Tom Holland on our island story: what England and Scotland share politically and morally

Magna Carta and the Declaration of Arbroath, Boswell and Johnson, Walter Scott and Disraeli – Scotland and England have long mirrored each other in many ways, says Tom Holland. 

Making of a myth: the Wallace Monument near Stirling commemorates the 13th-century hero of Scottish independence

 

The Tarbat Peninsula, a spit of land sticking out from the northernmost Scottish Highlands, seems an unlikely spot for a revolution. At its tip stands a lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle back in 1830 after a deadly storm in the adjacent Moray Firth; a few miles south lies the tiny fishing village of Portmahomack. Most visitors there today are tourists, attracted by its picturesque harbour and sandy beach; but back in the mid-6th century it was the scene of a momentous experiment.

A band of ascetics, wandering enthusiasts for an exotic new religion named Christianity, arrived at the court of a local king. Simultaneously intrigued and suspicious, he granted them some unwanted land on which to found a community. “The Haven of Saint Colmóc” – “Port Mo Chalmaig” – was the first ever monastery on the coast of Easter Ross. For 250 years, until it was destroyed by a terrible fire at the beginning of the 9th century, Portmahomack was one of the most celebrated places in Britain.

That it is impossible to be certain who either the king or “Saint Colmóc” was reminds us just how dark the Dark Ages can be. Various shocking details were reported of the people among whom Portmahomack was founded. It was said that they had come from Scythia; that they fought naked; that they were ruled by women who kept whole troupes of husbands. Most notoriously of all, they were reported to tattoo themselves: a barbarous habit that had led them to being nicknamed “Picti”, or “painted people”. A people more hostile to the norms of southern lands it would have been hard to imagine. Even the Romans had given up trying to tame them. Yet where the legions had failed, a hardy band of monks had succeeded. An outpost of Mediterranean culture had been successfully planted in the farthest north.

The coming of Christianity to Pictland was part of a much broader process that ultimately united the whole of Great Britain in a common religious culture. Pagan rulers, when they submitted to baptism, were rarely signing up to the poverty and pacifism preached by monks. What appealed instead was the awesome potency of the Christian God. Membership of the Church attracted those with broad horizons and a taste for self-enrichment.

Yet conversion to Christianity was never a one-way street. At Portmahomack, the missionaries were influenced by native customs, as well as vice versa. The tradition of holy men possessed of a privileged relationship to the supernatural was not unknown to the Picts. Even the tonsure worn by the monks derived from the Druids. The very stonework of the monastery was incised with patterns already ancient when the Romans had first arrived in Britain. The decision to become Christian did not, for the peoples of Pictland, imply surrender to an alien power. Rather, it reflected a creative engagement with the world beyond their various kingdoms.

In the words of Martin Carver, the archaeologist who led the recent excavation of Portmahomack, “People were arguing about their future, choosing with whom to align, and expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds.”

Today, when the people of erstwhile Pictland are once again arguing about their future and choosing with whom to align (albeit not necessarily expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds), it is valuable to remember just how protracted the emergence of a united kingdom within Great Britain was. The Act of Union between England and Scotland was only the final waymark on a journey that had begun as the island was becoming Christian. The notion back then of unifying it as a single kingdom would have appeared laughable. The Picts, so the great Northumbrian historian Bede reported, were only one of four different groups of people who inhabited Britain – and these four peoples were in turn forever fighting among themselves. The English, according to tradition, were like the Picts in being divided up into seven kingdoms; the Welsh, despite ruling a huge stretch of western Britain, from the Severn all the way to the mighty rock of Dumbarton, were even more balkanised; the Scots, penned in to what is now Argyll, were so isolated from their landward neighbours by the mountains of the central Highlands that they ended up inventing an Irish ancestry for themselves. Great Britain in the early Middle Ages could hardly have been more fragmented.

In this way, inevitably, the process by which a bewildering multitude of fractious statelets came to be forged into twin united kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south of the island, was bloody and complex. Perhaps, if the Vikings had not descended on Britain, it would never have happened. The destruction visited on Portmahomack, which was almost certainly their doing, was repeated across the island. Whole kingdoms went down in flames. Where there was ruin, however, there was also opportunity. The kings of Wessex, the only English rulers to stand proof against the Viking firestorm, succeeded in fashioning out of the rubble left by the invaders a united “Angle Land”. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, could plausibly claim to be Rex totius Britanniae – “king of the whole of Britain”.

Nevertheless, there soon emerged limits to the reach of the precocious new English state. The northernmost marches of Angle Land were remote from its centre of gravity in the southern lowlands. The great rock of Edinburgh, which had been in English hands since the 7th century, was lost to it soon after Athelstan’s death. So, too, some six decades later, was Lothian. A new power, fashioned just as England had been carved out of numerous toppled kingdoms, had arrived on the scene.

The forging of “Scot Land” was in many ways an even more remarkable achievement than that of Angle Land. By the early 12th century, three different groups of peoples, each originally speaking a different language, had come to think of themselves as “Scots”. Two of these, the Welsh and the Picts, had been subsumed so thoroughly into the Gaelic-speaking culture of their new overlords that their identities had vanished. The English-speaking population of Lothian, though, was to prove less assimilable – and with momentous consequences. It ensured that Scotland would be a kingdom of two languages, with Gaelic, in the long run, coming off second-best.

Similarly, the structures and presumptions of English kingship were destined to have a far greater influence on the emergent Scottish realm than the native traditions of the Scots. “It is almost as if,” in the impish words of James Campbell, the leading historian of the Anglo-Saxon state, “there are two Englands and one of them is called Scotland.”

 

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A less provocative way of making the same point might be to say that the two rival kingdoms of Great Britain, having emerged out of such similar circumstances, were in many ways the mirror image of one another. England and Scotland, despite their consistently bloody border, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages in ways that were strikingly parallel.

Both, after the Norman conquest of 1066, had a French overlay added to their respective mixes of native cultures; both, in the 13th and 14th centuries, began to define themselves in terms of an emergent sense of national selfhood. The age of Wallace and Bruce, which more than any other period of Scottish history has inspired Scots down the ages to see themselves as distinct from the English, also highlights something else: the strikingly similar ways in which the two peoples mythologise themselves.

Edward I, whose taste for hammering the Scots was what forced them into their desperate and ultimately heroic fightback, was also the first king with an English name since 1066, and a noted enthusiast for the Matter of Britain, as the legends of Arthur were known. This was not just coincidence. Edward’s predecessors, as befitted heirs of William the Conqueror, had preferred France to Scotland as a field for throwing their weight around; yet it was clear, by the time Edward came to the throne, that Normandy and the other French possessions of the English crown were gone for good. Scotland had become, as a result, more self-consciously English – but so, too, had the people it ruled.

Tellingly, the king who had lost Normandy, Edward’s grandfather John, was the same king who had signed in 1215 a document that would end up enshrined as the very foundation stone of English liberty: Magna Carta. Edward himself, desperate to fund his wars, was forced in 1297 to reissue the “Great Charter” in return for a new tax. Then, a couple of decades later, it was the turn of Scottish barons to pose as the defenders of their people’s rights. In 1320, with the war of independence finally won, they assembled at Arbroath Abbey and set their seals on a momentous document of their own. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” so it stirringly declared, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.”

A manifesto pledge understandably popular with the SNP today; and yet, in truth, the principles articulated in the Declaration of Arbroath were quite as pan-nationalist in their implications as they were nationalist. Like Magna Carta, it came to serve the people of a British kingdom as something truly precious: an assurance that no one, not even a king, should be above the law. Understandably anglophobic in tone though it was, its ultimate significance lay in ensuring that Scots and English would end up treasuring similar ideals.

This, as their fortunes became ever more entwined in the 16th and 17th centuries, proved fundamental in providing the peoples of the twin kingdoms with a genuinely British political culture. Increasingly, to many Scots and English, what divided them came to seem of less moment than what they shared.

Granted, this did not prevent the road to a united kingdom of Great Britain from proving almost as bloodstained as the forging of Scot Land and Angle Land had been. Even though the Scottish king James VI, when he succeeded to the English throne as James I, rejoiced in describing himself as monarch of “Magna Britannia”, the failure of his son to respect the fault lines that still divided the two realms later played a critical role in the descent of both into civil war.

Under Charles I, the Protestantism that was the shared legacy of the Reformation in the two countries began to set them at each other’s throat. In Scotland, Charles’s attempt to impose the Anglican Prayer Book precipitated in 1638 a particularly startling exercise in popular democracy, as congregations across the kingdom swore to uphold a “National Covenant”, “against all sorts of persons whatsoever”.

This, naturally, cast the Scots themselves as a Chosen People – a conceit so invigorating to Scottish morale that over the following decade entire armies of Covenanters ended up intervening directly in England. There, however, the challenge facing them was not how alien their southern neighbours were, but how similar. The English were no less prone to thinking of themselves as God’s elect than the Scots – and to such crushing effect that Oliver Cromwell, after his stunning victory at Dunbar in 1650, was able for the first time to impose a political union on the whole of Great Britain.

This particular dispensation, maintained as it was at the point of a sword, did not outlast the Lord Protector; and it took two Acts of Union, one passed by the English parliament in 1706, and one by the Scottish parliament in 1707, finally to meld the two chosen peoples, Israel and Judah, into a single nation. Unpopular as this was with many in both countries, a largely loveless marriage of convenience brokered by governing and commercial elites, the fact that the Union had been secured at all suggests the degree to which differences between Scotland and England – although still eye-catching, to be sure – had become increasingly skin-deep.

To those resentful of the nation that came officially into being on May Day 1707, it was a terrible false turn. That the contours of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom still remain so clearly distinct and defined, three centuries on, has encouraged some, particularly in Scotland, to cast British identity as a kind of knotweed: alien, invasive, positively demanding to be uprooted. It is this, no doubt, that gives to so much nationalist rhetoric its decidedly 17th-century flavour. Lurking behind many of the arguments in favour of Scottish independence lurks a presumption – sometimes left unspoken, sometimes not – that the Scots are a blessedly egalitarian and moral people, denied their chance to establish a social-democratic paradise only by evil neoliberals south of the border.

That Scotland, in reality, has become ever less keen on redistributive measures the longer its government has been devolved unsettles the true believers not a jot. The hold of the Kirk may have weakened; but as in the 17th century, so in the 21st: faith rarely derives from statistics.

If the Tories stalk the nationalist imagination as equivalents of Charles I, then the Yes campaign, with its fulminations against the iniquities of London bankers and the bedroom tax, has more than an echo of the Covenanter movement. There is mileage still to be had in appealing to the Scots as a chosen people.

Detail from Rowlandson's 1786 caricature of Johnson and Boswell walking arm in arm in Edinburgh

 

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Yet, for 300 years now, they – and the English and the Welsh, too – have had the chance to direct their gaze beyond the medieval limits of their respective kingdoms, and to work for the common good, not just of their own countrymen, but of all the peoples of Great Britain. So habituated have we become to our domestic stability that we forget just what an achievement it was, after the rack and ruin of the 17th century, to fashion an enduring peace across this island. In 1751, a mere six years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites had reached Derby, and five after the slaughter of Culloden, the war secretary could stand up in the Westminster parliament and praise Highland soldiers as the best in the British army.

A decade later, the most celebrated of all Anglo-Scottish friendships began when James Boswell met Dr Johnson in a Covent Garden coffee shop. There is surely no more moving or joyous expression of what the Union has meant in practice than Rowlandson’s marvellous cartoon of the two men, Walking Up the High Street. The emergent Britishness that enabled the gruffly English Johnson and the twitchily Scottish Boswell to end up sharing a sense of commonality would be fundamental, too, in enabling their countrymen, so long divided, to change the world. Enlightenment and industrialisation; empire and the spread of the English language; the defeat of fascism and the establishment of a welfare state: the achievements of the United Kingdom, for good and ill, have been on a vastly greater scale than anything achieved by England or Scotland on its own.

Not that this is necessarily an argument for maintaining the Union in its present form; indeed, for those ashamed of what Britain got up to in her swaggering heyday it can easily seem an argument for breaking it up. “Ukania”, Tom Nairn memorably termed the British state: a Ruritanian ghoul unable to escape the taint of its early-modern origins. Linda Colley argued that with many of the raisons d’être that had initially contributed to the forging of a British identity – Protestantism, empire and detestation of the French – no longer what they were, “Britain is bound now to be under immense pressure”. Perhaps – except that the circumstances that brought about the united kingdoms of England and Scotland are no longer what they were, either, yet both are still going strong. The sharing of ideals and traditions that enabled distinct nations to be forged out of the once-independent realms of Wessex and Northumbria, of Pictland and Dál Riata, have long since become the common heritage of everyone on the island. The values traced by the English back to Magna Carta, and by the Scots to the Declaration of Arbroath, were mingling and merging even before the Act of Union. Right and left in Britain: both have derived their principles from all the corners of Great Britain. They bear the imprint of Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli; of Robert Owen and Keir Hardie. The fluttering of Union Jacks over foreign battlefields was never the essence of British identity – although, as the recent D-Day commemorations showed, even that has not entirely lost its power to tug on heartstrings. It is in our shared political and moral culture that all of us who share this island are most truly British.

That culture, however, is hardly something static. Even to articulate the phrase “British values” is to be reminded that the native traditions of Great Britain are no longer the only ingredients of our mongrel identity. A millennium and more after pilgrim monks brought Christianity to Portmahomack, other religions are now in the process of becoming British. The Picts may never have originated in Scythia, as they liked to claim; but today eastern Europeans in their hundreds of thousands have settled in Britain. English identity is already proving inadequate to cope with the scale of recent immigration; nor is there any reason to think that Scottish identity will prove any more absorbent, should similar numbers start to settle north of the Border.

British identity, though, is a different matter: more recent in origin than either Englishness or Scottishness, it is baggier, more capacious, less ethnically centred than either. “Not at all, mate,” Mo Farah said when asked whether he would rather have won his Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Somalia rather than Britain. “This is my country.”

By a profoundly ironic fluke, the invented Britishness that back in the 18th century sent English and Scots out from their native island to conquer much of the world now, in the 21st century, provides the United Kingdom with something incalculably precious: a national identity as well suited as any in Europe to the welcoming and integration of newcomers. Britishness may have lost an empire; but perhaps it has found a role.

Much will depend on whether the United Kingdom holds together. The decision on that, in the short term, rests with the Scottish electorate alone. Nevertheless, all those in the rest of the island who profoundly value their bonds of citizenship with the Scots, who would be distraught to see them become foreigners, and who believe that the referendum, far from separating us, may instead enable us to repledge our vows, can but watch on in hope. British identity remains what it has always been: a journey, not an end.

Tom Holland’s latest book is “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus, £12.99)