Friday, 28 March 2014

The Heilan' Man


















Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who is somewhat hopefully planning to persuade 100,000 people to link hands across the Scottish border in a symbolic rejection of independence, has blamed the present renaissance of separatist sentiment on the Romans, and in particular the Emperor Hadrian of the eponymous wall. 
"Hadrian literally drew a line on the map — created this pernicious scar across the landscape — and in doing so set up, in a way he could never have imagined, problems that would last 1,600 [sic] years."

But is that right?

The Romans of course conquered Britain from the south, and at a time when the climate was slightly colder than it is today. The further up the island one proceeds, the more one's supply lines are stretched, and the less attractive the land becomes for farming. Having taken what they wanted for themselves, the conquerors made the pragmatic decision that, rather than fight their way into what, for Italians, may have seemed like a Hyperborean wasteland, it would be easier simply to build a bulwark against the original inhabitants across the north of the island. There are two obvious places to do so — where the island is narrow but just before it becomes broad — and so it was that Hadrian's, and then the Antonine, Wall came into being.

The real reasons for the genesis of a separate Scottish state are only obliquely related to the Romans, however. In terms of latitude, Denmark, from whence many speakers of North Sea Germanic dialects embarked on their conquest of England, extends only half way up the Scottish coast. Not only that, but western Scotland is very close to Ireland, with many islands capable of acting as jumping-off points for migratory ventures in either direction. It was therefore much easier for the expanding Irish Gaels to establish themselves in Scotland than, say, the northern and southern peninsulas of Wales, where they also at one time had colonies. Although scholars don't know an awful lot about the language of the Picts, most believe that, if there was only one, it was at least partially P-Celtic, meaning that the Q-Celtic Gaels could more easily diffuse their language once they had arrived. Indeed, even today, while the languages are far from being mutually intelligible, many common words, such as those for "door" (drws / dorus) and "house" (tลท / taigh), are recognisably similar.

Old Etonian Mr. Stewart argues that the border region once enjoyed a common culture: 
"I thought I could undermine the whole idea of splitting by emphasising these multiple historical identities, resurrecting the old kingdom of Cumbria, or Northumbria, and making people see they have a common heritage."

But Cumbria and Northumbria were themselves territories at odds with each other, respectively P-Celtic and Anglian, and while what became south-east Scotland has spoken Anglic dialects for many centuries, south-west Scotland went straight from being P-Celtic to being Q-Celtic, with Gaelic only dying out in the region in the seventeenth, or perhaps even eighteenth, century. Even if that had not been the case, and English had established itself in the south-west of Scotland earlier, the end result would probably only have shifted the border to the north. Had that happened, Scotland today might be smaller, but Gaelic-speaking and, quite possibly, already independent.

The locations of the two Roman walls are not arbitrary lines on a map but natural frontiers, now best known as the respective historical borders between Scotland and England, Highland and Lowland, but more or less always there. As Britain is a long, thin island whose over-mighty capital is very much at one end, it is hardly surprising that there is a secessionist movement along at least one of them.

And, given the naturalness of the border marked out by Hadrian, perhaps Mr. Stewart should reconsider whether his scheme is the best way of preventing its upgrade.

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