BANNOCKBURN, Scotland — With an axe-wielding King Robert the Bruce spurring on his scarlet-and-gold draped steed in another charge to victory over the English invaders, the re-enactment of the Battle of Bannockburn was always going to stir Scottish hearts.
However, this year there was a special buzz surrounding the medieval mayhem.
Not only did last month’s event mark 700 years since the battle secured Scotland's independence back in 1314.
It also came just over two months before Scots will have another chance to break free from London's rule by taking part in a September referendum that will ask whether Scotland should become an independent country by leaving the United Kingdom.
For many enjoying a day out on the battlefield, that was a no-brainer.
"We’re two separate nations, as this battle 700 years ago came to define," says Andrew Smith, part of a group decked out in kilts and sporran pouches debating independence over a pre-reenactment pint of beer.
"It will make us a better nation, it will be a fairer society for us all," added his son, also named Andrew, who sports the Scots's rampant lion crest tattooed on his calf with the slogan "our day will come."
"Why would you want to let another nation rule you?” chipped in his brother Barry. “It's stupid."
"Freedom!" bellowed a passerby, his face painted Braveheart-style in the blue and white of the Scottish flag.
With the referendum debate gathering pace, organizers of the anniversary of Scotland's iconic victory at Bannockburn were keen to avoid any overt political connotations to the commemorations.
But there was little chance the weekend celebration of Scottish culture — complete with pipe bands, traditional dancing, a gathering of tartan-clad clan members from emigrant communities around the world and much devouring of Angus beef and clootie dumplings — wouldn’t raise patriotic fervor.
Still, not everyone among the crowd of 20,000 gathered to watch the mock battle was willing to ditch Britain. On a lane curving past the Bannockburn Bowls Club, brothers Jack and Archie MacDonald were doggedly attempting to hand out "Delighted to be United" bumper stickers.
"I love being Scottish, I'm wearing my kilt, I love haggis," says Jack, his T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a Scot waving Britain's Union Jack flag. "I'm a Scot born and bred, brought up in the Highlands ... and I don't think that believing we're better off under the union makes me less Scottish."
Reactions to the MacDonalds' pro-union campaigning alternated between laughter, anger and attempts to convert them to the separatist cause. Their efforts weren’t helped by the brothers' decidedly upper-crust English accents: Both were educated at a posh private school south of the border in England.
For many pro-independence Scots, such accents are associated with a remote English conservative elite they’ve long blamed for imposing unwelcome policies on Scotland.
Of the 59 lawmakers Scots voted into the British parliament, just one is from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party.
Although Scotland has had many powers devolved to its own government together with a parliament based in Edinburgh since the 1990s, many Scots blame a succession of British administrations for forcing cuts to education, health and welfare spending.
In a near-derelict shopping mall in Edinburgh's tough Muirhouse neighborhood, customer John Dunlop said he’s “sick of the Tories basically, sick of the cuts."
"We've never ever voted Tory in Scotland, so why should we have a Tory government? That's really pushed me toward my vote, toward a ‘Yes.’"
Class is certainly playing a part in the campaign.
Support for independence is highest among small-business owners, supervisors, and skilled and unskilled workers, and lowest among higher managers and large employers, according to a study published last month by Britain's Economic and Social Research Council.
In the industrial city of Livingstone, a political meeting with two Scottish government ministers in late June was dominated by concerns about an independent Scotland's ability to maintain health and welfare services and preserve an education system — which offers free university teaching in contrast to the rest of the UK.
"We want to do something better," said Christine Hope, who attended the meeting with her family. "We're one of the richest countries in the world, yet we've got food banks and I don't want that for my children or my grandchildren. I think Scotland can do better."
Although such sentiment has helped boost the secessionist vote, less than three months to go before the referendum, polls show the “No” campaign maintains a significant lead.
An average of six polls published in June showed 49 percent wanted to stay in the UK, compared to 37 percent planning to vote for independence, with 14 percent still undecided.
Campaigning under the slogan "Better Together," opponents of independence have highlighted uncertainty over the economic impact of a split.
The British government has warned Scotland may no longer be able to use the pound currency or enjoy unrestricted trade over the border as Scotland's nationalist leader, First Minister Alex Salmond, has assured Scots their country will continue doing.
Anti-independence campaigners contest nationalist claims that gaining control over Scotland's North Sea oil and gas resources will guarantee prosperity for generations ahead. Instead they point to the dangers of having 20 percent of the national economy dependent on volatile oil prices.
Unionists also caution that independence will cost thousands of jobs in the defense sector, which depends on contracts with Britain's armed forces.
"I'm a proud Scot, but I'm one of those people who believes that there shouldn’t be barriers in the world basically, and putting a barrier between us and England, our neighbor, to me seems pointless," says Jim Hume, a Liberal Democrat Party member of the Scottish parliament.
"The main decisions are already made in Scotland on education, health, transport, agriculture ... but you have the benefits of being in a bigger economy," he said while campaigning at an agricultural fair amid the rolling farmland of East Lothian, where many visitors were sporting "No" badges.
The pro-independence camp dismisses such concerns as scaremongering.
"It's a difference between project hope and project fear," says Kenny MacAskill, justice secretary in the Scottish government.
"They’ve been pouring out scorn, derision, talking Scotland down, that we’re too wee, too poor, too stupid," he said in an interview. "That’s not being bought by the people of Scotland."
Addressing the meeting in Livingstone, MacAskill said Scotland would be a strong member of the European Union and NATO. He made much of Norway's use of the oil and gas on its side of the North Sea to build up the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund, worth $878 billion.
"We’re taking responsibility for our own land to make sure that we decide whether we live at peace or go to war, whether we tax the rich or allow the price to be paid by the poor," he said. "We will decide our own destiny. We will take the chance to make the country that we know Scotland can be."
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"Yes" campaigners are hoping that the fact that the Sept. 18 referendum could provide a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to restore Scotland's independent nationhood will sway undecided voters and provide a late surge in favor of a split.
For a country proud of a heritage that was largely defined by resistance to the Auld Enemy to the south for centuries, history will weigh heavy during the vote.
"With any nation, it's always important to remember your history," said Brian McCutcheon, the chain-mail attired actor playing King Robert in the Bannockburn re-enactment.” If you don't know where you came from, then you don't know where you're going."
"Obviously the Bruce would be what you might call a ‘Yes’ man," he added. “The difference is that today he’d be able to use his pencil rather than his axe, which would be a whole lot easier."