‘O WAD some power the giftie gie us/ Tae see oursels as ithers see us!/It wad frae mony a blunder free us/An’ foolish notion.”

Jane McAllister’s moving, illuminating documentary about a campaigning Yes family (the filmmaker’s own) in the two-year run-up to September 18, 2014, takes its title from one phrase out of Robert Burns’s famous verse.

The subtlety of To See Ourselves is that the rest of Burns’s lines are only partly implied. This isn’t the kind of forensic, third-person account of the strengths and weaknesses of the Yes campaign that many commentators have called for. But it contains many truths and lessons nevertheless.

And that’s because McAllister’s “gift and power” is her integrity as a documentary maker. Her camera sees what it sees – and what it most often sees is how crooked the timber of humanity is.

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This can mean how difficult it is to polish us up politically, one way or another. But also, it suggests how our politics can often come from deep grooves within us; the commitments we barely know we’ve already made.

All of this is refracted through the big frame of Jane’s dad, Fraser, the “Father Courage” of the film. On one level, this is a family drama; a heavily pregnant film-making daughter (giving birth on September 19, 2014) turning the camera on her father and his world, wondering what really drives his indefatigable activism.

Fraser fills the car and the house with posters, prints “Aye, have a dream” from his own printer, methodically stickers the Yes shop in Musselburgh High Street, and hurls himself into every manner of weather to gladhand his fellow Musselburghers. Mum’s patience is fraying throughout: “The whole summer is ruined ... I‘ll be waving whatever flag with great gusto on the 19th.”

This documentary is such a nuanced, sensitive disentanglement of the roots of someone’s activism. Fraser’s vision for a better Scotland starts – as it does for many of us – in a complex place.

He tells his daughter of arbitrary physical punishment meted out to him by his handsy father. That has made him sensitive to what he calls the “unnatural” nature of violence, and how structurally driven its causes are.

But Fraser also describes an evangelistic upbringing in the Church of Scotland, which gave him a “moral code”, as well as a “social ease”.

By this, he means that “professors and bus conductors” would rub along together, conducting services “in the back courts of schemes or at the side of the road, with speakers who took questions … It made you a wee bit ready [for Yes]”.

Fraser was manifestly a groovy countercultural type at one point. He starts his 40 years as a librarian (after failed attempts at journalism) by reading science fiction in Springburn Library. Some staffer swoops down on him and offers him a job interview that afternoon, “if he can lose all the hippie gear” (he was made redundant in 2012).

Fraser happily calls out “the capitalist class speaking with one voice”, admits the optimism of the Yes campaign approaches “Nirvana”, and often cuts short his political tirades when caught by natural beauty: “Can you smell that? The fragrance is only released at night time.”


Fraser, in short, is one of those idealistic weavers and bridge-builders that every community needs. Even as an SNP councillor, enduring “God Save the Queen” and being lectured by silly-hatted traditionalists, he is gracious and solicitous.

One might recommend to any campaign organisation that they should find such intuitive connectors in their community, and recruit them to the cause.

But precisely when it contrasts Fraser’s radiant personality against those he’s trying to convert, To See Ourselves also shows up the limits of the conversational route to independence. Time after time, we see Fraser engaging with people who have already been “primed and framed”, as the political advisors put it, to perfection. The documentary shows how Better Together’s “Project Fear” had already managed to get to the middle third of “persuadables”. People’s fears include the loss of the pound, the NHS (the opening sequence is harrowing, a mum ranting with despair about her disabled child losing care), their ties with family in the south, becoming like Greece as a separate Scotland “doesn’t meet the EU standards” as one yellow-jacketed workie puts it.

Fraser is not well-equipped to respond with “Yes facts” that dislodge the “No facts” which have been emotionally cemented in place.

But in a British-establishment mediasphere “operating at full propaganda strength”, as the renegade former BBC journalist Paul Mason once said, who was equipped? The world of fear was all-enveloping.

There is a chilling sequence where an STV News at Six clip appears on the McAllister’s wee telly. It bombastically reports the 52% for Yes poll and immediately links it to falls in the pound and the stock market.

The documentary quotes Better Together’s Blair McDougall, after the event of the No victory: “Negative tactics work ... We would have struggled to win without scaremongering.”

Overall, this documentary leaves me in a rich quandary about paths to independence (which is partly its intention).

If big campaign narratives about fear and insecurity really are decisive, then it’s hard to see what else indy can aspire to – other than being a more reliable source of security and consolation for a deeply anxious population.

A “competent” administration, making the most of Westminster’s instability revealed by Brexit, Covid and the cost of living crisis, aiming at a “Europe” (EU or EFTA) as a preferable “Union”, should have been well ahead for a while.

But here we are, with incumbent leaders slipping up on their own unattended messes. Hoisted on the petard of a camper van – that’s pretty Scottish. I can imagine Fraser’s bear-like disappointment.

Yet as the honest camera eye of To See Ourselves shows, there will be no automatic redemption of the top-down by the bottom-up.

There’s much local “tradition” and “conviviality” (as Fraser puts it) in Musselburgh and other such “toons”. But is clinging to it a way of cotton-wooling communities from massive changes coming their way?

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Fraser often laments the disuse and closure of various public buildings, with his usual eloquence. But I found myself asking heretical questions like why hasn’t the local Yes group occupied these places, and started to put them to good (or even emancipatory) use, the mood of local “cooncillors” be damned? Ask for forgiveness not permission?

One voice in the documentary bemoans that “canvassing just doesn’t work” for the independence cause.

But clearly, waiting for an alignment of stars at the macro level isn’t exactly working either.

I wonder if that’s “the blunder” and “foolish notion” that we need to be freed from.

Fraser untiringly deals with those he worries “may not be worthy” of independence. But what kind of independence are we talking about here?

A wise, long-term-minded Scottish government would be concerned with letting a lot more self-determination happen at the community and local levels – where people feel that the power to steer the essential structures of their lives is in their hands.

This needn’t be some grim, duteous routine of participation – Fraser, his crew and their various pranks show how meaningful, fun and even beautiful an indy-orientated life could be.

But 21st-century citizens, Scots or not, need to be internally and collectively strengthened against the mongers of fear, anger, sadness and despair.

Let big-I independence be a nurturer for the kindly social anarchism that lurks beneath the surface of this documentary.

This may put the necessary wind in the sails of bigger ships.

But it is hard to imagine some hard deadline for that slow, irreversible civic development.

In the meantime, you should support – then see, then discuss – this vital and stimulating documentary.

And contribute to the Kickstarter fund that will get To See Ourselves distributed and shown throughout the country.

The Kickstarter page for Jane McAllister’s documentary To See Ourselves can be found online at www.kickstarter.com/projects/toseeourselves/to-see-ourselves