England’s Not Foreign to Me

Peter Jones is not a man with whom I would normally choose to cross verbal swords. Freelance journalist more recently for the Hootsmon but previously regular contributor to weighty pieces in the Times and Economist, he knows his stuff but—more than that—he’s a professional. How he balances his professional objectivity with his private life, from which there must be at least social pressure, I don’t know. The point is (and I say this as someone who has read him for decades): he does.

So when his Op Ed piece entitled Questioning what the English have done for us pops up in yesterday’s Hootsmon, I recharge my java and dive in. And I am not disappointed—en vacances in his gite, Peter discovers that the French of Gascony came to like the English, despite their having been chucked bodily out of the place some 5 1/2 centuries ago (I paraphrase: Peter’s prose is far more resonant). More to the point, the present flood of ex-pats are being uniformly welcomed and not resented. He observes:

“This seems to me to be what Europe ought to be all about. Different nationalities, equally proud of their varying histories, conscious of clashing histories but not resentful of them, mixing together.”

I’m with him to this point. But then he spends the last 10% of the piece pouring cold water all over the concept that the Scots would be capable of welcoming either one-time would-be conquerors or current-day squatters. Here, he has lost me, perhaps because he makes no attempt to expand his basis for doubts. If you read this, Peter, walk with me through the following couple of paragraphs and point me to the parts you find inaccurate.

We Scots didn’t invent racial melting pots but we surely embraced the concept as well as any. When Kenneth MacAlpin hammered our kingdom together in the 9th century, it was out of Brythons and Picts, Norsemen and Anglians, as well as his own Scots—five mutually unintelligible languages that give us the pigs breakfast of place-names with which Ordnance Survey still strews the map of our country.

When Edward I came raging north in 1296 to steal our richest port of South Berwick, he cleared out the inhabitants first but found himself confronted with Flemish, Hanseatic, Danish, Mecklenburger and all other sorts of residents and a major international incident. Once we had established conclusively whoever was running the country, it wasn’t the English, the Scots were to be found all over the Low Countries and the Baltic, trading their little hodden grey socks off.

Seventy ports in Scotland were in the international trade business. The Staple (guild of merchants under a Conservator) was set up in Bruges in 1347 and transferred to Veere around 1510 (where the local museum is still in the Schotish Huis). More Scots fought in the armies of Gustavus Adolphus than any other nationality but the Swedes themselves. There are Scottish villages and descendants of Scots all around the Baltic; half the admirals in the early Imperial Russian Navy were Scots.

After the hugely ambitious Darien project was scuppered by jealous English merchants, we picked ourselves up and dominated the new tobacco trade, drove the Hudson’s Bay company all across the Americas’ higher latitudes and came to specialise in the ships with which we built an empire with our southern cousins. And in those colonies, whereas the Irish or Italians or whoever would hunker in immigrant ghettoes, the Scots were already out mixing with locals, exploiting opportunities.

It wasn’t all Carnegies coming home to build libraries and halls here or full-blood Shoshone indians from Saskatchewan showing up in Stromness looking for their ancestors or MacQuarries putting Australia together with their bare hands. We welcomed the Italians when they came a century ago, the Poles who settled after WWII, the flood of Pakistanis who have made curry our other national dish; they are all Scots now.

As our heavy industries declined we lost many of our best and brightest until it looked like Scotland would become a backwater, dependent on English handouts. Then came oil and gas and Aberdeen was on the same map as Dallas and Bahrain, becoming a melting pot of American, Norwegian and Doric accents. A financial services boom and cultural renaissance followed. Soon whole families were moving North as the combination of competitive houses with quality of life outbid spending your days on the 7:50 from Wokingham.

And, of all those English who have moved north only have few, if any, suffered even a cold shoulder, never mind hostility. Now that Scots have recovered a sense of themselves, now that they have cultural, media and political outlets that are not filtered through the alien prism of London, now that we’re back to our outgoing ways from year-outs in Thailand to commuting to New York, why on earth would we be hostile to people with enough sense to realise what we have—and do something about it by moving here themsleves?

Scotland, unlike England, is not full up.

Peter seems so open to what the French are telling him about their attitudes, why does he say nothing about his life here in Scotland? I lived here until 1971 when things were getting dire. The improvement to 1993 when I came back was startling—but nothing as compared to what’s happened in the two decades since.

It’s not just that you can get guava or papayas in the supermarket or catch a Kabuki play at the local rep. Whether commuting into Edinburgh or B&Bing on Mull, our English incomers are now at home—and as vocal against the incomprehension emanating from their former friends down south as they are signed up to what renewable energy, quality engineering, whisky exports and booming tourism can achieve for a nation of just 5m happily ensconced in one of the most beautiful corners of the globe.

Wallace’s argument against Edward’s accusations 700 years ago was both noble and correct: “How can I be a traitor when England is foreign to me?” But do we live in such brutal times that arrogant assertion is the only way we deal with each other? When you are fighting attempted conquest, broad-mindedness and tolerance are often the first traits out the window. That was then.

Though Scots who stayed at home undoubtedly became less international in the centuries we’ve been a partner in the United Kingdom, the splendid voyage we shared with our English cousins and the recent shrinking of distances around the world and the corresponding exposure of so many Scots to other cultures (as well as the hugely dominant English-speaking diaspora we helped build) is making us more international than we perhaps ever were.

Rubbing shoulders at our local Highland Games with a polyglot crowd of 10,000 that included as many ‘incomers’ living in the area as long-term locals is neither unique nor unusual. Our clubs and committees and societies are stuffed with English, Welsh, Irish, plus the odd American or European. I don’t know the fractious, apparently benighted place Peter Jones calls home but he should get out more. We like the English too; they brought much to this world and are not done yet.

We just don’t think they should be running our country.

Wake up and smell the java, Peter: it’s our New Scots as much as our Old who are brewing it for you.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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