I’ve recently taken part in a project called “In between?”, exploring the memories and understandings of border regions with the cultural organisation ENRS. In my project proposal, I wrote of how England and Scotland appear to be ever more divided, with areas such as Scottish Independence, Brexit and currently Coronavirus measures and rates meaning that the “United” Kingdom appears to be an increasingly ironic title for our country. Much of my research was too current for a project focused on memories and history, which is my reason for writing this article.
Earlier this year, Boris Johnson claimed that there was “no such thing” as an Anglo-Scottish border. Naturally, first minister Nicola Sturgeon rebuked this as an “absurd” thing to say. But the reality in the border region is rather more nuancedthan either of these takes. The border that the UK prime minister denies exists is actually considered Europe’s oldest steady land border, with few changes since the 11th century. Of course, two countries with different legal systems, state religions and in recent decades governments must have a border, or administrative chaos would ensue.
The people of the border region have a long and interesting history and culture, most prominently the chaotic Reivers period of the 16th century, back when local clans relied on bad Anglo-Scottish relations to get away with crime. In most families, my own included, a borders history comes with connections to either side. The lands around Hadrian’s Wall are remote and lacking public transport, meaning that locals look out for one another and feel a strong sense of belonging to the borders, rather than particularly to England or Scotland. Indeed, many commute across the border daily, and support for Scottish independence was lowest in the border regions.
It was in this interlinked border region that Scottish nationalist groups protested this summer, claiming that English visitors to Scotland should stay on their side due to differing Coronavirus rates; at the time Scotland was reporting no deaths, whereas England had approx. 70 per day. It was also where I was visiting for research when Boris Johnson announced the second English lockdown. In response, Nicola Sturgeon immediately tweeted that “We are asking people not to travel to or from England at all, except for essential purposes.” How would this work in practice, with such a remote yet interconnected community being cut in two?
I spent the day after those announcements in the Kielder Forest Park, a farmed forest on the English side of the border, although the nearest town is Jedburgh in Scotland. That morning, four miles into England, I met two old ladies from the Scottish side of the border stocking up on firewood. They were extremely concerned about heating their homes if border checks were to be imposed, and I felt a great pity for them. Later that day in Berwick-upon-Tweed, I met a widow who lived alone on the Scottish side of the border. He had formed a support bubble with his daughter’s family, who lived only three miles away but in England, and was asking around to see whether this was still permittable. The confusion and worry of the borders people was palpable, yet could have been totally avoided.
A different approach with clear guidelines for those who live in this united, yet asunder region is clearly needed. Britain is an island with mostly external borders, meaning that the governments of the UK and Scotland are unused to dealing with these issues. An example just across the North Sea that we could learn from is that of the Schleswig-Sønderborgregion of Germany and Denmark.
There is long-term recognition of the Schleswig-Sønderborgregion and many cultural and linguistic projects to fostercommunity. Examples include Danish schools in northernGermany, German schools in southern Denmark and government funded organisations focused on making cross border commuting and trade as smooth as possible. In contrast to us in Britain, Danes and northern Germans learn about their land border from a young age. This understanding has contributed to allowing locals continued access to both Germany and Denmark throughout much of the pandemic, even when a hard land border was imposed, as they had a special right to cross without restrictions. Unlike the current confusion in the communities of our Anglo-Scottish border, the people of Schleswig-Sønderborg can clearly find out what rules apply to them and continue with their lives with minimal disruption.
Despite divisions in the neighbouring nations, there is a clear need to engage with the Borders region as the unique entity it is. As it currently stands, London and Edinburgh, for different reasons, overlook the border region and deny the need for dialogue to legislate for its specific needs. The irony, however, in Scotland’s most unionist region, may be that Scottish independence could encourage greater focus and a more tailored approach. The two governments would be forced to pay attention and negotiate how to manage the region, in the same ways European countries do. This could become an opportunity to bring clarity and a new understanding of the region, as well as avoiding some of the problems which have appeared during the Coronavirus pandemic.