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.

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