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As Scotland votes on independence, Fresno recalls cultural heritage

The Tehachapi Mountain Pipes & Drums community bagpipe band parades through the row of Scottish clan tents during the 2014 Fresno Highland Gathering and Games at Kearney Park on Saturday. Paul Schlesinger / The Collegian

The Tehachapi Mountain Pipes & Drums community bagpipe band parades through the row of Scottish clan tents during the 2014 Fresno Highland Gathering and Games at Kearney Park on Saturday. Paul Schlesinger / The Collegian

Scotland will remain in the United Kingdom after 55.3 percent of the population voted “no” to Thursday’s secession referendum choosing not to sever their 307-year union with England.

Two days later, Fresno played host to the 37th annual Scottish Highland Gathering and Games.

The event, which celebrates Scottish culture, blanketed Kearny Park in plaid on Saturday as hundreds of often-kilt-clad festival goers gathered for a day of competition and entertainment.

The annual event offers a time for people from across California to come together and enjoy Scottish music, food, history and, perhaps most importantly, compete in cultural games.

The games, which are derived from those played for centuries in Scotland, test participants’ brawn. Examples include the iconic caber toss, where people are required to flip a 20-foot-long log, and the Scottish hammer throw.

Despite the divisiveness of the campaign for independence, for the attendees – many of whom trace their ancestry back to Scotland – the festival went on mostly apolitically, as it has for years.

Robert Curington, an event organizer and steward of The Scottish Society of Central California, said he was so busy planning the event he didn’t monitor the vote. Nonetheless, Curington, who is of both Scottish and English descent, said he was happy with the results.

“For myself personally, I’m glad it failed,” he said. “We’ve done a pretty good job together as a combined nation for 300 years. It would just create a big problem for everybody.”

Opinions in Scotland were not quite as casual however, and, although unity was preserved, the fact that nearly half of the country voted for secession points to a deep-rooted division within the United Kingdom.

“What is clear is that this vote, yes or no, is the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom as we know it,” said Dr. Richard Whiteman, a European politics expert at the University of Kent in England.

Politicians from the south, led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, originally sensed that independence was a sure-fire loser. Experts believed that Cameron thought the vote would be a way for rebels to voice dissatisfaction, but that the loss would put the notion of independence to bed, perhaps for generations.

As polls came in showing the “yes” campaign gaining ground – and occasionally even ahead – those in power in the U.K.’s parliament found themselves in a political bind, offering sweeping new powers for Scotland to try and get them to stay. Now, successful in their efforts, they are faced with putting those promises into action.

“They cannot simply not deliver on such promises,” said Iain Begg, a U.K. policy expert at London’s Chatham House think tank. “They’d be looking at open revolution in the streets. This election is the beginning of British federalism.”

The election, which was the first time Scottish citizens had ever voted on their centuries-old union with England, was also unique for another reason – the astounding voter turnout.

Turnout for the referendum was 84.5 percent, breaking all turnout records for elections held in the United Kingdom since 1918, when every adult was given voting rights. Some districts even reported turnout above 90 percent.

“This election has seen a lot of formerly disaffected potential voters get very active in the political process,” said Dr. Phillip Habel, a political scientist with the University of Glasgow in Scotland. “Whatever the outcome, this is an encouraging aspect to the vote: The Scottish people, and almost all of them, will be involved in deciding their future.

Matthew Schofield of the McClatchy Foreign Staff contributed to this report.