The recent ban on non-essential travel from Scotland to England was perhaps the first time ever that the Anglo-Scottish border has been effectively sealed to traffic. For although the frontier was settled as long ago as 1018 — when, after the Battle of Carham, the Scots forced the Northumbrians from the banks of the Forth down to a new frontier on the Tweed — this was always a highly porous boundary, more like a buffer-zone between warring states than a hard border.
Yet just last week one of the SNP’s more excitable parliamentarians made the startling claim that the recreation of this medieval border could be an engine of job creation — something that hasn’t obtained since Geordie Burn and “Kinmont Willie” Armstrong were stealing cattle and rustling sheep in Tweeddale and Tynedale. Indeed, the very remoteness of these borderlands, beyond the reach of London — or even Edinburgh — created a unique and lawless civilisation, home to feuding bands of Scots and English highland clans who lived a guerrilla life of arson and plunder, and whose nomadic ranching culture and traditions of military service and recreational belligerence would eventually be transplanted wholesale to the dangerous “back country” of the American colonies.
These families were more loyal to their kinsmen than to abstract notions of nationality. Indeed, at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh outside Edinburgh in 1547, one observer noticed how Scottish and English border levies could be seen chatting cordially with each other — until spotted by their commanders, whereupon they put on a spirited show of combat. On his accession to the English throne in 1603, James VI may have remarked that “hath not God first united these two kingdoms, both in language, religion, and similitude of manners?”, but this was especially so in the Borderlands and adjacent counties of Northern England.
In Linda Colley’s key text Britons: Forging the Nation she records how the poor in the North East consumed oatmeal like the Scots and “to pass from the borders of Scotland into Northumberland”, a Scottish clergyman wrote at the end of the 18th century, “was rather like going into another parish than into another kingdom”. John Buchan would make similar observations as he passed into England from his beloved Tweeddale. By the early 1500s, there were hundreds of Scots living in Newcastle, including John Knox who was appointed a preacher at St Nicholas’s Church in 1550. Many of the coal miners and keelmen on the Tyne in the 17th and 18th centuries had come down to England from Lothian and the Borders, as did Captain James Cook’s father, a farm labourer who arrived on Teesside from Roxburghshire.
By the time of the ’45 so many Scots had made Tyneside their home that the native Northumbrians differentiated what they saw as the savage highlanders from the more civilised lowland Scots, with whom they shared a loyalty to “King Geordie” and the Protestant succession. Similarly, the unusually high levels of literacy in Northumbria owed much to an appreciation for the neighbouring system of parish education in Scotland, and Northumbrians shared many other traits with the Scots including a taste for classical architecture well into the Neo-Gothic period, and for living in flats (which was highly unusual in England), as well as an obsession with football — a macho and martial strain that was useful on imperial battlefields — and a debilitating enthusiasm for alcoholic beverages.
A second wave of Scots migration to Tyneside shipyards and coal mines helped to establish what can be seen as a North British Industrial Zone, linking places such as Newcastle, Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast as well as outliers like the shipyard town of Barrow-in-Furness. North East England and West Central Scotland were the only places in the world with large-scale engineering, shipbuilding and coal mining all in the same place, a nexus critical to the technological developments essential to capitalism and the wealth of Britain: Scotland gave us the steam engine, the pneumatic tyre and the telephone, while North East England gave us the locomotive, the turbine and the lightbulb.
Some of Tyneside’s greatest industrialists had strong Scottish connections: George Stephenson had worked in Scottish collieries as well as those on his native Tyneside, and Sir William Armstrong’s business partners were the Scotsmen Charles Mitchell and Andrew Noble. Indeed, Scots played a huge part in the North East’s maritime trades: John Barbour’s wax-jacket empire grew from supplying the Tyneside fishing fleet, hundreds of Scots “fisher lassies” who followed the trawlers down the East Coast settled in North Shields, and so many Scotsmen came to work at Andrew’s Leslie’s shipyard that Hebburn became known as “Little Aberdeen”.
Thousands of families, including mine, crisscrossed the Anglo-Scottish border in the late 19th and early 20th century — and figures such as Arthur Henderson, Manny Shinwell and latterly James Herriott and Mark Knopfler spent their early lives swapping Tyne and Wear for the Clyde (and vice versa). You see this in the career of the theatrical impresario Arthur Jefferson who owned theatres across “North Britain” but principally on the Tyne and the Clyde. It is significant that his son, Stan Laurel (who always considered himself a Tynesider), actually made his first professional appearance in his father’s theatre in Glasgow.
Coming from Northumberland, Scottish things have been a constant in my life: nurtured first by grandparents who took the Sunday Post and bought me The Broons and Oor Wullie annuals at Christmas. My father’s best pals were his Glaswegian workmates who’d relocated to Newcastle from IBM’s plant at Greenock, and I can vividly remember the boisterousness of “Glasgow Shipyard Fortnight” when holidaying Scots would migrate en masse for fun and frolics at Whitley Bay.
As kids we drank Barr’s pop and ate Scotch pies, Tunnock’s teacakes and “McCowan’s Highland Toffee”. Many of us followed Celtic, Rangers, Hibs and Hearts as our “second teams”, and took character-building family holidays in the midge-infested highlands, or on the freezing coasts of Fife and Ayrshire — not to mention regular trips to the Edinburgh Tattoo. McEwan’s Best Scotch was the first pint I ever bought (at 3.6 ABV a good “training beer” for thirsty teenagers), and my first flat was around the corner from St Andrew’s Kirk in Newcastle — right by the old Deuchars Brewery on Sandyford Road.
The sense of similarity and affinity between Scotland and North East England has shaped my own unionist outlook, but also my growing sense that England is, in the radical analysis of Alex Niven, “a nebulous half-country”, riven in two for centuries by a geological fault-line that separated a prosperous and dominant South East, centred on London, from the poor and sparsely populated lands north of the Trent. The medieval North was simply a different country, and the Far North was more different still — a quasi-autonomous border country, run as a buffer zone against the Scots by warlord aristocrats and (uniquely for the British Isles) ruling Prince Bishops — the longevity of whose power meant that North East England was only fully integrated into a centralised English, then British, polity not that long before Scotland was.
This sense of Northern difference was cemented still further in the 18th and 19th centuries with the emergence of the distinctive working class culture of the North of England, whose politics built on the anti-Anglican traditions of recusant Catholicism and muscular Methodism, and birthed a municipal Labourism that raised working-class living standards, and underpinned what Ian Jack, in The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain described as an “independent civilisation”.
And yet the history of the North of England is basically a litany of defeats (both militarily and politically) at the hands of the South: starting with the brutal “Harrying of the North” by the Normans, the Wars of the Roses (where the North lost), the Catholic rebellions of the 1500s (ditto), the Civil War (where the King’s heartlands were in the North and West), and then the failure of any subsequent challenge to the power of London and the South East — from the Jacobite risings, to the Chartists, and then the General Strike and Miners’ Strikes.
In her 1921 book, The Kings’ Council of the North (about Elizabeth I’s brutal suppression of the Rising of the Northern Earls’ in 1569), the historian Rachel Reid wrote that North is “the natural refuge of lost causes”, and yet as the late Scottish historian Christopher Harvie once put it, English regionalism is “the dog that never barked”. Something did seem to stir during the pandemic though, when Northern grievance found its champion in Andy Burnham, and not long afterwards a Northern Independence Party was founded committed to “Northumbrian” secession — and cringey tweets.
But the North has never been able to stand up to London alone. In his book The Shortest History of England James Hawes made the brilliant observation that, after 1885, the South of England became “a virtually impregnable Tory bloc while the North voted otherwise”, the North therefore had to look for “alliances with the Celts [the Scots and Welsh] to outgun them: we call that alliance, which lasted until 2015, when the Scots deserted it, ‘the Labour Party’”. With the SNP now dominant in Scotland, and then Red Wall in the North crumbling, the South East looks more invincible than ever.
For those dismayed by Northern enfeeblement, and the prospect of a border being reimposed between Berwick and Carlisle — with the potential for a brassic Scotland becoming a client state of a hostile power, as it was under Mary of Guise – what should be the response?
Well, if I were tasked to save the union, I would focus on two things: firstly rekindling those alliances between the North of England and Scotland, and thinking creatively about how to knit them together economically and culturally — not just dualling the A1, but how about a maglev joining Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, with a tunnel to Belfast too.
I often get the impression that the Scots — and even the Irish to an extent — don’t mind sharing sovereignty with their larger neighbours, as long as it isn’t the English calling the shots. But my hunch is that it’s the caricatural Southern English that the rest of these islands finds so insufferable. Far too many English Tories fit into the sneering stereotype of Tim Roth in Rob Roy or Tobias Menzies in Outlander, whereas in my experience Scoto-Northumbrian relations are almost always extremely cordial.
I think the strong horse theory explains why high-status opinion in Scotland is so wedded to “independence in the EU”. I’m reminded here of the Catalans, who like the Scots in the British Empire were ardent Spanish imperialists, but as Spain’s power and prestige declined after the loss of Imperio Español, they were beguiled by a new imperial power in Brussels. Ambitious Scots, looking South to an increasingly threadbare post-imperial Westminster, had similar feelings.
So, forget constitutional tinkering, and even emotional appeals to former glories and “our NHS”; the Scots are too hard-headed for that. I suspect that the one thing that will change attitudes to Britishness in Scotland is for the UK to just be a wealthier and more successful country. Easier said than done, but 4% on GDP will do more than any Royal Commission to raise the prestige of the Union in Northern Britain. Can Boris Johnson pull this off? For those of us who fear the imposition of border controls at Carter Bar, we’d better hope so.