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Scots are soon to vote on independence. This week, in the first of two articles examining the implications of the ballot for the two countries, a writer steeped in the cultural and linguistic links between Scotland and England argues that they are indivisible
Growing up in Carlisle, we could never escape the border. Once the signs had welcomed you to “The Great Border City”, the main thoroughfares, Scotch Street and English Street, offered shops called “Border Carpets”, arcades by the name of “Talk of the Border” and vans advising you to “Choose Tish Graham for Plumbing Services on both sides”.
My brother’s bedroom window was even in on the act. Look out of it to the left and Skiddaw rose from the Lakeland fells; to the right, Criffel lifting from the Scottish Southern Uplands. In between lay the Solway Firth, a vast, shifting, quicksand frontier patrolled by the skeins of geese and gulls which, heedless of human divisions, constantly drifted over our roofs to and from their feeding grounds.
Yes, the border was always there. But it was more in the line of a garden fence than the kind of vexed fortification we’d heard of in places like Berlin or Northern Ireland. People on both sides supported Carlisle United, watched Border TV and ate Scotch pies.
If we wanted a reminder of the old bloody broadsword which gouged out the original line, then we needed look no further than the battlefields strewing the surrounding countryside, and our own castle with its licking stone worn by the tongues of captured Jacobite highlanders dying of thirst. Then there was our literature, the Border ballads, a wonderful set of sagas following the Reiver families, gangsters and poets, who hid out in the so- called debatable land, an area north of Carlisle that, like the Reivers themselves, was neither England nor Scotland. Proof of old conflict was also found in the original fortified boundary: the course of Hadrian’s Wall ran through our living room. Or so I obstinately believed, though I never found a single legionary’s gladius.
For us the border was a slice of luck. It meant getting Match of the Day twice, with BBC Scotland’s Scotsport providing wonderfully named teams like Hibernian, Glasgow Celtic and Hamilton Academicals. It meant Jimmy Shand waltzes on Radio Scotland’s Take the Floor. It meant standing on the railway sidings and watching the orange Strathclyde Transport trains flash exotically among the blue British Rail.
Now that the vote for independence is drawing seriously near, I feel an ache for our old, benign, blessedly redundant border. The last thing the world wants is another division. Surely what we have is good, even a miracle given the world’s propensity to strife and warfare – two nations, one country. Is the border really set to become live again?
Are all my arguments for unity selfish? Maybe. Perhaps most urgently I worry where Britain will be left politically without Scotland – doomed to a permanent Tory/Ukip agenda? Scotland might be free to bring into political reality the famous egalitarian vision of Rabbie Burns, “a man’s a man for a’ that”, but won’t the remaining health services continue to be mutilated by privatisation, our universities stocked only by students whose parents command fortunes, and our elderly cheated by rising prescription charges and local service cuts?
Less selfishly, isn’t it true that what we share is greater than what divides? In fact, couldn’t it be argued that northern England and Wales have as much in common with the Scots as they do with the Home Counties? Not only is there the shared trauma of the first Industrial Revolution, but in northern England, there’s the language. Scots and northern English are basically the same language, sharing the parent of Anglo-Saxon Anglian. Just read the York Mystery Plays and you will see for yourself. In Carlisle, we commonly used “lallans” (lowland Scots) words and phrases like “donnert” (stupid), “gan radgie” (go mad) and “deeks the gadgie” (look at the man). Even where we live now in North Yorkshire “gripes” are used to fork hay; and we regularly hear “bairn” and “Aye, I ken”. Maps have even longer memories. Riding my bike around here, I’m always challenged by the particularly steep Whinny Bank. According to my Scots dictionary, “Whinny: a word confined to Scotland, an area overgrown with gorse or furze.”
The language question really is persuasive. And it works for the whole of Britain. Two rivers flow into the Solway Firth, the Esk from Scotland, the Eden from England. Esk and Eden are actually the same Celtic word, just worn differently by the tongues of time. As is the River Ouse (York and Bedfordshire), Devon’s Exe, and the Welsh Usk. This ancient word appears in Gaelic as “usque”, as in “usquabae”, water of life – whisky. It was this revelation of shared rivers which made Seamus Heaney feel able to translate the “English” classic Beowulf. Talking of a “Celto British Land”, he recognised for the first time a shared family bone structure between the lands of the British Isles.
In many ways, the current border was just expediency. Other borders can stake their claim: for instance the Tees-Exe Line, a boundary running on a steep diagonal from the mouth of the River Tees to that of Devon’s Exe. This line divides Britain climatically, geologically and agriculturally. On one side, wet, predominantly upland fields of sheep and cattle; to the other, the drier, more affluent corn lands. Then there’s the Severn-Wash Line, which runs from the River Severn to the Lincolnshire Wash. This divides Britain according to its experience of industrialisation, which is surely of the utmost relevance. The border might even be formed by the Viking Line. This stretches from London to Chester. To the south, the Vikings didn’t settle; to the north the Danes brought their laws and the Norwegians their genes, even as far as the Hebrides and Shetland.
Ancestry.com provides more reasons for unity. My Tulloch forebears migrated from the Highland Gàidhealtachd to the Shetland Islands before moving to northern England in the nineteenth century. It’s hard to exactly quantify the number of other Scots who immigrated to England (ditto Irish) but the fact that there are more MacDonalds (and O’Reillys) now living south of the border than ever lived in the Highlands (or Ireland) is surely relevant. Haven’t we become too mixed up to separate? And doesn’t current immigration from Europe and former colonies make the divisions less important anyway?
To any Scot reading this I say, can’t we keep our miracle alive – our two nations in one country, or if you prefer, one nation, two countries? All borders are wounds. Many are freshly bleeding, as in Ukraine. Some, such as those in Palestine/Israel, are amputations that will fester for years. Aren’t we lucky to live within a border that has faded to a scar?
If on 18 September people vote to stay with the union, then let’s have a party. In fact, why not turn that day into an anniversary to be celebrated every year throughout Britain? And while we’re at it, let’s give the United Kingdom a patron saint. I nominate St Aidan. Born of Northern Irish descent, he lived his early life on Iona and spent his maturity on Lindisfarne, being venerated as far south as Glastonbury. Aidan is famous for his commitment to freeing slaves, education for all and the redistribution of wealth: truly the best of British.
Jonathan Tulloch is a writer and a naturalist.