Naming Britain

Alasdair Gray

In three hundred and thirty B.C.
when ships always tried to sail within sight of land,
at the west exit from earth’s middle sea
DON’T GO THROUGH was carved. That small strait led
to the ocean that keeps moving its bed,
drowning beaches twice between noon and noon
and twice uncovering them, pulled by the moon.

It was hard to sail by such coasts
without splitting keel on reef or running aground,
but possible, as traders from Carthage found
who sailed out with bolts of cloth, returned with tin,
carved DON’T GO THROUGH to keep competitors in
and stationed warships to make their command obeyed.
The galley of Pytheas slipped through that blockade.

He was a Greek when Greece had markets
on every Mediterranean shore,
and learned from neighbour nations more techniques
than discussed in one language before.
Greeks thought all knowledge theirs to explore,
enlarge, record for their extrovert civilisation.
That thought drove Pytheas to Atlantic navigation.

His boat, oar-propelled with one square sail
like those in which Vikings cruised to America,
found an archipelago. From a tribe there he took
a name for it used in a Greek geography book
a name that Romans spelled BRITANIA,
but during and after the Roman occupation
Britain was never the name of a single nation.

Only Wales could claim the old British name
when Angles, Saxons, Danes and Norman French
conquered South Britain, fighting till they became
one kingdom, England, which then fought to subjugate
every adjacent state. Ireland was first colony
of her empire oversea. She conquered Wales.
France and Scotland won free.

Scotland was free till King James got news
that he could inherit England’s crown too
if he lived there, an offer he did not refuse
so like many Scots went to London where now,
Britain’s chief landlord, he signed parliamentary acts
to make these islands one kingdom
despite contradictory facts.

England and Scotland’s clergy held
different kinds of Protestant creed –
hating Papists was the main point on which they agreed,
while Catholic Ireland constantly rebelled
against English landlords who bloodily quelled
their attempts to reject the South British yoke.
How could a Scots king unite such folk?

King James, with the force of English arms,
evicted most owners of Ulster farms,
gave their land to Protestant Scots whose immigration
diluted the native Catholic population
who never again (thought James) could trouble his nation.
Such overseas meddling brought again and again
more and worse centuries of political pain.

To gain an empire on which the sun
never set, the English explored, traded, fought and won
mastery of the sea and vast subcontinents,
helped by Scots and Irish whose parliaments
were both in the past, but left such outsiders a say
in the British Empire, though the USA,
hating taxation by London, had broken away.

To make folk see these islands were one
Britain’s Postmaster General called Scotland N.B. –
North Britain – and Ireland W.B.,
until West British rebels one Easter Day
seized Dublin Post Office, raised a tricolour flag,
made England’s first colony follow the USA
when all but six Irish counties broke away.

National empires end. Britain’s did –
Russia’s too. Commercial empire remains
promoting war with drug and weapon sales
while parliaments in Ulster, Scotland, Wales
do not stop the English government
sending their troops to fight in distant lands
when America’s chief war-businessman commands.

Ulster Protestants may be the last
to gladly claim the British name.
Britain is still that irregular archipelago
to which Pytheas came.