Britain’s Borderlands

Rory Stewart is, as his name suggests, a Scot, but he is one of the most English in his extraordinary life to date. A talented linguist, he has spent a lot of time walking the deserts of the middle east, and for a time was deputy governor of Iraq, and is one of the most knowledgeable people on the politics and culture of the Middle East, as shown by his Ted talk:

 But he is now an MP for the northern England region of Penrith and the Borders, which seems a far cry from his work to date, but he explains there are a surprising number of similarities, in his BBC programmes, Borderlands.

 He begins by discussing the impact of the Roman built Hadrians Wall, the 2,000 year old boundary between the north and south of mainland Britain, but one which he claims had a devastating impact on the country since. The Romans had no knowledge or interest in the barbarians of the region, so when Roman expansion ground to a halt in the boggy heaths of Scotland, Stewart claims it was the landscape, the ability of locals to hide in it, to carry out what we now call guerilla warfare, that drove Rome to concede that there were at last limits to the extent they could expand their empire, so withdrew south. They built a barrier, which Stewart calls ‘a pernicious scar’, a ‘Roman cataclysm’ based on an old military supply road, across the narrowest part of the area, an arbitrary line, with no attempt made to accommodate the various British tribal areas. He draws parallels with how Europeans have divided up the middle east, and claims the results here were just as devastating. The Romans saw themselves as superior to the locals, even calling them ‘Britaunculi’, o nasty little Britons, as shown in notes found at Vindolanda fort. These Romans lived in a bubble, completely cut off from the locals, though they did employ some of them as trades people, so again he draws parallels with modern soldiers in the Middle East, especially the US who import all they need, and look down on the locals from their fortifications.

This arbitrary line established national boundaries, but also established notions that are still with us – south of the wall is civilised, north barbaric. The wall was incredibly highly manned, with forts every mile and posts in between, with deep thorn filled gullies in between, so whilst some modern historians claim the wall was merely a means of trade control, it was an incredibly intimidating region, and locals were forcibly removed to make space for the military barracks, so a form of early ethnic cleansing, disrupting local culture and hierarchies, so that when Rome left, it became an incredibly chaotic, violent region dominated by warlords, similar again, to many areas of the modern Middle East. .

He talks of how traditional peoples – whether early Britons or Middle Eastern tribes today, did not recognise fixed borders; the various groups expanded, or moved, they won or lost battles, so land fell into different hands, and they were of course controlled by the landscape itself, whether the rich grazing lands of the valleys where 1 acre could feed a cow, or the windswept uplands where it would need 10 acres.

He cites Ptolemy’s map as showing tribes such as the Ludi, or raven people, and the Carvetti or deer people, so draws parallels with the tribes of North America. Tacitus wrote of how many Britons in the south were keen to imitate Roman culture, and were drawn into their vices, but what they called civilisation was really the chains of slavery.

Romans saw Britain as a single unit, and wanted it all. The south was easily conquered, and this is where most of the manors and baths were built. But as they moved further north, they found an increasingly alien landscape, and their settlements became more militarised, until Hadrian at last conceded defeat on expansion. By 197 AD, Britain was divided into 3 regions – Britanicus superior, ie the civilised south, with prosperous villas and barracks, Britanicus inferior, under martial law, so was a vast militarised zone, with 30,000 troops, all of whom needed to be fed. In some areas, the Roman granaries were better built than the soldier’s barracks, and the huge demands for grain and animals totally disrupted local sustainable farming. .

Stewart talks of how we now see mainland Britain as two distinct regions, but he claims, as the title of his two progammes suggests, that there is a middle region, a border country, that straddles the Anglo-Scottish border, and people there share a common culture that is unique. They still have strong Celtic links. For many years, broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has talked of the unique language of the area, in particular, the method of counting their sheep, with numbers such as Yam, tam, pethere, bumfit is 15, giget 20, then the numbers are exhausted and the farmer moves a pebble from one pocket to the other and starts over. This is not just unusual language, it is a 5 based counting system, as opposed to our base 10. They also have a tradition of bardic poetry, still performed in some pubs, and in Welsh. Some years ago, Karinne Polwart the Glaswegian folk singer said that her region, of Dumfries and Galloway, did not have a tradition of Gaelic speaking, but this shows there was Welsh very close by, which is a different strand of the same ancient language.

But by the 5th century, the game was up. Romans left, with some who had married locally, remaining in the increasingly ruinous settlements. They lost the ability to maintain water supplies and drains, and to build in stone, so the former outpost of empire became a region of wooden buildings and subsistence farming. But the vacuum of the borders region became for many centuries infamous for clan wars, for cattle rustling, for anarchy and violence. Stewart was for a time Deputy Governor in Iraq, and he sees parallels with Roman Britain in the failure to establish deep government, so when he troops departed, chaos ensued. Literacy, hygiene, order collapsed. Wooden buildings were built on the sites of stone forts. Bards emerged, the Pr for warlords, extolling their tales of valour and wealth from cattle raiding, of unjust justice.

Then Angles arrived at Banburgh, battled the Picts of Scotland and moved through the middle land to establish a huge new kingdom North of the Humber, Northumberland covering the Scottish lowlands, and the north of England. They were seen as illiterate pirates, but within 2 years they converted to Christianity and the region became a centre for the finest holy art and scholarship in Europe. In Europe Christianity had been grafted onto the organisational base of Rome, but there were also Irish hermits who came on foot, from wilderness to the middle land. In Northumbria, these two strands of Christianity somehow combined and, with the wealth from rich farmland, created this flowering of Christianity, with several still famous saints. St Cuthbert was an extreme asethetic of the Irish, known for his love of animals prayed up to his neck in water, was fed by sea eagles and in the morning otters licked his frozen face back to life. . The region moved into a golden age, producing fantastic illluminated manuscripts, and churches, with a thriving monastic culture. Stewart compares it with Tibet, with the culture and landscape dominated by the highly disciplined monks, who fought against sin and evil. The success of the monks such as St Aiden, Bede, drew others to the region, so fuelling their success. Bede is known for his histories, but he was a true genius, a talented historian, linguist and scientist who wrote on how the moon affects the tides, centuries before Newton. Yet he spent virtually all his life in the tiny world of Jarrow.

The remains of Bede’s monastery is now the chancel of St Paul’s church, Jarrow which still has some 7th century glass. The monastery was the centre of Christian, ie western learning, producing beautifully illuminated books, working until their hands and ink froze i the bitter winters. Bede wrote of how out lives are like a sparrow coming in from a hailstone, then returning outside. We don’t know where we are from or where we are going, The church at Jarrow had an international outlook, not a national one, so world focus shifted from Rome as the centre of learning to this windswept town on the edge of the known world. It became the New Jerusalem. Former Roman forts were turned into Christian churches or the stone reused for churches elsewhere.

Hexham is near to Hadrians wall, a major stopping point on routes north. Stewart claims it is a microcosm of the region he called ‘Middle Land’ with the meandering high street dotted with recycled Roman stones in many of the buildings. Despite being repeatedly raided and looted, it still has strong visible links with its past. Its parish church, St Wilfreds of 675 is mostly middle ages, but the crypt dates from Bede’s time. He was fascinated by Rome, and the crypt is built from Hadrian’s wall stones. He quotes an Anglo Saxon poem: “Wondrous is this wallstone, shattered by fate these walls grey with lichen, and red hued, they withstood many storms and survived many kingdoms as mighty builders have perished yet this wallstone stands.” .

By recycling the wall that divided communities, it had become a symbol of unity. The area of division became a universally recognised centre for learning. But then the Vikings came….


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