Between Britain: A Review

by frankbeswick

Between Britain is a thoughtful book that reflects on British identities from the standpoint of a borderer

Alistair Moffatt is an experienced writer who is a native of the English-Scottish border, and he uses the vehicle of a walk along the border to reflect on what it means to be a Briton in the modern age of nationalism and all the social and political tensions that beset these islands. At the age of seventy four he has had time to reflect on what it means to be English or Scottish and someone in between, with a foot in both camps, the fate of many borderers. I enjoyed this book and thus am commending it to readers.

Picture courtesy of Efraimstochter, of Pixabay.

A History of Conflict

What on Earth does the phrase between Britain mean? You can only be between two or more distinct realities. The phrase, I believe, suggests that Britain is a plurality of entities combined into one and that the writer has somehow in the centre of conflicting elements. But it can also imply that there is an area in the middle that is neither one nor the other of the component parts of this complex reality. Alistair Moffatt, the author, is probably using the phrase in both senses. Moffatt, a well-known writer, whose book To the Island of Tides I have reviewed on Wizzley previously, is a borderer, an inhabitant of the zone that lies on the southern edge of Scotland and the northern edge of England, a land that has seen many bloody battles and has been, as Moffatt suggests, neglected by the London-based British government that has focused so much attention on the richer south of England, and yet also by the Scottish administration in Edinburgh, which Moffatt accused of imposing on southern Scotland a Gaelic  culture which is no part of the Borders' heritage. 

The content of the book include Moffatt's exploration of his border homeland in the form of a walk across Scotland in which he stays as close to the border as he possibly can. This involves walking across open country at times, on occasion traipsing through forested areas, mainly planted for conifer production, and at other times negotiating boggy lands and sometimes man-made hazards such as barbed wire fencing. This does not mean that he eschews road walking, far from it, but it involved him choosing terrain for its proximity to the true border as was practically feasible. This commitment to authenticity made the walk all the more difficult. The route took him on a meandering line that sometimes led through England and at others through Scotland. This is not a book that waxes lyrical on the beauties of the landscape, though at times Moffatt will comment on the lovely views.

Instead it is an account of Moffatt's inner life as he hikes through the landscape. Inevitably, in such a land thoughts turn to history, and much of the history is military. The history of the land is not given in a rigorously chronological order, though the author does have some sequencing in his account of events. But the chronological sequencing of the historical events in the book takes a back seat in relation to the need to comment on places that he encounters on his journey and personal memories. Chronological sequencing is not always relevant in any account of personal experience, for it is more important to the author to give an account of his personal response to the places that he visits. For example, he gives a comment on the battle of Arderydd late in the book, even though it is chonologically one of the earliest accounts, as his route from eastern Scotland meant that he visited it late in his journey.

Identity

Identity is a growing issue in the world of our time, and while it is deeply involved in issues of gender politics, there  are other identities that seek to assert themselves, such as race and nationality. These are growing in our world, possibly in response to globalization. The subtitle of this work, Walking the History of England and Scotland, shows that Moffatt is grounding his talk of identity in history, but Moffatt is a Scot who manages to give an impartial account of the often grim violence that has occurred between the two countries over the centuries. This, however, does not lead him to be soft on injustices wrought to Scotland by the dominance of the national government at Westminster. 

Moffat's account of identity might make nationalists sit up and think. As a borderer he comes from a part of Scotland which never used the kilt or the tartan, and which certainly never used Gaelic, instead communicating in Lallands Scottish, a dialect, or language related to North Eastern English. He resents the current nationalists' promulgation of  a Gaelic identity on Scottish people and the use of the Scottish education system to promote Gaelic in areas where it was never spoken. The book does not take sides on issues of independence for Scotland, the panacea for Scottish dreams promoted by nationalists, but he is clearly not besotted by simplistic solutions to complex problems. Yet he is enraged by the observation that barbed wire is more prevalent on the English sides of the border as opposed to the friendlier Scottish side, and he sees this as a manifestation of English "higher" class culture of which all would be better rid. His detestation of seeing this kind of weaponry in a peaceful country place is augmented by an accident that he suffered  when scrambling over a rather nasty fence in an area of rough and boggy land. His clothes were gashed and his face smeared with blood as he walked to the nearest town, shunned by passers-by afraid of trouble, until a kind-hearted woman helped him to sponge down his blood stained face and went with him to a helpful clothes shop. 

Border Folk in History

.History is oft-written by the powerful, and much British history speaks of the perspectives of the dominant class, which is focused on Southern England. While Scots can on the whole be represented by official histories, the border folk  are oft-times overlooked. This takes us to Moffatt's pet resentment, the origins of rugby. Moffatt played rugby at a significant level, though not internationally, and he resents the English appropriation of the game. I take umbrage here because I see this act of cultural appropriation as not an English act, but as the work of public  schools, who propagated the myth that the game was invented at Rugby School in England. Moffatt is adamant that the game originated in Southern Scotland and Northern England, where it was known as Ba'. I am personally unsure about the invention, as it is clear that a form of rugby predates the game's adoption by public schools, the codification is a public school affair.

The book is a mine of interesting information about the borders and the community who lived on them. The border tale includes James Small, the inventor of a new and more effective plough that enabled more efficient farming, and this plough was instrumental in promoting Britain's agricultural revolution, though we never heard of it in the standard school histories. The border story includes the Reverend Adam Thomson, whose publishing company churned out cheap Bibles for the religious education of ordinary people for many years, until they were outcompeted by Eyre and Spottiswood, who were able to undercut the smaller border company. 

The book goes into impressive detail about the English and Scottish wars in the Plantagenet and Tudor periods and is not afraid to describe events as they were, brutal and bloody. Yet the book gives detailed accounts of the actions of the infamous Border Reivers, bandit clans  whose territory straddled the Borders and who in the Middle Ages and the Tudor period terrorized the North East of Britain, finally being brought to heel by James the First of England and Sixth of Scotland, who summarily executed some of their leaders and exiled some others of these clans to Northern Ireland 

The book makes reference to characters  from earlier, more distant eras, and we meet Merdynn, whose name was rewritten as Merlin, who was probably a druid for the British king Gwenddoleu. Merdynn is the original Merlin  who plays such a role in the King Arthur story. Moffatt argues for a Northern Arthur as opposed to a Cornish one, who is the product of an aristocrat's desire to have a legend associated with his castle of Tintagel.

This book was given to me as a birthday present, and it has been a very successful one. It is an enjoyable and informative read. I commend it to readers.

 

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Updated: 06/20/2024, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick 17 days ago

The plants on which cooks draw are the same across The British Isles, though some are specific to an area.

DerdriuMarriner 17 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

Concerning myself with different and similar culinary configurations causes me to consider different and similar building and vegetation configurations.

Do the border regions of the biogeographical Between Britain draw upon the same business- and residence-designing traditions? Do they draw upon the same non-woody and woody plants?

frankbeswick 18 days ago

Mushy peas do not substitute for chips. They are an optional part of the recipe. Similarly, malt vinegar is an optional condiment. It is not an alternative to ketchup.

DerdriuMarriner 18 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

Are mushy peas acting as replacement for, or supplement to, chips?

Does malt vinegar act as replacement for, or supplement to, something else? (That something else likeliest would be ketchup for Unitedstatesians ;-D!)

frankbeswick 19 days ago

It is a standard recipe, though some people eat them with mushy peas and many have malt vinegar.,I detest malt vinegar and do not beat mushy peas

DerdriuMarriner 19 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

One last fish and chips-related question comes to mind before I continue with other Between Britain-conjured observations and questions ;-D.

Do fish and chips follow the same recipe throughout the British Isles or do regional variations emerge in, as examples, Cornish, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh fish and chips?

frankbeswick 20 days ago

No one should eat fried fish and chipped potatoes everyday. Once a week is acceptable. A balanced diet is essential.

DerdriuMarriner 20 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

That's nice to know that wherever one itinerates there is the fish-and-chips option.
Is it every day, every meal or is it some days, some meals (such as lunch or dinner)?

(As I mentioned previously, Unitedstatesian equivalents of fish and chips matter the most as the Church Friday fish fry ;-D!)

frankbeswick 21 days ago

Yes, all over the British Isles.

DerdriuMarriner 21 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

So fish and chips exists in and between Britain!
Might it exist beyond Britain, in Ireland and Scotland and on the islands?


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