteen feet in diameter, in the very centre of the cairn. But it’s not all architecture. Steve Chettle called this afternoon from a layby to report on twelve tins of white paint, grass-suppressant and fencing. (He has asked me to ask whether anyone has a spare wheel-barrow – we need four). Lucy called from Burlington Stone, to give us 200 tonnes of Cumbrian slate; Lowther has offered great boulders from near Penrith; Philip is sending 20 tonnes of collapsed dry-stone wall from Naworth; Norman has offered limestone. And it is not just Cumbria. We are getting limestone from Kent, more limestone from Wales, a little red sandstone from Perthshire and a lot of granite from Inverness.  (But none of it seems right yet for Steven’s chamber walls).

How do we pay for the transport for any of the stone? Constance has set up a ‘crowd-funding’ website. Yesterday thirty people made donations online between three pounds and a hundred pounds. The donation site is Last weekend, we were getting stones and support from local dairy farmers. Yesterday, it was soldiers. A Scot has just written in from Saudi Arabia saying, “I propose to bring a stone from my golf club (Royal Mid Surrey) where the remains of James IV are said to be buried in the Priory that was on the site after the Battle of Flodden.” Today, it was historians and writers – Simon Schama, David Starkey, Alain de Botton, and Max Hastings. On Sunday, I am hoping it will be mostly families and children from Cumbria and Scotland.

Then there is the mystery of websites, and social media. Angus is to be found sitting opposite me, as I write, at a kitchen table, gazing at a screen with a video editing program. Tara is pondering hash-tags. Shoshana is checking the emails I am sending out to friends. Every few hours I fire something boldly into the internet. Mostly the tweets sink without trace.

A journalist has just called, desperate to know how many people we are expecting. I have no idea. Does a cairn appeal? Does the issue appeal? I believe people must – as the referendum gets closer – realise that this is the most important decision we have made in three hundred years. There are a dozen reasons to be concerned. I am particularly struck by how our four nations, peacefully combined, and cooperating in a single country, is a miracle. The pressures for disintegration: to break into ever smaller units, arranged around an ever smaller definition of your identity – set against what used to be your fellow countrymen – can seem irresistible. That was the story of much of nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe. That is part of the story of Iraq and Syria today. But in Britain, we have grown from that creative friction between the different nations, their different literatures, histories, politics and characters. It is a country which we, as separate nations, have built together.

But so many are still hanging back from the debate. Some English apparently feel that Scottish independence is too complicated, too political, and nothing to do with them. They are afraid of being seen to ‘tell other people what to do.’ And somewhere – worse than insecurity – lurks indifference. Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland have drifted apart over the last thirty years, in a shocking way. We don’t study each other’s history in schools, we don’t really try to understand each other’s cultures – it sometimes feels as though we are hardly aware each other exist. Even if Scotland does not separate, we need to become reacquainted with each other.

That is the real reason to come and put a stone on the cairn. Amidst all the economic arguments, and political ranting, the cairn is an opportunity for the public – not politicians or celebrities – to show that when our country was under threat, we were prepared to say we cared about each other, that we were determined to continue to build together.  See you on Sunday. And if you can’t make Sunday, come any day in the next two months, stop at Gretna and add a stone to The Auld Acquaintance.

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