Of Borders and Nations

Growing up with a geographer as a mother, there were always maps, globes, and atlases around our house. It allowed me to appreciate the incredible vastness of the world but also made me aware of the boundaries that exist: the physical boundaries of water and land, as well as the political boundaries of nations and states.

I can recall flipping through an atlas on our coffee table as a kid, fascinated by the difference between the “physical maps” and “political maps.” I would look at the gradations and colours of the physical maps, representing mountains, rivers, and other geographic formations, and then compare it to the more geometric and flat look of the political maps. How different these perspectives were, yet they were each representations of the same world.

However, this world is not always the ‘same’.

All it takes is a map from a different year and you will notice changes. Different borders, different names, new states, provinces, and even countries.

 Jennifer Wicks describes borders as “those imagined and shifting boundaries that constitute our identities through interactions with people, circumstances, and symbolic resources and to physical, geographical divides” (140).

Borders are often in flux, they may be porous, and they have a significant impact on both personal and collective experiences of identity.

What do borders say about us? And what do we say about borders?

When I was studying in the UK, I would often say I was from Canada before I said I was from Newfoundland. This was not because I identify more as a Canadian than as a Newfoundlander, but because any mention of the latter often brought about blank stares. And I think that is understandable. It is a relatively small province in Canada and I don’t think it is fair to assume that everybody has heard of it.

In fact, I am more surprised when somebody outside of Canada has actually heard of Newfoundland than when they haven’t.

One conversation about this stands out in particular. I was in an anthropology class in Manchester, when one of my fellow classmates asked me where I was from. This time, I actually said I was from Newfoundland, rather than just Canada.

To this, she said, “So as a Newfoundlander, do you feel you have a different relationship to Canada than other Canadians do?”

With this, I was so taken aback that: 1. She had heard of Newfoundland, and 2. She knew enough about it to ask a question that no other non-Newfoundlander has ever asked me.

“Yes, actually I do! It is so interesting that you ask …”, I replied.

We carried on talking about Newfoundland confederation, and how becoming a Canadian province must have greatly impacted the experience of identity and nationalism for Newfoundlanders, even to this day.

I think part of what made this conversation particularly interesting was that my classmate was Scottish. It also took place only a few months before the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Perhaps being from Scotland, which has had a turbulent history with the rest of the United Kingdom, is part of what made my classmate privy to the nationalist tendencies of Newfoundland.

Discourse on Scottish independence was quite dominant both in the streets and in the media in the months leading up to the referendum. Voters were to answer “Yes” or “No” to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

While I was living in England, most of the conversations I noticed seemed to centre on the “No” side of the campaign.

It wasn’t until I actually visited Scotland that I began to fully grasp the depth of the debate, and how divided the country really was.

Taking a road trip around Scotland in the weeks leading up to the referendum, I saw countless signs saying either “Yes” or “No.” They were on highways, houses, billboards, shop windows, and nearly anywhere else you could imagine a sign or a sticker.


A “Yes” sticker in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. September 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler


A Harry Potter sticker representing an allegiance to the UK, found in Edinburgh. September 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler 

At one point, while touring the Isle of Lewis, I noticed a lamppost with what I thought was a clever juxtaposition of these signs. As I stopped to take a picture, a car drove by and I heard a thick Scottish accent jokingly yell out: “YES NO YES NO.” I embarrassingly felt like the tourist I was, capitalizing on the politics of the place, presumably for ‘likes’ on Instagram (in retrospect, they did not receive very many likes!) I was just a traveler passing through, but for those actually living in Scotland, these signs represented the political tension of a country on the cusp of change; a change that could dramatically influence their collective and individual futures.


The picture I was heckled for taking in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. September 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

A lot of the people I encountered during my travels were vehemently voting “Yes” for Scottish independence. Some would say, “How does Buckingham Palace know what is best for us all the way up here?”


“Yes” campaign site, Stornoway. September 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

I will admit, I felt a hint of change in the air while I was in Scotland. The dynamism of the “Yes” campaigners provided a sense of promise for the future, and their passion made it seem like that change was indeed possible.


Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. September 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler


“Yes” flag outside a home on the Isle of Lewis. September 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

At the same time, there were people who answered “No” to the big question. One particular woman, in a city near the border between Scotland and England cited the issue of border crossing. For people like her that commute to England for work, Scottish independence would likely have a negative impact on her employment mobility.


“Yes” and “No” signs together in Stornoway. September 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

One day after my trip around Scotland, I was back “home” in Manchester, and the Scots were set to vote for their future.

The result ended up being “No,” but the dialogue sparked by this event made me think more and more about the incredible significance of borders and nations. Nothing about this vote would change the physical characteristics of Great Britain as an island, but the experience of this geographical place would be greatly impacted.


Taking the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway. September 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler

The political division of a land changes more than the lines on a map – ultimately, and most importantly, it changes the lives of the people who inhabit it.

While votes and maps can tell us valuable information, they can only tell us so much. It is the stories of the people who make such things possible, one way or another, which can really help us understand the consequences of the borders we create in this world.


Wicks, Jennifer. “Navigating Borders: Language and Culture – Inside and Outside.” Despite This Loss: Essays on Culture, Memory and Identity in Newfoundland and Labrador, edited by Ursula A. Kelly and Elizabeth Yeoman, ISER Books, 2010, pp. 137-156.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2016


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