WHAT constitutes a country; a nation? Why should countries unite or separate or simply fragment and fall apart? With the referendum on independence looming these questions are fundamental to the debate.
Recently, Rory Stewart – the MP for Penrith & Borders – suggested the Romans sowed the seeds of today’s constitutional argument when the Emperor Hadrian established the famous wall across Britain. Whilst I think I understand the sentiment behind Mr Stewart’s assertion it’s actually based on one of those all too common myths about our country’s history.
Hadrian’s Wall does not separate Scotland from our southern neighbour. It actually straddles the north of England. If indeed it did separate our countries in the way that Mr Stewart thinks, Newcastle would be in modern Scotland. The second myth associated with Hadrian’s Wall is that the Romans established it to keep the Scots out. Only problem with this particular myth is that the Scots didn’t arrive at the present day border zone for another 1000 years.
It’s almost 1000 years since the Battle of Carham when a large chunk of Northumberland was incorporated into Scotland. The kingdom that stretched from the north of the Humber to the Forth was established by the Angles. The lands once known as Angleland referred to all the Anglo Saxon kingdoms of Britain. Our present capital Edinburgh is named after a Northumbrian king. To understand the extent to which the Germanic speaking Angles settled in modern Scotland simply look at a map. The concentration of place names ending in ton or ington indicates their settlements.
It wasn’t until the Treaty of York in 1237 more than 200 years later that the present Border was established. Our language Scots is largely derived from the Angles with significant Norse influence. It’s a quirk of history that the language of the Scots was Gaelic and language of the Germanic speaking peoples became known as Scots. A modern German might recognise typical Scots words like ken, mair, gae, flit. The old German for cow was coo. Likewise house was hoose. There’s no word as such in German for husband. A German woman will refer to my man. If you’ve wondered why Geordies use the language of Burns and talk about bonnie lassies and laddies, the bairns and say aye it’s because of our common language and heritage.
The influence of the Angles is reflected in some of our more traditional Scottish surnames. The Angles and Norse used the patronym son. A name like Stevenson indicates someone from southern Scotland. The southern England-based Saxons used the letter S so the equivalent would be Stevens. The Angles like the Scots invaded mainland Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire generally displacing, exterminating or enslaving the indigenous Britons. Scotti is the Roman name for the natives of Ireland. People will be surprised to learn that Scots also crossed the Irish Sea to invade and settle in modern-day Cornwall and Wales. Why does any of this matter? Well history does matter. It’s our history that’s brought us to where we are today. Rory Stewart MP is wrong to put it down to Hadrian’s Wall. More important perhaps; if our medieval masters hadn’t fallen out with each other about who could best exploit and enslave the mass of ordinary people perhaps today’s constitutional argument would never have emerged.
The Battle Of Carham profoundly changed the map of Scotland but Bannockburn solidified the schism in Britain’s ruling Norman elite. In all probability it’s that schism that lay the foundations for today’s constitutional debate. It’s our individual notions of where we come from and our individual interpretation of history that drive our sense of identity.
I perceive myself to be specifically Scottish working class. Because of that I particularly feel and identify with the common bond that working people right across Britain share. Working people whether they live in Edinburgh, or Glasgow , or Manchester, or Newcastle share the same history, the same struggles. Let’s not break that bond.
• Bill Cook is a Labour councillor representing Edinburgh’s Liberton/Gilmerton ward