Not Very Permeable
- The Marches: Border Walks with My Father by Rory Stewart
Cape, 351 pp, £18.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 224 09768 0
Last June’s xenophobic campaign and the Brexit vote that followed have left Scots – even the most unionist – estranged from the idea of Britain. In the months before the independence referendum of 2014, a large body of undecided Scots, while alienated from the Englishness of Toryism, the Home Counties and the City, still felt torn between a sense of solidarity with ordinary working people in the North of England and a desire to create an independent Scandinavian-style state. Some of those voters stuck with the Union; others – though still nostalgically attached to British ideals of social democracy – took a chance on independence. But Brexit, ironically, has expunged the notion that a British nation with a common set of values exists north and south of the border. England now seems foreign, a country that espouses the anti-EU and anti-immigrant values once associated with Enoch Powell. The Anglo-Scottish Union survives, for the moment, because, with oil prices low, an independent Scotland divorced from the English economy would be unable to sustain much in the way of a welfare state. Nevertheless, Britishness is shrivelling. Enoch-land repels.
A hard Brexit will make the choices facing Scots more painful still. Do we cut ourselves off from European markets, or from our largest market by far, the English market with which we have been integrated since 1707? Despite the blindingly obvious arithmetic favouring economic union with England, Scots presented with a second referendum on independence might well make an emotional choice to take control of their own destiny, with the aim of retaining membership of the EU. If that happened, England would have a hard land frontier with the EU, running from the Solway to the Tweed, the western part of which would abut the constituency of Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border. Born in Hong Kong the son of a post-imperial Scottish troubleshooter, Stewart, who is still only in his early forties, has had a vivid and varied career, as a soldier, a diplomat, a pro-consul in Iraq, a hiker in Afghanistan, a travel writer, an aspirant politician and more recently a junior minister. When the idea of Scottish independence became a serious possibility after the SNP’s runaway victory in the Scottish general election of 2011, the energetic Stewart decided to explore the borderlands on foot, in the hope of finding some essence of Britishness in the region James VI and I had described as the ‘navel or umbilic of both kingdoms’.
While Stewart set out on his quest with undisguised polemical intent, ‘to show that there were no permanent differences between England and Scotland, between my cottage in Cumbria and my father’s home in Scotland’, he is honest about his failure to uncover what he had naively assumed he would find. Indeed, there is an elegiac quality to Stewart’s marches around the area he terms the ‘Middleland’: elegies not only for a lost Britishness, but also for a connectedness with kin and with soil, and, it transpires, for Stewart’s elderly father, Brian, who is present as a shrewd, quizzical correspondent throughout much of the book, and dies towards its end. Brian was also a hyperbolic Scottish ham, his eccentricity reminiscent of the comic érudits found in Scott’s Waverley Novels. According to his son, he wore tartan trews almost every day, with occasional changes into day kilts and evening trews, ate haggis twice a week, and kept ‘oatcakes, a Jacobite history and a Gaelic dictionary next to the whisky on his desk’. Rory recognises that his father was ‘protesting his Scottishness too much’. But at what point does an innocent hobbyhorse become an offensive badge of alien superiority? When do the teeth of common, un-tartaned Scots start to grate? Educated at Eton and Balliol, Stewart too insists on his Scots heritage, but is, one imagines, about as Scottish as a bowler hat. This unfortunate and far from unusual combination – the ostentatiously plaided privilege of an almost English higher caste – can make native subalterns, including your reviewer, bristle. But such is Stewart’s deep attachment to his parent, and such the benign, learned unconventionality of both father and son, that the reader – all chippiness spent – feels for the human beings beneath the seigneurial veneer.
Father and son share a worldly distaste for received academic wisdom that is too loosely tethered to real-life experience. Hadrian’s Wall provides a case in point. Unlike the archaeological experts they take such joy in subverting, the Stewarts both saw colonial counter-insurgency operations at first hand and find implausible the interpretation of the wall as a ‘permeable trading frontier’. ‘Doesn’t look very permeable to me,’ Stewart senior says. Hadrian’s Wall, Rory reckons, reminded his father – a one-time ‘Cold War intelligence officer’ – of Berlin. Surely this wall too was first and foremost ‘a bureaucratic edifice of paranoia and surveillance’? The wall – constructed from 122 ad and running from the Solway Firth to the Tyne – also serves as a reminder that for two long periods in its history this region has been a border zone. In late antiquity, between the second and the early fifth century ad, Stewart notes, ‘you could have ridden from modern Iraq to Belgium on fine roads, speaking a single language, in a single state,’ but in Britain Rome petered out around the Solway and barbarism began.
Later, from the era of the Scottish Wars of Independence of the late 13th and early 14th centuries until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, it became a site of warfare, brigandage and desolation. Marcher lords and the reivers they indulged created in the westernmost border – the Debatable Lands – ‘a single landscape of fortified pele towers, bastle houses [fortified farmhouses] and mud huts, set in a repeatedly brutalised and looted wasteland’. The effects of this were long-lasting, surviving the Union of the Crowns, and James VI and I’s attempt to rebrand the Borders as the ‘Middle Shires’. Further east, the part of Liddesdale around Hermitage Castle had by the 19th century, Stewart calculates, less than a tenth of the number of peasant dwellings recorded there in the 14th century. Indeed, Stewart’s history of the region is a long-term story of decline and, in particular districts, of depopulation. Take Bewcastle, a Roman fort to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, which was in ancient times ‘one of the most populated sites in the British Isles, with 2000 soldiers crammed on the mound alone’. Documentary evidence survives of Bewcastle’s significance in the eyes of administrators in Ravenna, the capital of the western empire in the fifth century. Bewcastle became a major fortification again during the Anglo-Scottish hostilities of the late medieval era. However, in recent centuries its importance has dwindled. Nowadays only six people live on the mound.
The Middleland has not always been a frontier. In the millennium between the Roman era and the Anglo-Scottish wars of the later Middle Ages matters were very different. After the Romans left, parts of southern Scotland and the far north-west of England comprised the Brittonic kingdom of Rheged. The Cumbric Romano-Celts of Rheged sustained what Stewart calls ‘a fading half-life of civilisation’. The kingdom’s elites perpetuated some of the outer symbolic forms of Roman culture, including Christianity, though in time they abandoned Latin for their local tongue, a relative of Welsh. Yet somehow the basic material underpinnings of the Roman civilisation they inherited proved beyond their technical competence. They failed to keep the old Roman buildings in good repair, and allowed the state-of-the-art plumbing in Roman forts to clog up. This was the twilit world described by the Romano-British monk and historian Gildas, who ‘experienced Britain as a crushed, impoverished ex-colony’. In one of several moments of pained self-revelation, Stewart confesses a strong identification with Gildas, ‘for his deep pessimism about Britain and his painful investment in its fate, his consciousness of his own failings in a world unmoored’.
The kingdom of Rheged proved short-lived. By around 600 it had been supplanted by an expanding Anglian people, north German invaders who worshipped Woden. Nevertheless, pockets of Cumbric culture survived, and nearly three hundred years later the Cumbrians ‘took back control of the area’, when it became part of the British kingdom of Strathclyde. In the interim, seaborne pagan Vikings had arrived, settling in the uplands of the Lake District. Little, other than place names, remains of ‘this lost Norse-Viking nation’. Again, Stewart snubs his nose at the supposed historical consensus which sees the arrival of the Northumbrian Angles and the Vikings as peaceful matters of ‘adaptation’ and ‘absorption’. ‘Blood-spattering’ invasions seem ‘more plausible’ to the military man, although he suggests that the facts of upland geography might have enabled a measure of co-existence, hypothesising a miniature Swiss-like country among the fells, where the high, rugged terrain between the valleys allowed different cultures to co-exist in isolated proximity: a Norse community by the mid-tenth century in Hayeswater, Northumbrian Christians over the ridge in Bampton, and Cumbrian Celts along the mountainous spines to the north and south.
As we know, a multicultural Swiss-style possibility gave way during the later medieval era to the binary opposition of Scots and English. However, even as the English and Scottish kingdoms coalesced between the ninth and 12th centuries into something resembling their current shape, there was nothing inevitable about a hard border. That came later, at the very end of the 13th century, when Edward I tried to conquer Scotland. Before then a relaxed, multi-layered approach to questions of suzerainty and allegiance prevailed. A single, French-dominated ‘religious and knightly culture’ had spread across what were now southern Scotland and northern England. Stewart cites the striking example of Holme Cultram Abbey, a monastery of the French Cistercian order, ‘established in the old Middleland of Cumbria by a Scottish king on what became English soil’. Feudal dynasties such as the Bruces and the Balliols held estates on both sides of the porous border. In the late 11th century, the Normans appropriated Hadrian’s Wall as a convenient borderline, turning Roman forts into Norman castles at Carlisle and Newcastle. Although by 1230 the eastern border had been pushed further north to the Tweed, the border itself ‘hardly mattered’, as Stewart writes, to the monks and landowning nobles of the mid-13th century. But with Edward I’s wars, suddenly the Middleland became a site of ugly confrontation.
Stewart knows that all nations are imagined communities and that the act of imagining is accompanied by a process of deselection. Some bits of a country’s history – the elements that don’t fit with the master narrative – inevitably end up in the oubliette. As he reminds us, Scottish nationalists – Anglo-fixated, with a powerful sense of victimhood – tend to overlook their own country’s indigenous minorities, ‘the alternative kingdoms, peoples and languages that had been crushed in the enterprise of forging a Scottish state’. What, he asks, about the fate of the Picts, the Strathclyde Britons, the once autonomous Gaelic realm of Galloway, the Lordship of the Isles, the Norse inhabitants of the northern isles? Indeed, Stewart reminds us that as late as the 12th century the Scottish king David I described himself as the ruler of a mixed people, not only Gaelic Scots, but Northumbrians, Flemings and Cumbric Britons. Multi-ethnic kingdoms, significantly, preceded nations. By the early 14th century these various ethnic groups were described as a homogenous people named after the Gaelic Scots, though, of course, the country’s lay and clerical elites were francophone and Latinate. Forgetfulness of this sort is not confined to the past. Crossing the border on one of his long hikes, Stewart spotted an incongruous road sign in Gaelic, ‘Failte gu Alba’ – ‘Welcome to Scotland’. But Gaelic, he contends, had no place in the Middleland, nor was any part of this region ever known as Alba. Over the centuries, he insists, the Middleland had been a home to various languages and dialects – Cumbric Welsh, Latin, Northumbrian, Anglo-Norman and Borders English, ‘but never Scottish Gaelic’. However, recent research suggests further wrinkles that disturb not only the nationalist interpretation but Stewart’s debunking of it. Fiona Edmonds in the Scottish Historical Review argues for a Gall-Goidil (Gaelicised Norse) presence in the Middleland. But there is something to be said for the mischief-making of Stewart’s father, who recommended that the sign should read ‘Cryso i Cymbru’ or ‘Wilcuman Norþhymbraland’.
For all that, Stewart comes to recognise that the border – though now little more than a line on a map – is strangely robust. For hundreds of years Middlelanders have lived in a region without customs posts, fortifications or a visible frontier, yet the dialect one hears changes on either side of this invisible line. Why? Why don’t we get a gradual transition from northern English to southern Scots? Why do national identities harden at a phantom frontier? Stewart encounters a Scot who lives twenty yards from the border, and says he would never live in England.
Modern Britain – even the relatively conservative Britain of the rural Middleland – leaves Stewart rather despondent about our deracination. The populace he encounters deflates him: ‘how bewilderingly mobile, how thin in identity, how unconcerned with history, how severed from its deeper past’. The reader is disorientated by Stewart’s disappointment, unsure whether to pity his fogeyish naivety about the contemporary world, or to welcome a politician whose feelings overwhelm the customary filters of circumspection. Unusually for a politician, Stewart doesn’t mount a bully pulpit. He seems torn between a lament for a lost rootedness and a bewilderment that medieval ideas of national solidarity should have proved so impervious to the onward march of peace and civility since 1603.
Rekindled in our own times, the two nationalisms confront each other again. Each, to some extent, feeds the other. The Scottish nationalist upsurge played its part in provoking the current English nationalist backlash against globalisation, the EU and multiculturalism. Dislike of the SNP gave Tories traction at the 2015 general election; and it remains an under-appreciated factor in the new English chauvinism, which, of course, further serves to undermine any lingering Scottish pride in a shared Britishness. Although equally the cause of dismay to those who recognise that nationalisms are symptoms of alienation, not coherent political programmes in themselves, the two phenomena are not equivalent. Scottish nationalism, for all its faults, has matured politically, and the SNP barely resembles the clownish, Jocks-in-the-heather party of its early days. The leaders of Scotland’s civic nationalism have learned to curb ethnic excess; instead they embrace interdependence, sovereignty-pooling and the EU. England’s reborn nationalism, by contrast, has barely emerged from its swaddling clothes. Ukippers and hard Brexit fantasists have still to learn the basic ABC of a post-sovereignty world. However, the crassness of their response to its complexities makes it all the more difficult for nationalists north of the border to present a plausible vision of their own independent future.