Tuesday, 10 July 2018

More in common across the Border

If you haven't already come across it, I do recommend 'The Marches' by Rory Stewart, which I finished shortly before crossing the Border between Scotland and England. Indeed, it is one of those few books which has been so absorbing that I will read it again.

The Marches is a fascinating account of Stewart's 600 mile walk from the south to the north of this 'Middleland', including along Hadrian's Wall. Its Roman beginnings provide historical perspective. It is also a moving portrayal of Stewart's relationship with his father. Both had been military men, but from different times and traditions. Stewart's father was a proud supporter of Britain's colonial past. Stewart himself is not.

The Wall, that dividing line across Britain, was of course a military installation for the supreme colonial power of the time, Rome. Stewart considers the Wall in the context of his own experience of dividing lines in Afghanistan, where he used to serve as commanding officer and across which he also walked and wrote about in The Places In Between.

As Stewart states, the Wall was NOT a border between England and Scotland, though it is commonly described as such. There could be no such purpose to its construction, for, at the time it was built, those countries did not exist. In fact, there were no racial, cultural or national differences between the people living to the north of the Wall and those to the south. The Wall cut indiscriminately through tribal lands and their inhabitants, leaving them forever separated from members of their families, communal meeting places and holy sites. Stewart helps us see the Borders landscape through the eyes of those tribesmen, their view suddenly and forever constrained by this blank edifice, like those of the Berliners of fifty years ago or modern Palestinians and Mexicans. Too often, he implies, we have adopted the Romans' perspective because of our admiration for their impressive engineering skills. Rarely do we consider the impact of their actions on the indigenous population.

Roman investment in the Wall was huge, with many forts to be built, maintained and manned by shivering Spaniards and other Provincial troops. All of them needed to be provisioned and their leaders kept in the style not necessarily to which they were accustomed, but comfortable enough. Several centuries later, the British did the same in Afghanistan, India and south-east Asia, as well as many of the countries in Africa and the Middle East.

In fact, the Border between Scotland and England was not firmly fixed until relatively recently, after the Act of Union in 1707. In the 7th century, the Kingdom of Northumbria extended as far north as the Firth of Forth, one of the reasons why the great abbeys and their lands and sites of pilgrimage, even the little priory of Abercorn just outside Edinburgh, were part of the Pictish Northumbrian Church and managed by the Bishops of Lindisfarne or Hexham. There was no Scotland then, or England.

Stewart's contention is that borders create differences, just as the Wall created differences, between people, between families, between communities, between societies. Borders rarely mark differences which are already there. He writes interestingly about the great Borders families. Allegiances were far more to local lords than to any monarch far away in Edinburgh or London. The allegiances of the Afghan tribesmen encountered by Stewart in his travels, were similarly local rather than national, separated as clans were by deep valleys and high mountains, and dependent on the protection of the nearest warlord.

That does not mean of course, that the skirmishes and attacks across the the England/Scotland border were not serious. They were deadly serious. However, they did not always take place because of some great national purpose. They were as likely to happen within the cross-border cultural tradition of cattle raiding, common still among pastoralists in northern Uganda, Kenya, Mali or Nigeria. The Borderlands were often perceived as almost ungovernable by the established political powers. The King of Scotland was no more able to control the Border barons than the King of England, despite the fact that both monarchs might call on them in time of military need. Sometimes a great family like the Douglases - or even a minor family like Rory Stewart's - would fight on one side and sometimes on the other, depending on marriage ties or promised rewards. National armies might sweep across the indeterminate dividing line, but after Flodden and the last death in battle of a ruling monarch, the Scottish King James IV, it was clearly a risky business. Anyway both English and Scottish monarchs had enough problems controlling their own nobles.

Border raids eventually petered out after the Act of Union. After all, what was the point? England and Scotland were one kingdom now, and, as the eighteenth century progressed, an increasingly prosperous one. That prosperity was largely associated with joint ventures by the two united countries. Those joint ventures principally consisted of raiding other people's countries for slaves, occupying and colonising their land and pillaging their resources to feed the ravenous maws of the British Empire. Not that much different from the Romans.

Divisions have often been as much internal and social as military and national. Scots fought on both sides during the Battle of Culloden. It is doubtful whether the population of Lowland Scotland wept for the destruction of the Highland clans. Much social transformation in both countries came about during peacetime as the result of agricultural and industrial factors, not armed conflict. The Enclosures in England and Scotland's Highland Clearances were caused by evictions and confiscations by local landowners. In both countries, they resulted in depopulation, emigration and a drift towards industrial cities like Manchester and Glasgow.  Landscapes were changed forever. It is difficult nowadays to imagine the bare moorlands of Cornwall or the north of England as the cultivated areas they used to be, or to recall the time when the Highland straths were populated by townships on what is now only 'empty' land, ruined crofts and shooting estates. English and Scots working people sometimes have more in common than they realise.

So, what do I, an English woman who has lived in Scotland for 47 years, feel about relationships between the two peoples?

Firstly, I don't feel that there are any significant differences between ordinary Scots and English people. I have friends and family on both sides of the Border. Speaking to English friends is little different from speaking to Scottish friends, apart from the accents. After all, in any community, we tend to mix with those who share our outlook and views on life. Cultural differences, literature, music, Mystery plays, Highland dancing and the Notting Hill Carnival enrich rather than divide. Caithness compared with Lanarkshire, Teesside compared with Suffolk: individual regions may be as different from each other as any national differences between England and Scotland. Learning about other areas is one of the benefits of living in a unified yet diverse country.

I do wonder, however, how much learning actually happens. There are still too many inhabitants of Scotland who think that 'England' is London's Oxford Street and who have never penetrated beyond it to meet some of the 52 million English people who live outside the capital. Interestingly, I have never met an English person who does not admire Scotland, even if their admiration may be a bit 'shortbread' and 'tartan'. When I say I live in Scotland, English acquaintances always say how lucky I am. I haven't come across that reaction, I have to admit, in reverse.

That doesn't mean that life is always difficult as an English person in Scotland. Most of the time, you don't even think about it. However, prejudice, when it shows, can take one's breath away. My first experience of it was shocking, personal and quite unexpected. It was also a very long time ago, when I had already lived in Aberdeen for two years. As a student at both university and training college, I had experienced no unpleasantness at all, which is hardly surprising. Universities are generally open institutions, drawing their staff from many backgrounds and countries.

When I got my first teaching job, however, it took only a week or so for departmental colleagues to protest to the headteacher about my appointment, demanding that I receive a lower salary than them as I 'only' had a degree from an English university. Fortunately, the headteacher gave them short shrift, though the teachers concerned took some pleasure in boasting about their complaint to me afterwards.

It was ignorance, of course. They had no experience beyond the Aberdeen area and their own education system, and no idea what study at an English university involved. Fifty years ago, entry to Scottish universities was by examination grades alone and often a year earlier than in England. English universities, in comparison, were very selective. Scottish and English education systems were different then, and remain different now. I am not going to go into this, but, believe me, there are benefits and drawbacks to both.

While ignorance is to be regretted, vindictiveness based on ignorance is unacceptable. If the Vice Chancellor of Durham University had ever found out the contempt with which a degree from that university was regarded in Scotland, he would have been appalled.The humiliation was hard for me to bear.

That bias against employing English teachers in Scottish schools persisted for many years, yet all that was required was for someone official to work out equivalencies among qualifications. Even at times of shortage, English friends, including experienced and qualified science and maths teachers, some of them ex-heads of department, were unable to get jobs in Scottish schools, in fact, were not allowed to be appointed. At one time, four such science and maths teachers in the school where I worked were restricted to operating as technical assistants while the classes which they could have taught were supervised by history and French teachers. Yes, some English teachers like me made it through, but it was usually difficult and we didn't always feel welcome. I have never noticed any differences in capability between teachers educated and trained in England and those who went through equivalent processes in Scotland. Teachers on both sides of the Border have more in common in their commitment to children, than any superficial differences originating in the location of their training institutions.

You might think that after that unpromising start, I would be desperate to return to England. Well, to be honest, I was a bit unhappy to begin with. However, on the whole, I have been quite content to remain here in Scotland. In the past, unsure of my welcome, I sometimes used to pass myself off as Welsh, courtesy of my paternal grandfather. I wouldn't bother about that now. Attitudes towards the English can vary depending on where in Scotland one lives. I never experienced any disparaging comments at all when I worked in the Highlands and Islands and life here in the south-east of Scotland is mostly event free. Unpleasant incidents tend to be restricted to encounters with people I don't know, usually on public transport. I have to stress however, that while they are still infrequent they tend to be upsetting because of their unpredictability. I have had fists shaken in my face, and once had to be escorted off the Glasgow train at Waverley Station by an older man who placed himself between me and the young men harassing me.

What does bother me, though, is that on the very rare occasions when I have recounted such incidents to Scottish friends, they haven't really believed me. For them, Scotland is the best of all possible worlds. For this reason, I think it is best not to talk about harassment or prejudice, though to deny them means they go unrecognised and unchallenged.

During and after the Scottish referendum in 2014, I really wanted to move back to England. I had experienced a run of relatively minor but unpleasant incidents. That feeling of dislocation faded, however, as Scotland settled back into near-normality. Yet the discomfort returned recently when newspapers were filled with pictures of flag-waving nationalist crowds marching through Glasgow and the central belt, more reminiscent of Hungarian right-wing populism than democracy in action.

Banners displaying the legend "Tory scum out!' were shocking, as was the presence of the ethnic nationalist group Siol nan Gaidheal. The reluctance of the Scottish government to condemn nationalist bigotry of this kind was disappointing. There are good people in the SNP - John Swinney, Kenny MacAskill, Tommy Shepherd - who surely do not regard Conservatives as 'scum', no matter how much they may disagree with them. Such attempts to dehumanise groups of people make for a dangerous precedent.

Attempts to intensify internal divisions are made worse by ongoing religious bigotry which still survives in the central belt. Why was Arlene Foster invited to support the Orange Order in Fife? Why are Orange marches still tolerated? Last week, marchers spat on a priest. The year I moved to Edinburgh the Orange Order marched down Princes Street on the first day of the Edinburgh Festival, photographed by fascinated foreign tourists who thought it was some kind of quaint folk tradition. I was brought up in a Lancashire mill town with a large Catholic population, and cannot remember anything like an Orange March ever taking place. It sometimes seems as difficult for Scots to live with each other as to live with their English neighbours.

Speaking of which, of course, it is now football which divides. I don't actually care who wins the World Cup. I tend to support the underdog, so hopelessly cheered along Panama in their game against England and supported Sweden because I think it's a better country. Stuart, like many of his Scottish friends, is supporting England but, like me, was dismayed by the pictures of boorish English fans jumping on ambulances and displaying their underwear. I certainly don't think that football as a sport is a force for good in a divided world.

Presenters and pundits are thoroughly irritating whatever team they are pontificating about. If Scotland had got as far as England, its commentators and supporters would have been just as annoying. It is, after all the country which sang 'England didnae qualify' on that rare occasion when Scotland actually did. Bragging is repulsive, whoever does it. So is the spitefulness demonstrated by SNP MPs who forced a vote in the Commons and then walked ridiculously slowly through the lobbies to prevent their English counterparts from watching the game. All as petty and childish as the 'Anyone but England' trope. The more savvy attacks on the World Cup team avoid using the term 'English' but are, nevertheless, transparent. And no, they are not just 'banter'.

Sparked off by the World Cup are the trivial ongoing grievances which have been flooding through Facebook and online journalism again: Scottish bank notes occasionally refused in English shops and, this week, not being able to use your Glasgow bus pass in London. I wonder how many Birmingham bus passes are accepted on the route to Govan?

Nevertheless, the venomousness currently expressed by many Scottish football fans about the English team is said to be significantly less than it used to be twenty years ago, or so asserted England-supporting Kevin McKenna and other Scottish journalists this week. Stuart, who knows about these things, would agree. Perhaps things are getting better, at least on the sports pages.

It may seem as if this post is a long resume of resentments. In actual fact, what is clear is how lacking in substance most of them are. Not even the most passionate Scottish fan is going to demand separation from England on the basis that England got further than Scotland in the World Cup and bragged about it. I hope not, anyway. Political resentments can be something else, however, though not for this post.

Soon the World Cup will be over and the bitterness will die down again. Friends, we hope, will return to being friends, whatever teams they supported. And that friendship extends on both sides of the Border for, as the ruins of Hadrian's Wall tell us, we are, after all, the same people.

Or, as Jo Cox put it, 'We have more in common than that which divides us.'

[The photos in this post were taken at Chesters, a cavalry fort on Hadrian's Wall, not far from Corbridge.]

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