home rule for cumberland
It is easy to see Cumbria as the North-West frontier. Our land seems marked by frontiers. Even Rome, which merged and melted what is now most of the European Union, and the Arab League, had its border here. You could ride from modern Iraq, through Romania and Belgium, on fine roads, using a single language, in a single state, until, half-way between Brampton and Longtown, Rome stopped. Through the middle ages, Cumbrians held our land in a border tenancy, were ruled with a border law, and were ravaged by a border war. And even today, the frontiers exist in more than motorway signs. When I gave a talk in Penton last month I was speaking to farmers from a five mile radius, and yet you could identify every Scot in the room, because 200 yards across the border the accent changed completely. Little wonder that our constituency is the only one in Britain with Border in its name.
And yet for seven hundred years, what is now the border, was not a border but the centre of a single kingdom, half in modern England, half in modern Scotland, independent of both, and belonging to neither. We were not in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, and our patron saints – Mungo, Kentigern, even Ninian – were not English saints. But nor were we – despite the pretensions of King David (who mined his silver in Alston) – part of Scotland either. We were an independent Kingdom, sometimes Rheged, Strathclyde, the old North, Yr Hen Ogledd, but always Cumbria. A nation with its own language, spoken long before the Roman conquest: before the sea-borne Irish Gaelic speaking invaders of Scotland, or the sea-borne Anglo-Saxon speaking invaders of England. And with our own line of Kings, with their bards and genealogists: so confident that long after the Romans left, they still led their warriors into the Highlands, to Tyneside, and to the edge of Wales. So legitimate, that even when their kingdom had been reduced to a narrow stretch between Carlisle and the Clyde, Owen of Cumbria was still treated as a brother-King, alongside Athelstan of England and Constantine of Scotland, at the treaty, signed on our land at Eamont bridge.
But stand in the central lobby in Parliament and you will see the arms and saints of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but of our old, central kingdom, no trace. Where did the nation of Cumbria go? Why did we not reappear? The United Nations has many artificial confections, some of which we have invented and invaded, from Iraq to Libya. The scattered islands, Christian and Hindu, Animist and Muslim, of South-East Asia, have been reconfigured as Indonesia. Beside the Adriatic Sea, even mountainous Montenegro has become a nation. But Cumbria, independent for longer, larger and more populous, has not.
Our neighbour, Alex Salmond, is concocting his own independent nation, partially through denying an older Cumbrian identity. Just as highland bagpipes and highland kilts are imposed on the Lowlands that had nothing to do with either, so too from Gretna, North, there are now road-signs in a language that was never spoken between Edinburgh and Dumfries at any time in human history. ‘Failte gu alba’ is a jingle in a dialect of Irish Gaelic, placed in the centre of a land which, when it spoke Celtic at all, spoke Cumbric.
No nation, even Cumbria, is inevitable and eternal. Like the Phillipines or El Salvador, Cumbria grew out of an artificial colony: the backbone of our kingdom was that extravagant exercise in imperial megalomania called Hadrian’s Wall, that planted 14 forts, 80 castles, 240 towers, and subsidised and paid tens of thousands of men for three hundred years. Like them, too, our nation was not a single people but a land of immigrants of many faiths: the Romano-British Cumbrians mixed with descendants of the Anglians, who built the cross at Bewcastle, the Norse worshippers of Odin at Oddendale, and the Syrian archers whose god lay at Kirkby Thore. And the modern reinvention of Cumbria that destroyed our precious counties in 1974 excluded our older hinterland in Dumfries and Clydeside.
But something more than lines on a map sustained our kingdom for seven hundred years after the Romans left, and made it the last Celtic-speaking part of England. When the ancient Britons had been driven from everywhere else, something drew them here: still counting their sheep in the old language, in places still named in Cumbric: Lyvennet, Blencathra, Penrith. Some aspect of our sea-fringed moors and fells, of our city: the culture of King Urien of Rheged, Urien “city-born”, “Urien Y Eochydd, “Lord of the Rip-tide”, then and now, gave us an identity quite distinct, and almost national.
Willie Whitelaw first stood in Penrith and the Border against William Brownrigg. Some of Mr. Brownrigg’s programme seems a little anachronistic: fair wages for mole-catchers, the reintroduction of cock-fighting, no clipping the tails of Clydesdales. Mr Brownrigg did not recognise Cumbria’s traditional territories of Dumfries and Westmorland, and he only received 368 votes. But he half-sensed something in us, which never existed in Wiltshire or Norfolk, when he demanded, in his 1955 election address, “Home Rule for Cumberland”.