Monthly Archives: September 2013


Cumbrians and Northumbrians must have felt isolated and marginalised fourteen hundred years ago. Agriculture had collapsed around them, the population had plummeted, there had not been a new road or stone building constructed in two centuries. Education, industry, and trade had collapsed. We were one of the most underdeveloped places in Europe or Asia. But within just two generations our remote, sparsely-populated area was producing the greatest art, spirituality, and scholarship in Europe. Why? I wish I knew. But it was in part because our rural isolation was a strength not a weakness.

We were transformed, first, by a new faith. Christianity arrived in heathen Northumbria and Cumbria in two ways: with charismatic Irish ascetics, travelling on foot; and with horse-born Bishops sent by the papacy. We were ideally placed to combine these rival traditions because we were always a frontier zone. When Hadrian’s wall was manned, we were half part of Rome, half outside it. We were never part of Roman urban civilisation – our landscape and culture was more like ‘barbarian’ Ireland. But we were surrounded by the great walls and forts of Rome, and had touched a wider European civilisation.

We were transformed next by our curiosity. We sent scholars to Rome, and eagerly copied down all the knowledge with which they returned. When a Syrian arrived, scholars assailed him with so many eager questions, that a witness compared him to an old boar, fending off a pack of puppies. We learned from the best musicians, masons, glaziers, and scholars on the continent. We studied crisp carving, and orthodox images from foreign sculptors. Then we surpassed them. On the Bewcastle cross, for example, we worked a sun-dial across a petal, invented unprecedented flowers, and filled an entire frame with a mystical checker-board. But the dignity of the figures, and proportions of the composition, remained in the best classical tradition.

We were transformed ultimately by our capacity to use with confidence the energy of different traditions. We preserved some of the tone of our own pagan past. We emulated the purity and spirituality of Irish Christianity while abandoning its most outdated and discredited customs. We followed the latest models of Rome, but we lived ascetic lives, which world-weary Romans had thought no longer possible in the modern world. Within forty years, as the Mediterranean declined, Northumbria and Cumbria were producing the greatest artists, scholars, missionaries, and statesmen in Northern Europe. Bede, the greatest historian of his age, and one of the finest late writers of Latin prose, came from a culture which had been, not long before his birth, almost illiterate.

St.Cuthbert – an Anglo-Saxon monk, born in what we now call Scotland, dying in what we now call England – was the ultimate symbol of our Middleland civilisation. He retained an almost pagan delight in animals – he was fed by sea-eagles, and communed with ravens. According to an eye-witness, he stood all night up to his neck in the sea to pray, and at dawn, otters came to lick the frozen saint back to life. On that island he suffered alone as a Celtic ascetic. But he had a great reverence for scholarship, acknowledged he was part of a broader European civilisation, and died as an orthodox bishop, encouraging his disciples to follow the customs of Rome. It was because of men like this, that the pope, looking for a missionary, turned to Northern England. This was why Charlemagne’s chief of staff was a Northumbrian.

Our Golden Age has never been easy to admire, or even remember. It left no Ziggurat of Ur, no Machu Picchu, or pyramid. Many of its most distinctive contributions lay in advances in religion and theology, which we struggle to understand. Even its most famous treasure – the illuminated pages of the Lindisfarne gospel – is not a public monument; it is a hand-written book in an alien language: the turn, of each page, hides the last, as it reveals the next. All that remains of the seventh century Hexham Abbey – once the greatest building of its kind north of the Alps – is a narrow crypt, made of grey-stone lifted from Hadrian’s Wall. Of the major Anglian monastery at Dacre, fit to be visited by Kings, no trace remains beneath the stone beasts in the churchyard.

Yet, no other civilisation has come so quickly, from rural isolation, to dominate the imagination of a continent. None has made such unpromising conditions a more rapid catalyst for seriousness, and greatness. It was a golden age lived to its fullest in places, not just without cities, but without buildings: in the red sandstone cliff walls of the Eden, right down to Wetheral, or on the island in the lake at Derwentwater. At Lindisfarne it is easy to be transfixed by the ruined priory, with its purple columns, tapering, like sandstone pillars, scoured by desert winds. But that building was constructed centuries later. The real essence of the Northern renaissance lies further out to sea, in the faint shape of Inner Farne: a place defined by the iridescence of the water at first light, by seals, and by birds. St. Cuthbert’s final home.

March along Hadrian’s Wall – and save the Union

In an interview with Magnus Linklater from The Times, Rory explained his intention to organise a march along the Scottish border, including Hadrian’s Wall, to alert the English to the dangers of next year’s referendum on independence.

Rory believes that English indifference or even hostility towards Scotland could be a major factor in boosting support for independence, and hastening the break-up of Britain.

Rory told The Times:

“The great challenge is how to awaken grassroots opinion in England. I am living in an English constituency south of the border, so I have no right to talk about the Scots, but what I do feel able to do is to try to help to speak to the English and find English voices that are strong for the Union.

You can’t leave it too late — the Canadians woke up very late to the dangers of Quebec going independent. The way to do this is to remind people how much we stand to lose, to remind people of how proud we are to be British — how we don’t actually want to be a smaller country.

If this had happened in the 19th century, this would have been one of the great themes of the age. It would have been like the Great Reform Act, it would have totally absorbed all the energies of politicians.

I find it deeply shocking that we are now 12 months away from a referendum that could potentially lead to Scottish independence without a real sense of the whole country coming together. I believe that if Scotland were to separate, the English would miss it immensely, and the Scots would miss being part of Britain.”

Having spent much of the past year walking in the border country between England and Scotland, interviewing Scots to the north of it and English to the south, Rory agreed that he had encountered some of the resentment against Scots that was reflected in the British Social Attitudes Survey, published earlier last week.

“I think it’s very dangerous. There is a risk that people are going to become alienated. I was in Croydon recently, and quite a lot of people seemed to feel they wouldn’t mind if Scotland became independent. They complain to me about things that seem to me tiny — free prescription charges and free eye tests. But you can’t tear up a three or four hundred year relationship on the basis of free eye tests. I think it’s incredibly important that English people express their respect, admiration and love of Scotland.

I think the Prime Minister is committed. He is very clearly of Scottish ancestry … but he sees himself as British, and it is something he cares passionately about. He may, however, like many of us south of the border, feel we are treading on eggshells — that almost anything we say in this debate may be turned against us.”



Article first published in The Times by Magnus Linklater on 14 September 2013.

For Rory Stewart, getting to know a country means walking over it. As a youthful diplomat in his twenties he learnt about rural Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and India by walking through them, covering 6,000 miles, staying in village houses and talking to their people.

Now he is doing the same in Scotland. For the past year the Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border has been walking from his constituency in England through the Scottish Borders, moving farther north each time.

It is an unfinished journey, and from it he believes he can learn more about the mood of both countries than from any number of constituency surgeries or TV chat shows.

What has struck him, as a Scot, is the contrast in attitudes on both sides of the Border. In England, though there may be some resentment about the way Scotland is seen to have benefited from the devolution settlement, the mood in places such as Cumberland or Northumberland is surprisingly warm towards the Scottish; that view, however, is rarely reciprocated north of the Border.

He explains: “In Northumbria people would say ‘We see ourselves as honorary Scots’. But if I crossed the bridge to Coldstream, I couldn’t find any Scot who would say they were honorary Northumbrians. A lot of people in England seemed to enjoy a view of Scotland as a romantic country of hardy people but there were very few people in Scotland with a romantic view of England.” Although he found that most Scots had a strong sense of their own identity, there was little agreement as to what that identity was.

“You’d find people who would feel that England was a very alien country, then when you get them to talk about their own home town in Scotland, they would feel quite disillusioned. I remember one person who talked at great length about how much they wanted Scottish independence, but then said they were hoping to move to California — it was a sunnier, happier place.

“Another issue that was odd was that people talked so little about history. Most nationalisms in the world go on about history, because after all, what is a nation but its history? But people would say, ‘No, we want Scotland to become independent because its economy would be more efficient that way’ — it’s a kind of civic nationalism, a particular unit that’s going to operate better.”

That did not mean, he said, that the Scots he spoke to were uninformed about their country’s past. He talked to people who could tell him precisely where the guns had been placed at the Battle of Flodden, or had carried out deep research into the Gaelic bards. However, that did not translate into any strong sense of what Scotland’s role as an independent nation might be.

“No one I met was comfortable with the Braveheart image,” he said. “Everyone would say, of course, that was not true. But what it was going to be replaced by was even less clear. It didn’t fit into a bigger story of what Scotland might be as an independent nation.”

One thing, however, was clear: whatever view they might have about Scotland’s future, they felt themselves Scottish, not British.

“There is absolutely no doubt at all that people see themselves as very very Scottish. You may not be able to explain what it means, but perhaps what matters more is that you feel it,” he said.

The dilution of Britishness is shared on both sides of the Border and it concerns him deeply.

“Yes, there is a weakening of British identity,” he said. “The sense of a bigger unit, the sense of being happy with British identity is becoming more difficult for people, and people are falling back on smaller descriptions of themselves. They feel less generous towards including different, more complicated parts of their country.

“A more traditional British identity would be connected to Parliament, to national institutions like the Army, or pride in great British universities and that is falling away, people feel less attraction to those things.”

He is in no doubt that it would need leadership to rekindle a belief in Britishness and he believes the Better Together campaign needs to strike a more positive note.

“I do think, as a politician, in the long run positive arguments win out over negative arguments. You can’t simply run a pessimistic argument about the risks or costs in separation. Just as if you were discussing a relationship or a marriage you have to say more than just, ‘look, if we break up, you’ll lose your house’.”

Next year, he intends to campaign, not just against independence but in favour of a Britain within which he believes the Scots will thrive. He cites the case of his father, a former soldier and diplomat, to make the case.

“My father is powerfully, obsessively Scottish,” he said. “As a diplomat he organised reel parties, pulled out his skean-dhu, enjoyed putting on his tartan trews and his tam o’shanter, but he did all that in the context of being British.

“He had a wonderful way of teasing the Russians or the Chinese with all this, to remind them that Britain wasn’t the stuffy stereotype they had in mind.

“But it wouldn’t be as much fun for him if he wasn’t part of the United Kingdom. And, more important, he wouldn’t be able to use his Scottishness to wind up the English.”

Scotland, England and the Middleland

The idea that there are two things called England and Scotland, is only a late invention forged by ambition, violence, and luck. There is nothing ‘natural’ behind these two names – the division is not based on ‘blood’, or ‘soil’. It first emerged from a straight line, ruled on a map by the Emperor Hadrian, for the convenience of Roman engineers. It cut straight through the middle of tribal territories, separating families. You can see from aerial photographs how the lines of the iron-age ploughs once ran diagonally under the line of Hadrian’s Wall. There is no single English ethnicity, or Scottish language. As for soil: the line that divides the nations is not a natural frontier. It was only finalised, in the sixteenth century, not long before both sides were brought under a single King, and the border ceased to matter.

There’s another country buried beneath, and between, England and Scotland. It was a Middleland, which was originally part of neither country. Unlike the later nations, the Middleland had two strong natural borders – the Firth of Forth in the North, and the Humber in the South. Cumbria, Northumbria, and Southern Scotland were at the centre of this place. At its height, the Middleland stretched from Edinburgh to Sheffield. It was a land with a distinct climate and soil: the Central British uplands, quite different from the Scottish Highlands, or lowland England. It was a rural area – with few cities, or even towns. The poor soil, meant it was predominantly a place of flocks, not crops. It had a different land-holding and legal system from the rest of England, and its own systems of democracy. It had a unique combination of cultures, found nowhere else in Britain – a mosaic of Cumbrian-British, Angles, and later Vikings. It spoke its own Northern dialect of Anglian that gave us words like ‘bairn’ for child, still heard on both sides of the border.

We don’t remember the Middleland – or its various names from Rheged to Northumbria and Yorvik – because history has been written by the victors, the English and the Scots, who have given little space to the people who preceded them. But for seven hundred years, the Middleland was ruled by its own independent dynasties- British Celtic, Anglian, or Norse. Eventually, as the Scots from the North, and the English from the South, strengthened, the Middleland was squeezed between them. In 1015, the King of independent Cumbria stepped down, and Northumbria lost the land between Edinburgh and the Tweed. But for people at that time, these might not have seemed like final or permanent developments, dynasties had gone before, and so had land.

Even after England and Scotland touched at a common frontier, and the independent state had disappeared, it was not quite clear where the Middleland belonged. Monasteries and land-owners continued to operate as though the border didn’t exist. Melrose Abbey (in modern Scotland), founded Holm Cultram, (in modern England), which in turn founded its own sub-house, back in Scotland. Robert the Bruce’s father was Sheriff of English Cumberland. It took the fanatical legal obsessions of Edward I, and the fierce rejection of his claim by William Wallace, to break the old cross-border relationships.  But by then, the people on both sides of the border had become part of a single culture. The Border Reivers, who raided back and forth from 1400 to 1600, were Borderers before they were English or Scots. They married each other, as much as robbed each other, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, lived the same life – could hardly be distinguished by an outsider – and sung the same ballads about their exploits.

The history of the Middleland, is unlike the history of England or Scotland. It was always a singular rural upland landscape. Twice – with the Romans and again after Bruce – it was divided by a military frontier. Mostly, however, it was hardly part of state structures at all: sometimes completely autonomous, sometimes ignored, sometimes a lawless debatable land. But it was at its best when it was not border line, or a borderland, but a meeting point between different cultures. When Northumbria stretched from Edinburgh to Sheffield, the Middleland touched the Welsh-British, the Irish-Scots, and the Picts, and was open to influences from Rome. It was able to combine cultures that had never before been brought into contact before.

In that Middleland, a religion that emerged from Roman cities, had to reinvent itself in a rural landscape, among peoples who had always been outside the Roman Empire – among the barbarians. There, Christianity on the Roman model met Celtic Irish Christians, who had been separated from Europe for two hundred years. These meetings, and conversions, made the Middleland into an eighth century Tibet – a land dominated by monasteries. It produced gospels, embroidered with ancient Celtic patterns, and stone crosses – like the one at Bewcastle – which were finer than any in Europe. It generated an entirely new way of thinking about religion, society, and death, which shaped a new culture for Northern Europe.

Perhaps in the year leading up the referendum, we should remember that beneath the more strident modern voices of England and Scotland lies our land – an older land with older forms of identity. The Middleland is a reminder that some of the most powerful and original moments in this island’s history, came not when we retreated into different kingdoms, separated by an artificial border, but when we encountered each other, found new combinations, and flourished from the friction of difference: within a single land.


Rory visited the Birbeck Medical Practice in Penrith to see firsthand the hard work being done by its GPs and staff to treat their 16,000 patients and keep them healthy. He was struck not just by the quality of their work, but also by their over-crowded premises, and is keen to convince the healthcare trust to help them move into more suitable accommodation. It is the single largest practice in Cumbria, and staff have been campaigning for years for bigger and more suitable premises to help ensure they remain able to provide good local healthcare in the long-term.

Over an afternoon visit, Rory was shown the cramped and overcrowded conditions in which some staff in Birbeck are having to work and treat patients. It was highlighted for example that the waiting room – which currently only seats 38 – is in need of both more seating and more space for patients in wheelchairs, or parents with pushcairs. Following a tour of the premises, the MP subsequently had the chance to speak with Birbeck’s partners to understand why it has proven so difficult up until now to improve the premises, and where challenges remain.

Rory said:

“The state and future of the NHS remains one of the biggest concerns for everyone in Britain, and so it is always extremely valuable to understand the service from the point of view of the doctors, nurses and office staff who see firsthand where we are doing well, and where problems remain.

Birbeck is a great local practice, and it is clear that everyone is working incredibly hard to ensure it continues to provide a great level of care. From a tour around the practice however, you quickly see that there is a need for more office space and improvements to the structure and layout of the premises to ensure it can continue to provide for its 16,000 patients. I have agreed to offer all the support I can to Dr Hodkin and his team. I raised it with the Health Minister in person as soon as I got to Westminster, and I will speak with the Partnerhsip Trust to understand why more cannot be done to improve the building.”


Rory was invited to tour around the villages of Greystoke, Penruddock and Newbiggin to see firsthand the way in which the Eden Lifeline Project is helping to save lives in rural communities through the installation of community Public Access Defibrillators (cPADs). There are now 11 cPADs installed outside village halls across Eden, and the Eden Lifeline Project aims to see every village in the area have access to their own cPAD cabinet.

Rory met with representatives of the Eden Lifeline Project, the North West Ambulance Service, and GreenUrban – who have built the cPAD cabinet – to understand the nature of the problem, and the way in which the devices will help save lives. For those who go into cardiac arrest, there is a 95% chance of the heart restarting if a defibrillator is used within the first 90 seconds. This recovery rate drops alarmingly to as low as 12% however, if a defibrillator is used after 8 minutes of going into cardiac arrest – the length of time ambulance services aim to respond to emergency calls. By installing highly visible community defibrillators in public areas, which anyone can access with a code provided by 999 operators, the project aims to give those in cardiac arrest the best possible chance of recovery by providing the local community with quick access to this life-saving technology.

Rory said: “With the best will in the world, it is simply not always possible to get an ambulance to those living in our most remote communities within eight minutes, let alone 90 seconds. These cPADS are therefore an incredibly valuable community resource, that mean residents in rural parishes need not find their chances of survival diminished simply because of the community in which they live. There are over 60 community first responder teams in Cumbria, comprising nearly 800 volunteers, and all of them are doing fantastic work to provide emergency first response care to those in need. The Eden Lifeline Project provides yet further support by allowing everyone in the community, from 9 year olds to 90 year olds, the means to save a life with this clever piece of technology. I am keen now to see cPADs in every village and community in Cumbria, and I will offer Philippa Groves and her team at the Eden Lifeline Project, all the help they need to see us succeed in this aim.”


Rory was invited to practice his woodwork skills at Caldbeck’s Men-in-Sheds initiative, where he had the chance to see firsthand how this local workshop project is helping Caldbeck residents stay active and engaged in the local community.

The Men-in-Sheds project has only been running for three months, and was set up by Philippa Groves of Northern Fells Group to help address the lack of community activities for older and retired men in the area. The project runs twice a week, and Clive Wragg and Charlie Miles help local residents build, repair and recycle in their community workshop.

Speaking after his visit, Rory said:

“The Men-in-Sheds project is fantastic. It is targeted at getting retired men out of the home. They meet in a shed, talk, fix things, and enjoy themselves. This project is the perfect example of a scheme which simply aims to provide an opportunity to meet, socialise and stay active for a couple of times each week. The positive impact of such a scheme on our well-being cannot be overstated, and by helping to repair neighbours’ garden tools, it only further reinforces that sense of ‘community’ that is so tangible in villages like Caldbeck.”

For anyone interested in attending the men-in-sheds project, the workshop runs in the old water wheelhouse in Caldbeck every Tuesday and Thursday, 10am – 2pm.

In Syria, the best solution is a negotiated peace

First published in The Sunday Telegraph, 8 September 2013:


Like hundreds of thousands of civilians, soldiers, contractors, UN and charity-staff, I have worked in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years. I was in favour of the Prime Minister’s humanitarian motion on Syria, but against a deeper intervention. I find it very difficult however, to apply lessons from other countries to Syria. Many of those I have worked with feel the same.

This is in part because of the uncertainty and ignorance we experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. You peer at the world through reinforced glass from armoured vehicles, live behind concrete blast-walls. You have very little contact with the local population. You don’t understand them, and they don’t understand you. Sometimes, locals seem to give you the benefit of the doubt — in Kosovo, for example, our mistakes were largely interpreted as incompetence not malice. But in Afghanistan, I saw honest development projects interpreted as a conspiracy to steal oil, or a science-fiction material called “red mercury”.

In Bosnia — my first experience — our intervention finally improved a terrible situation. By 1995, 100,000 had been killed, a million refugees displaced, and the country was divided by militias and their checkpoints. Bosnian Serbs had massacred thousands in Srebrenica, and Sarajevo was being shelled. The West was reluctant to intervene because people feared a second Vietnam; or that “centuries of ethnic hatred” would make the situation unresolvable.

Then, more than three years after the conflict began, the West bombed the Bosnian Serb artillery. Croat troops recaptured Serb territory. With the Serbs reeling, but not defeated, the US invited everyone, including war criminals, to a peace conference. And after the peace deal, the West deployed 60,000 soldiers, and established an international administration. The war ended.

Within the next decade, the militia had been disbanded, the internal borders had vanished, owners had retrieved a million properties, refugees had returned, and the war criminals had been brought to justice. This happened without a single US or British soldier being killed. The crime rate in Bosnia is now as low as Sweden.

But the key — and difficult – lesson for Syria is that Bosnia ultimately worked not because we took dramatic military action. It worked because our action was always not only principled, but cautious. Unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, the West did not feel that Bosnia was “an existential threat” to its security. The aim was only to end the war, and improve local lives.The West was reluctant to take risks. If it had proved too dangerous, we were always prepared to acknowledge that we had failed, and withdraw. In the first year, the international soldiers barely left their bases: there were more injuries on the basketball court than in the field. We were not committed to toppling Milosevic, and were prepared to talk to everyone, including war criminals.

The first refugee returns were led by Bosnian charities. The first moves against the war criminal Karadzic came from his allies. The genius of the international community lay in getting cautiously behind these Bosnian moves, and continuing a process that ended not just with peace but with Milosevic and Karadzic on trial at The Hague in 2001 and 2008.

9/11 made this kind of intervention much more difficult. Suddenly Iraq and Afghanistan were presented as a war against “an existential threat”, in which “failure was not an option”. Rather than being reluctant to intervene, some leaders seemed eager. Rather than being prepared to work with almost anyone, and give space to local leaders, we refused to engage with our “enemies” (Sadrists or Taliban), and we focused with paranoid intensity on micromanaging the Iraqi and Afghan governments. We tried to keep public support by over-emphasising the importance of the mission. We were drawn into betraying our principles, and strengthening warlords. And by the time it became clear that the mission was actually impossible, we were trapped by our boasts, promises, fears, and guilt.

Once you have been through this a couple of times, you see how cruel and irrational the process can be, how easily we can dig ourselves ever deeper into an impossible situation. If we allow ourselves now in Syria to talk up fears of terrorists, Iran, and regional security, one rocket attack will lead to another, then to ground troops, then to nation-building, then an inability to leave.In Syria, as in Bosnia, the best situation is a negotiated peace, in which all sides are included. We achieved this in Bosnia by putting pressure on Milosevic through our bombardment, and through a Croat advance.

But there is no equivalent of the Croat army in Syria, and it is difficult to predict how our bombardment would change the psychology of Assad, or make the rebels more likely to negotiate. So the real lesson of Bosnia does not lie in the tactics. Those depend entirely on the culture of Syria, its neighbours, and the conditions on the ground, and may have to change.Bosnia’s real lesson is about a state of mind: combining principles with prudence, allowing you to try something in good faith, while still being prepared to walk away if it doesn’t work.

I believe that the next challenge for foreign policy lies in explaining the difference between an intervention which is voluntary and altruistic, and a mission which is crippled by fear; the difference between Bosnia on the one hand, and Iraq and Afghanistan on the other. That is what will provide the middle path between inaction and over-action. We must embrace the ideal and possibility of humanitarian intervention, but we must reject the mindset that leads to intervention without limits.