Walking the Border

Recently, I forded the Solway from Bowness to Annan, hoping to examine the border between England and Scotland. I stopped, two hundred yards beyond the shore, in salt water, up to my waist. The tide had gone out, and the distance to the Scotland was half a mile of sea. What
would I find on the other shore? One thousand eight hundred years ago, the beach off which I had stepped was Rome, the shore up which I was about to climb, was Barbarian. You would have stepped into the water from a place with Roman senators, legions, taxes, magistrates, villas, and temples, and have emerged into a place with no such things. One land, one culture, one nation, and one state stopped at one shore, and at the other, a completely different set of institutions, and powers began.

But I was walking into Scotland in 2013. I saw no-one. The sea chopped against a slag-heap of uneven boulders, glistening black, algae-covered, just below the scum of bird feathers that marked the high tide. On the joins between the coast and the fields, were thickets of briars and nettles, raspberry bushes and hints of more exotic pink-flowered aliens: the same plants which you can see in a thousand railway sidings, builders’ yards, landfill sites, and canals. After an hour, I met an eighty year-old Scottish farmer. He was polite but he did not have much to say about the border, or the difference between the two countries. And after five hours walk, I crossed the border at Gretna, re-entering England, confused.

This was still a frontier, a thousand years after the Romans left. Edward I marshalled his troops for the invasion of Scotland at Brough by Sands, and died there. But after the collapse of Rome, the differences between the two sides of the Solway had become less stark. For seven hundred years, Cumbria had stretched to Glasgow, and Northumbria to Edinburgh. Right up to the Highland line, both sides had come to speak the same language – English – and wear the same clothes. The rulers dominated a single culture of Knights, and monks. At the river Sark, the frontier was disputed, artificial and recent. But the border remained the place where geography met politics.

On one side, the Scottish state possessed absolute power, but at the millimetre line of the border, its sovereignty ended. On this side of the line, the English were citizens in their own nation – it was their home, from which no-one had the right to drive them, and their government had obligations towards them. Step one foot across the mid-point of the Solway, and they were aliens. They were no longer citizens, under their own parliament, judged by their own judges, under their own laws. They could no longer choose their representatives, and stand for office. In a single step, they were under the jurisdiction of a different law and a different government. At worst, enemies; at best, guests, and strangers.

But this was 2013. For the last four hundred years, a Briton had been a citizen on both sides of the border, with a sense of their rights, in their own country. Crossing other borders can feel dangerous, or liberating: this was neither. And yet, Scotland was still a different nation. Everyone I met on the far shore spoke with a Scottish accent, had been educated in Scottish exams. They supported a separate football league. If they were university students, they studied for free, on a course that lasted four not three years; if they were farmers they received grants for slurry tanks; if they were wind-farm developers, they found it easier to build turbines. When they married, almost all now wore kilts. The landholdings were bigger, and the tenant farms much larger, than in Cumbria. The law of trespass was different, and so were the licencing laws, and the verdicts available to a jury. All these things combined to shape a quite separate culture and identity, even though they too shopped at Tesco’s, spoke English, watched the BBC, and grumbled about Westminster.

The sea, in which I was standing, was a frontier between two nations, but not between two states. Not yet, anyway. But if Scotland votes for independence, we will relearn much older forms of difference. Perhaps you would not immediately need to remember your passport, or a new currency. But suddenly, an Englishman in Scotland, or a Scot in England, will be a guest, not someone at home. You will no longer be the responsibility of the other country’s embassy abroad. If you were a Scot arrested in London; or English and arrested in Edinburgh, you would be under the custody of a foreign state, a foreign law, and a foreign procedure, over which you had no say, or vote.  Competition between Scots and English in sport would have a different context and tone. When we faced threats, or challenges, beyond our shores, we would no longer respond as a single force. We could no longer love the Highlands and London, as aspects of a single country. We could no longer criticise each other in the same way; or take pride each other, in the same way. Which is why, I hope the Solway will always remain, as it is now, the ambiguous, opaque, tantalising, meeting of nations; but never again a frontier to make us foreigners.

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