Posts tagged ‘the Union’

Jul 29, 2020

Alba, Pictland, Caledonia, Scotland – the birth of a nation

 

Once upon a time long, long ago a man from across the sea and far away travelled to the ancient land of Gaul and there he heard tales of exotic people who painted their bodies with strange patterns and symbols. Never before had the man seen beings with painted skin so he decided that the painted ones, called Picti because there was more than one Pict or picture person and Latin was in vogue at the time, were sufficiently different from all the people he was used to they were positively dangerous and uncivilised.

Roman raiders who invaded and conquered Gaul (in the way people with powerful armies tend to do) agreed with him.

 “We don’t like people who are different and we don’t like people who refuse to capitulate and accept us as their rulers. We like people who look just like us and invite us to take over their lands.”

Tile or Thule showing early map of northern Scotland

The man was called Hieronymus but for obvious reasons he changed his name to St Jerome. St Jerome who is often painted, though not on his body, with a lion representing Christ was disgusted by the weird folk living on the island across the water from Gaul. Not all of them, only the awkward squads of Picts, Atticots or Scoti or versions of the name. They were cannibals, he wailed. To illustrate the point he said if a shepherd, his wife and their flock of sheep were to stroll past a group of Picts, Atticots or Scoti they would be eaten down to the shiver while their mutton on the cloven hoof would be left alone.

“They must be barbarians!” wailed St Jerome; a saint with firm views. And he called out the painted people, Picts and their associates for their attraction to human flesh – in every meaning of the term – one of which old Jerome himself knew a thing or two about.

It may have occurred to some, though not Jerome, that tales of Picti, Atticotti and Scoti barbarity might have been exaggerated – not least by Roman legionaries embarrassed that their marauding antics and expansion into the island across the water from Gaul was only partly successful because the Scoti, Picti and Atticotti in the land called Alba refused to prostrate themselves before the Romans roaming across their territory.

 Angry and embarrassed over their failure to bludgeon the Atticotti, Picti and Scots into submission, legionaries sat around camp fires spinning yarn after yarn about wild, ruthless, cannibals who turned their painted noses up at being invaded in the land the Romans called not Alba but Caledonia – the land the painted people just called Home. Raging Romans and their hingers-on were hell-bent on demonising the Picti, Scoti and Atticoti.  

scotland and pictland

“They were twelve-foot giants, honest. With bad breath. And they’d eat a man as quick as look at him.”

If you make the mistake of looking up Atticotti or rather the alternatively spelled Attacotti on Wikipedia you will read they were –

“a people who despoiled Roman Britain between 364 and 368, along with Scotti, Picts, Saxons …”

 at which stage the author of such nonsense should be reminded in no uncertain terms it was the Romans doing the invading and marauding not the indigenous peoples defending their homes and way of life – including partaking of the occasional shepherd and his wife – not that shepherds had wives, more temporary bidie-ins.

On investigation the Picti – let’s forego the Latin plural and settle for Picts – when they weren’t savaging shepherds were chawing on ears of corn. For they were also referred to as Picts of Cruitnich. Cruitnich, as you’ll know in a minute, means corn eaters. So much for eating fellow men and women. Although no-one can live by corn alone. So, it seems when they weren’t out defending the land from aggressive Imperial Roman types Picts were farming, hunting and fishing and carving imagery into big stones. The Atticotti were doing something else and the Scoti were swatting up on irregular Gaelic verbs.

In the land of corn-eaters spelling was a free-for-all so Cruitnich became Cruitkne and Cruitin. Cruit became a byname for Picts. You can understand it for Picts of Cruitnich is a mouthful, almost as great as a shepherd’s foot. Careless writing turned Cruitin into Priten and as sure as Cruitin is Priten it transformed into Briton. Briton being a word for the people of a place meant Britain was the place where they dwelled.  

 We know some names of Pictish clan chiefs in long-ago Scotland; such as Talorg, meaning bright-browed. His reign as chief was from 388 to 413 and he was succeeded by Drust, son of Erp who ruled till 453. They were quite long-lived these Picts, except for the shepherds.

 The inhabitants of Britain most easy-oasy over being invaded by Romans were soft, southern types while those who weren’t – brawnier, bolder folk backheeled it to the north.   

The land of the north; Alba or Caledonia was demonised by the resentful Romans who felt entitled to conquer any part of the world they fancied. Just because they could. Only they couldn’t. Alba or Caledonia stood firm but their lands so reviled by so many continued to attract the waspish eyes of many a monarch from among the soft folk of the south.   

 The people of Alba were once strangers landing on the shores of the land to the north of the island across from Gaul before Gaul was Gaul. In later times Picts tended to occupy the east of the land while eventually the Scoti or Scots came as boat people from Hibernia – Hibernia later known as Ireland – so the first Scots lived where they dragged their boats ashore, on the southwest coast of Alba. They  were no less ferocious than those pesky Picts, according to the Alexandrian poet, Claudius Claudianus.

Claudius didn’t actually meet any Scoti or Picts but relied on hearsay or anecdotal accounts from – you’ve guessed it – Roman legionaries describing tattooed bodies of the people they had slaughtered in Alba (or Caledonia as they insisted on calling it.) The land that was said to be –

 “tepid with the gore of the Picts and Iere” (Irish Scots)

 “weeping her heaped-up piles of slain Scots”

 …once the Romans had finished with it.

Not that anyone in Pictland or Scotland at this time was averse to slaughtering their fellows. From the Scots or Scoti from Iere or Hibernia who overpowered the Picts to dominate Alba came the first king of Scots to be consecrated, back in 603. This was Aidan who led his men to the Bernician frontier. Bernicia covered the land now southeastern Scotland and northeastern England. In a battle of thrones that was typical of the time, Aidan’s men confronted Aethelfrith, king of Bernicia, at the Battle of Daegsastan on the river Jed and lost – though both armies were virtually wiped out.   

Blood flowed in the north of the north as well. Orkney was reported to have run with Saxon blood. Saxons were people who first washed up on the shores of the island of Britain from the place we now call northern Germany. Most Saxon migrants settled in the southern parts of Britain where they and their close neighbours, the Angles, left their stamp on the heart of every patriotic Englishman and woman revelling in their pure Anglo-Saxon bloodstock, that is – German.

Saxons being a mouthful for the Scoti and Picti was given the Alba treatment and became Sassenachs. Some Sassenachs carried on migrating, northwards, but growing knackered by their long walk they mostly stayed on in a part of Alba called the Lothians.

It was around the year 843 when Kenneth MacAlpin became King of the Scots and Picts and power and control over Alba was centralised in a continuing line of monarchs. This being 1200 years ago means Scotland’s ancient pedigree is a very, very long established one.   

Rivalries continued with Picts losing out to Gaelic Celts and bringing to an end the culture of the Alba’s exotic painted people. By the tenth century the language of the Picts has been lost for all time, replaced by Gaelic, although their paintings and carvings remind us of the very special painted people of Alba. In time Celtic culture itself was diluted and altered from the south by the influences of the Sassenach and from the north the impact of Vikings. 

Hundreds of years later Johnny-come-lately waspish-eyed monarchs from England claimed the ancient land of Scotland belonged to them. Roll on 400 years to the Act of Union where a handful of nobles sold-out the people of Scotland in exchange for bags of cash – to the fury of  Scots.    

This unpopular Union between the ancient land of Scotland and England is but a blink of a bloodshot eye in Scotland’s long, long existence – longer than the English usurper’s.   

Scotland, the land of Picts, Scots, Vikings and, yes, Sassenachs does not pretend purity of a single race. That peculiar claim of unadulterated national identity is confined to a branch of extreme English nationalism and I don’t want it said that in this tale of the birth of a nation I have forgotten our southern brethren and sistren. So, I’ll leave the last word to an Englishman, a Sassenach, who composed the following ditty in 1839 – 

A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,

A figurative fib, in fact a fiction;

A something meant t’express in verse

A man akin to all the universe:

From Pict, Scot, Saxon, Norman, Dane, began

That heterogeneous thing – an Englishman.”

 

PS – the peoples of the four nations of Britain lived happily ever after. Or did they?

Mar 22, 2019

Remember that you are an Englishman and consequently have won first prize in the lottery of life. English/British/Scottish – discuss

Remember that you are an Englishman and consequently have won first prize in the lottery of life. (Cecil Rhodes)

That modest opinion may well have been shared by the majority of his kin folk but beneath it flowed an undercurrent of resentment that the message wasn’t being shouted loudly enough so the rest of the world could better appreciate it – and, importantly, the rest of Britain.

“Most English people have observed, with discomfort if not alarm, the persistent and united effort made by the Press of this country to stamp out the use of the words ‘England’ and ‘English,’ substituting for them ‘Britain’ and ‘British.’

Such was a claim which to most Scots was surely arresting in its absurdity. It was made in The Era, a British newspaper, in 1937. It claimed this was an attempt to –

‘obliterate the conception of England as a separate entity; to make the English masses, and the world at large, regard the four people of the British Isles as identical in character, temperament, and spiritual gifts.”

While it is undoubtedly true that a definition of Englishness is difficult to pin down, not unconnected with the fudging of English with British since the Act of Union, much of the populations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales might scratch their heads when England complains of having its identity obliterated knowing the three smaller nations are the ones who have suffered greatest from this phenomenon. The four parts of the UK have lost their distinctiveness – some today even argue there are not four parts to the UK but one single entity. The writer back in the thirties is not so daft or politically devious but still he fails to recognise that when England and English became shorthand for Britain and British all those centuries ago the blurring of distinctions began but England’s greater population kept England at the forefront of the Union and perceptions of it while all but obliterating the unique identities of the three other parts of the Unions.

Blame for the confusion of identities within the Union, according to the writer in The Era, lies with the press and the BBC. His points to the BBC’s celebration of St Andrew’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, St David’s Day but not St George’s Day. I don’t know if the BBC mentioned Burns’ Night in the thirties but that could have been added to his list. I don’t know, either, if there is a Shakespeare Night or morning or afternoon, perhaps there should be. However, Shakespeare does get wall-to-wall coverage in programmes across the BBC so perhaps a Shakespeare afternoon wouldn’t be noticed, is not necessary or would be overload. What really got the author’s dander up was seeing Shakespeare described as a British poet. Gadzooks!

He’s right about Shakespeare. He was English. And pre-Union. At the same time that bad boy of literature, Lord Byron, is invariably referred to as an English poet although he is very much British – having a Scottish mother, was brought up in Scotland and retained his Scottish accent till the end of his days. Double gadzooks! Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes stories is frequently described as English and do we complain? – well, aye, but no-one takes any notice. Worst of all in the commentator’s view was seeing a picture of York Minister in a newspaper with the caption, “This Britain.” Welcome to our world, matey.

Not only England, but every Englishman is an island.
(Novalis, German poet d.1801)

Back to our author who complains that the ‘non-English peoples of Britain’ – ‘these peoples’ he calls us – that’s Scots, Irish and Welsh (whose population, he points out, make up less than Greater London) ‘have been given equitable representation in the English Parliament’ which begs the question – what parliament? English post-Unions? Surely an English parliament doesn’t exist? But it’s as we suspected – Westminster is or isn’t a British or English parliament? And then there’s his use of ‘given’? – the largesse of England towards non-English bits of – uhm, Britain is underwhelming.

The writer ties himself in a right Gordian knot – that has definitely no Aberdeenshire associations – when he writes that one of the four entities making up Britain, let us call it England, has and deserves to have the whip hand and the right to distribute ‘rights’ as it sees fit (and presumably withdraw them as it seems fit.)

In his defence the writer is clearly in support of Home Rule for the non-English parts of the Union for he says that if any wanted Home Rule ‘there would be no opposition from England’ – to which I say, if only.

The political independence lost by Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to England, he claims, has been amply compensated by the economic advantages provided by being in the UK and being raised to a position within the world that would be impossible without being tied to England. You have to admire his gall if not his ignorance of the intellects, discoveries and influence of Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish over time – many simply classified as, uhm – English. Where is Voltaire when you need him? Ah, here he is –

We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.
(Voltaire)

If we were ever in any doubt that England is the leading entity in the Union our correspondent is on hand to sort us out – ‘if tomorrow Scotland, Ireland and Wales became as independent as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the prestige of England would not be lowered at all in the eyes of the world.’ His England, he claims, suffered 82% of the casualties in the First World War. His reference to casualties is as vague as it is nonsense, plucked out of the air for impact. Untangling English from Scottish, Welsh or Irish casualties who might have lived in England or been in English regiments and were counted as English is a mine field. Sheer fiction.

It is an anathema to the writer that the traditions and culture of the entities of the Union have had their differences flattened out. He deplores that the English, descended from peasants, have been ‘callously and blindly robbed of their ancient rights, not only by the Land Enclosure Acts, but by the whole monetary policy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’ He’s right you know. Finally he’s got a point.

An Englishman has all the qualities of a poker except its occasional warmth.

(Daniel O’Connell)

And so the debate over the Union, definitions of what comprises Britain and Britishness rumbles on. It began even before the Union was set up and has been defined by England and her interests. For many of us here in Scotland we have grown up in a Britain that is dominated by England and Englishness that are as alien to us as they are to people from other nations. Even the very language we use in Scotland is unacceptable as British and ridiculed if introduced into conversations in England (where we tend to speak a different version of the language spoken at home because we adapt to accommodate the English population of Britain) e.g. listen to SNP MPs rather self-consciously incorporate words that are part of our everyday speech when they debate in parliament and are greeted with smiles and cheers. Why should they be? They wouldn’t be in Scotland which last time I looked was part of Britain. I don’t think many in the Commons laugh at their use any more except possibly Scottish Tories who appear embarrassed by anything that is distinctly Scottish. In previous times it was different and Scottish MPs were frequently and cruelly mocked for the use of Scotticisms in the ‘English parliament.’

The Scotsman newspaper (surely an oxymoron) is a platform for pro-Union views which often touches on Scottishness/ Englishness/Britishness. In an edition in 1947 it was claimed that few English people think of themselves as British only English and for them the Union wasn’t important. The concept of ‘we’ as in we together who make up Britain had little meaning for them. The did not have a sense of being at one with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What they understood as ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’ was and still is England. They had no notion on what went on elsewhere in the other entities of the UK and presumably imagined people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales lived lives identical to theirs in England.

By contrast Scots have always understood the difference between Britain/England/Scotland and have had to endure the virtual suppression of Scotland as a partner in the Union. That struggle has not really succeeded and Scotland as a distinctive entity with her own character and needs that became invisible in 1707 is scarcely visible in today’s British press, BBC, Sky, ITN where Scottish events and news don’t figure and at Westminster English MPs outnumber Scots by 10 :1. Scotland’s influence in Britain is virtually nil. Not sure why I included ‘virtually’ – omit as you see fit.  Today there are only 74 Scottish MPs who will always be outvoted by England’s 541 MPs who naturally put the interests of England ahead of Scotland’s. When English people talk of the English parliament of Westminster they are spot on. Westminster’s traditions pre-date the Union, references there are to English politics, the built-in majority is English – the monarch in whose name the parliament sits is called Queen Elizabeth II despite there never having been a Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland. But then Scotland is an irrelevance in the union of Britain.

It is not surprising that the period following World War 2 provided an edge to the debate over Britain/England/Scotland for it was a war fought to defend the freedom of sovereign nations across the world from fascism. Scots lives were lost in that war where British soldiers have been described as English and the Union of nations that is Britain was presented to the world as England. It is the cruellest of actions to take someone’s life and deny their identity and existence but that is what happens in a union of unequals.