Scottish independence and the idea of Britishness

I don’t have a particular axe to grind as far as Scottish independence is concerned. I’m not a Scot, nor do I live in Scotland. I don’t have a vote in the referendum. However, as someone with a keen interest in Scottish history I do take an interest in the debate. I’m particularly interested in how the terms ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ (and ‘Scot’ and ‘Briton’) are used by people on both sides, usually when a point about identity is being raised. In recent years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying how these terms were used in Scotland in the early medieval period or ‘Dark Ages’, the era of the Picts and Vikings. In two books (one already published, the other forthcoming) I’ve looked at what it meant to be a Briton in the Scotland of a thousand years ago, and why people in those days regarded ‘Britishness’ as different from both ‘Scottishness’ and ‘Englishness’. Early medieval texts show that even the umbrella term ‘Britain’ could be used in ways that excluded Scotland and England, to distinguish the territories of the Britons from those of the Scots and English.

The Britons of early medieval times were descended from the people we used to call ‘Ancient Britons’ in the school history lessons of my childhood. We were taught that the Britons fought the Romans, then the Anglo-Saxons (the ancestors of the English) and that their language survives today in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. All of this is broadly true, although more could be said. In Scotland, the clearest reminder of the Britons of old is the distinctive, twin-peaked mass of Dumbarton Rock, which gets its name from Gaelic Dùn Breatann, ‘Fortress of the Britons’.

Dumbarton Rock

‘Fortress of the Britons’: Dumbarton Rock, viewed from the south bank of the River Clyde.

Fast forward a thousand years and we’re all Britons now, regardless of whether we live in England, Scotland or Wales. The modern notion of a common British identity is fairly easy to grasp – or at least it should be. Unfortunately, not everyone who voices an opinion on Scottish independence seems to understand what ‘Britishness’ means in the twenty-first century. Some commentators think the name ‘Britain’ applies exclusively to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They believe a Yes vote on 18th September will herald the ‘end’ or ‘break up’ of Britain. They’re mistaken. Britain is a geographical entity, a large island in the North Atlantic, known as ‘Great Britain’ to distinguish it from Brittany or ‘Little Britain’; the UK is a political entity, constituted in the early twentieth century after the creation of the Irish Free State. An independent Scotland will still be part of the island of Great Britain. The people of an independent Scotland will still be British. Separation from the UK will not dilute their ‘Britishness’ in any way. This is a simple geographical fact. It is not affected by the outcome of next week’s referendum.

* * * * *

Epilogue: Some references to ‘Britishness’ in early medieval Scotland

1. Scots, Britons and English (Anglo-Saxons) as separate peoples.

From the Annals of Ulster:
952 AD – Cath for Firu Alban & Bretnu & Saxonu ria Gallaibh.
‘A battle over the men of Alba [Scots] and the Britons and the Saxons [English] was won by the Foreigners [Vikings].’

From the Prophecy of Berchan:
c.960 AD (reign of King Ildulb of Alba) – ‘Bretain, Saxain, maircc fria a linn, fria a re an lonsaiglithigh airmglirinn mo glienar Albancha leis idir thuaith is eglais.
‘Woe to Britons and Saxons in his time, during the reign of the champion of fine weapons; joy to the Scots with him, both laity and clergy.’

[The Britons mentioned in these two references were the people of Strathclyde, the last surviving kingdom of the Britons in the North.]

2. Britain = ‘territory ruled by Britons’ (not ‘the island of Britain’ as a whole)

From the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba:
c.972 AD – Cinadius filius Maelcolaim regnavit [xxiv] annis. Statim praedavit Britanniam ex parte.
‘Cináed son of Máel Coluim reigned 24 years. He frequently plundered part of Britain.’

[‘Britain’ here means Strathclyde which lay on the south-west border of Cináed’s kingdom.]

Govan The Sun Stone

Sculpture of the Strathclyde Britons: the Sun Stone at Govan (tenth century AD).

* * * * * * *

36 comments on “Scottish independence and the idea of Britishness

  1. William Gilbreath says:

    Thank you Tim. Nicely said. I guess one could say that Chief Bretnach of the Galbraiths (1130-1185) became a stranger in his own land, as did all all the Britons. Bill

    • Tim says:

      Cheers Bill. I expect you’re right about Bretnach and the Britons in the 1100s. Btw, the long-overdue next installment of my Galbraith series is in the pipeline and should appear on this blog in the next couple of weeks.

  2. It is pretty interesting that the two most populous cities of Scotland were both founded by the Britons: Glasgow and Edinburgh. For that reason alone, the Scots need to remember the Britons.

    • Tim says:

      An interesting point, Michelle. Of the two cities, Glasgow is probably ahead as far as remembering the Britons is concerned. It has the tomb of St Kentigern (at the cathedral) and the carved stones of the kingdom of Strathclyde (at Govan). I assume Edinburgh Castle gives a bit of info about the kingdom of Gododdin, but I’m not up-to-date with the situation there.

  3. dearieme says:

    “the UK is a political entity, constituted in the early twentieth century after the creation of the Irish Free State”: surely constituted after the Union of 1801, and modified in 1922 by the secession of the Irish Free State?

    • Tim says:

      You’re obviously correct in a broader historical sense, but the entity to which I was referring is ‘UKGB+NI’, this being the current manifestation of the United Kingdom. One could perhaps argue that it is simply the latest version of the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’ of 1707.

  4. diaspora52 says:

    You offer such a clear perspective on this complex, muddied issue. When I read your article, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank you!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Jeanette. I usually avoid modern politics at this blog, but this topic cuts across a wide sweep of history so I made an exception.

  5. kevin halloran says:

    In one sense the Scottish vote is an irrelevance. Devolution itself rendered political union insupportable in the longer term. A ‘No’ vote will not address the longstanding problems encapsulated in the West Lothian question, nor the blatant unfairness of issues such as university fees. The rush to secure short term political advantage by ‘bribery’ under Devo-max must have implications for England and Wales and I suspect the losers will be the northern English working class. The rejection of devolution by voters in the north-east looks increasingly foolish and a renewed movement for such in the English regions can’t be long delayed. I fear that in Churchill’s words we are only at the end of the beginning.

    • Tim says:

      I agree on the implications for those of us who dwell outside Scotland. The dust thrown up by the independence debate won’t settle quickly, whatever happens in next week’s vote. Some of it is already wafting south of the Tweed. As a supporter of decentralisation I hope the English regions make a new push for devolved powers.

      • kevin halloran says:

        I have to admit to being a romantic rather than a realist, probably as a result of too long an immersion in our early history. As a Yorkshireman I have never been reconciled to the 927 conquest of Northumbria by the southern English.

        • Chris Pickles says:

          Were you happy about being conquered by the vikings in 867?

          • Tim says:

            Like Kevin, I hail from a formerly independent kingdom absorbed by a southern English power in the tenth century. In my case, the absorption came nine years earlier, in 918, when Lady Aelfwynn – the rightful ruler of Mercia – was shoved aside by her uncle (Edward the Elder, king of Wessex).

            • Chris Pickles says:

              Well I come from Yorkshire too, but I don’t mind that Yokshire became part of England. I side with Edward the Elder, Athelstan etc rather than Erik Bloodaxe (if it actually was him) or all those Anlafs, Sihtrics and the rest.

        • jimthemorr says:

          Yes, Kevin, it was ‘interesting’ in the 920s and 930s. How much is known about the 927 events apart from what is in the AS Chronicles – hardly an impartial source?

          How much of the stuff about Athelstan is reliable? (Winners writing history etc.) Michael Wood in his recent TV series was very dewy-eyed about him.

          Two hundred years before, Bede – a Bernician/Northumbrian – was supposed to have put forward the idea, later taken up by Alfred and his successors, of a united Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

  6. dearieme says:

    My own preferred solution is that a separate English/RUK parliament be set up, preferably in the Scilly Isles. The British parliament should leave London to take up residence in Berwick; its MPs would come from the Scottish and English/RUK parliaments perhaps once a week. Fridays preferably. All this would allow hugely valuable government-occupied real estate in London to be sold off, thus reducing government debt.

    But this perhaps takes us far afield from this blog’s purpose.

  7. Terminology changes over time, I know – but I’m still surprised to read that “Britain is a geographical entity, a large island in the North Atlantic, known as ‘Great Britain’ to distinguish it from Brittany or ‘Little Britain’ “. In my schooldays long ago, the teaching was that ‘Britain’ meant the main, largest island, ‘Great Britain’ referred to Britain plus its offshore islands.

  8. dearieme says:

    I’m afraid that the teaching “In my schooldays long ago” was wrong. The distinction from Brittany occurs in both Latin and French too.

  9. Tim says:

    Linda, I was taught the same info you heard at school, i.e. Great Britain = Britain + adjacent islands. But our teachers back then were indeed off the mark. The use of ‘Great Britain’ to distinguish the main island from ‘Little Britain’ or Brittany goes back to the early 12th century, when Geoffrey of Monmouth used these terms in his History of the Kings (Arthur & Co.).

    • So the terminology has indeed changed over time, first to the meaning we were taught, and now back again.

      • dearieme says:

        That’s jolly game of you, Linda, but it seems more likely to me to have been just a guessed rationalisation by some ignoramus for whom critical thought was not a habit. It’s shameful if that silliness were perpetuated in Teacher Training Colleges, but perhaps no surprise. Can you point to a period when educated people believed this with-and-without-islands rubbish? Can you suggest when GB stopped meaning what James VI & I meant by it, and started bearing the meaning claimed by your teacher, that it to say when it became a means of distinguishing the mainland plus islands from the mainland alone? Can you explain why, mirabile dictu, it then reverted to its earlier meaning? Indeed, can you explain why anyone ever wanted a word for GB shorn of its islands? To what end?

        • Chris Pickles says:

          An island is an island, and has to have a name? So what do you call the big island that has most of England, Wales and Scotland on it?

          Either it is called Great Britain or it is called nothing, and that can’t be right.

          So Skye is in Scotland, Anglesey is in Wales, and the Isle of Wight is in England, but they aren’t in Great Britain – that makes sense to me, even though it comes on no other authority than that I just thought of of it.

        • I’ve already said – and Tim has confirmed – that it was standard education in schooldays past, i.e. mid- to late twentieth century.

          I’m not a historian, and therefore won’t attempt to answer your other questions. What I would like to say is that I’m alarmed and disappointed by the difficulty you seem to have with the possibility that the phrase “Great Britain” may once have been understood as meaning something other than you now understand by it. For one thing, it seems like an attempt to prescribe language use, and that’s always dangerous to those who value free speech . For another, your denigration of those who taught me and others of my generation suggests a worrying – to me – intolerance and contempt for those who don’t share your understanding.

          If that’s typical of debates here, I’m off to find more worthwhile reading matter.

          • Tim says:

            The simple fact is that it’s absolutely fine to use ‘Great Britain’ not only for ‘the island of Britain’ but also for ‘the main island + smaller ones’. Both definitions have been part of customary use for a long time. While the term was originally coined to distinguish the main island from its Breton offshoot, the meaning eventually widened to encompass offshore isles that were associated politically with the Kingdom of Great Britain (17th century). This wider usage was already commonplace long before the advent of formal education, which merely picked it up and passed it on to schoolchildren such as Linda and myself (and thousands more). It would therefore be wrong to blame those who taught this information, for it was (and is) part of a vocabulary that had already been made acceptable by many years of customary use.

            My own gripe, as stated in the blogpost, is against incorrect use of the term ‘Britain’ (with or without the prefix ‘Great’) in the context of the Scottish independence debate. The idea that an independent Scotland would somehow cease to be ‘British’, a falsehood promoted by some sections of the No camp in particular, is the prime target for me.

            • Thanks, Tim.

              Your gripe, I suspect, is occasioned by yet another example of slippage in meaning – Britain and Great Britain are so often used as synonyms for the political entity UK nowadays. If Scotland withdraws from the UK, the latter will no longer encompass all of Britain/Great Britain.

              • Tim says:

                Very true, Linda. As an appendix to my blogpost I was going to list a dozen or so examples of the false equation ‘Britain=UK’ but decided not to in the end – mainly because all of them originated in the No camp and the Daily Mail was over-represented. It was certainly tempting, as my sympathies lie with Yes, but I’m trying to maintain a neutral stance (which is the position some of my ill-informed compatriots in the English media should try to adopt).

            • Chris Pickles says:

              “The idea that an independent Scotland would somehow cease to be ‘British’…”

              But Scotland would become detached from the former Roman province of Britannia, just as its current territory had been (most of the time) during the Roman occupation.

              • Tim says:

                Detaching Scotland from a former Roman province gives the same result as detaching it from the UK: it remains British.

                To the Romans, the name Britannia meant the whole island of Britain. The Caledonian people of what is now the Scottish Highlands were described as ‘Britons’ by Tacitus, whose father-in-law Agricola fought them in the first century AD. When the Romans eventually divided the territory south of Hadrian’s Wall into two provinces, they called them Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior (Upper and Lower Britain), but these were just administrative names and all lands north of the Wall were still regarded by Rome as part of Britannia.

  10. jimthemorr says:

    I would like to throw in another notion here.

    “The British Isles” was a term I was familiar with since a kid and I thought it a pretty innocuous geographical term. An interest in Irish geology revealed that this is not the case and the term is pretty much unacceptable in ROI.

    Obviously, recent political history has had a strong influence here, but the Romans distinguished between Britannia and Hibernia and I believe there were high kings of Ireland before ‘England’ or ‘Scotland’ existed. I guess the Irish never saw themselves as “British”?

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Jim. It’s useful to get a geological perspective. I must admit to using the term ‘British Isles’ less and less, mainly for the reasons you mention. I’ve used it only 6 times in my new book, whereas in my previous books it turned up far more frequently. I believe you are right: the Irish don’t see themselves as ‘British’, for very good reasons (historical as well as geographical).

      • jimthemorr says:

        Ironically, Tim, geologically Ireland is very similar to Britain, with the north and west being more or less analogous to Scotland from the Great Glen to the English Border, while the south and east are similar to England and Wales. This is because the first two were on the edge of Laurentia (roughly North America) while S Ireland, England and Wales came from Avalonia – tectonically quite separate. The collision happened about 450 million years ago.

        Didn’t the Scots make a lot of their ‘Irishness’ (and the Irish church)? My impression is that they used this as a way of establishing their hegemony over the Picts in the 9th century. I think I’ve said to you before that I would guess that the Scots went to considerable lengths to root out all traces of Pictishness (especially language?) in the 10th and maybe 11th centuries. By the 12th century and David I, Pictishness would have been an ancient memory. Dauvit Broun talks quite bit about this and other stuff, including the use of ‘Alba’ (=Britain).

        I still think that ‘British Isles’ (including Ireland) could be a useful concept if one could get away from the modern political baggage. In the longer term I would like to see it as a stable geopolitical (quasi-federal) entity. ‘Federalism’ has come back again recently, but it’s hard to see how it can get anywhere with the English dominance. History maybe has a message here – you mentioned Mercia, but if there was Wessex, Northumbria, etc. federalism could be more of a practicable proposition – pipe dream, i know.

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