By Ray Bell
Is Wales part of England? Is Berwick upon Tweed? I suspect most people would answer “no” to the first, and probably “yes” to the second. With the recent successful referendum on law making powers for the Welsh Assembly, the success of Plaid Cymru, and Welsh Language Act etc – it can be said that Wales has made giant strides away from being any such thing. If it ever was. And it shall be all the better for it.
In 1746, nearly forty years after the Union, and at the tail end of the Jacobite rebellion, the British Parliament passed the “Wales and Berwick Act”, which stated that:
“It is declared and enacted that in all cases where the Kingdom of England and England hath been or shall be mentioned in any Act of Parliament, the same has been and shall henceforth be deemed and taken to comprehend and include the dominion of Wales and Town of Berwick upon Tweed.”
In other words, whenever legislation referred to “England”, it encompassed Berwick and Wales, and for almost all intents and purposes, they were annexed to it. This act has since been repealed, and is largely irrelevant to modern Wales. But what about Berwick upon Tweed? In fact, in the case of Berwick, the British state continues to behave as if it has always been part of England. Is it? Why the need to mention it specifically?
The question of Berwick is a perennial one, rarely entering the mainstream consciousness, but always lingering in the background. It is one of those anomalies known to the few, but forever in legal limbo, like Cornwall or Shetland. There have been some reports over the past few years, about Berwick becoming part of Scotland, but these are mainly about how Scottish healthcare is better than England’s, particularly after recent brutal cuts to the NHS. England’s influence on Berwick is best summed up by what Alexander Eddington, wrote in ‘Castles and Historic Homes of the Border’ (1926):
“Berwick, by the middle of the 13th century, was considered a second Alexandria, so extensive was its commerce; in 1296, Edward I killed thousands in Berwick, [and] the greatest merchant city in Scotland sank into a small seaport.”
Unlike Carlisle, which was Scottish capital under David I, Berwick has never been completely comfortable in England and many Berwickers believe they would be better off back in Scotland. Polls held in early 2008, by the Berwick Advertiser and ITV Tonight suggest that 60-70% of people in the town want to return to being part of Scotland. This came shortly after Christine Grahame MSP lodged a motion in the Scottish parliament for the return of Berwick saying, “Even the Berwick upon Tweed Borough Council leader, who is a Liberal Democrat, backs the idea and others see the merits of reunification with Scotland.”
The response from the Scottish Liberal Democrats was confused and ill-thought out (as ever), and came from Jeremy Purvis MSP. Mr Purvis was born and raised in Berwick, but wanted the border moved twenty miles south, saying that Christine Grahame’s suggestion didn’t go far enough. He said,
“There’s a strong feeling that Berwick should be in Scotland…I had a gran in Berwick and another in Kelso, and they could see that there were better public services in Scotland. Berwick as a borough council is going to be abolished and it would then be run from Morpeth, more than 30 miles away.”
Purvis is confusing the town of Berwick, which is historically Scottish, with “Berwick Borough Council”, which dates only from 1974. Berwick Borough Council merged Berwick proper with neighbouring English council areas, which include the likes of Alnwick and Lindisfarne. Berwick has also fused naturally with Tweedmouth and Spittal, which also fogs the issue. However, few Scots consider these areas to be part of Scotland, as they are on the south bank of the Tweed, and don’t have the same connection with Scotland, unless we count the early history of Lindisfarne. At the time Berwick Borough Council was set up, Berwickshire, in Scotland, was abolished. (When Berwick was taken, Duns became the county town of Berwickshire.) Berwickshire was replaced by Border Region, but you can still see/hear the name frequently today. In East Lothian, there’s also a town called North Berwick, so called because Berwick upon Tweed was “South Berwick”. If you find this all confusing, that’s because it is. In fact, the constitutional position of Berwick is so obscure, that few people know that Berwick only officially became part of England in 1885, and even then this position was not fully enshrined in law.
Berwick was a prosperous and important town when ruled by Scotland. It had its own mint, and was a major trading port with the Continent and the Hanseatic League. It was one of four Royal Burghs in Scotland, and made a quarter of all customs revenues received north of the border. Robert the Bruce held a number of parliaments in Berwick, and issued proclamations from it. Amongst the town’s exports were wool, grain and salmon, while merchants from Germany and the Low Countries set up businesses in the town in order to trade. Under English rule, however, it was little more than a minor port and border garrison. The Continental merchants fled, and its wealth atrophied.
Berwick became part of Scotland in the 11th century, and was known as “South Berwick”. Between 1147 and 1482, Berwick changed hands no less than 13 times. In 1551, King Edward IV and Queen Mary signed a treaty which said that Berwick would be ruled by England, but would not become part of it. This ensured peace, but was not good for the town, for example, when a certain governor of Berwick begged the English parliament for help regenerating the town, he received the bizarre reply that “Berwick is in the realm but not of it”.
In 1603, when James VI of Scots became King of England, he declared the town as belonging neither to England nor Scotland but part of the united Crown’s domain. In 1639, during the Bishops’ Wars, Charles I met General Leslie at Berwick, and negotiated a settlement whereby the King agreed that disputed questions should be referred to the Scottish Parliament. From thereon in, Berwick’s absorption was a slow one.
With the Acts of Union, the border ceased to be a major political issue. However, the ’45 changed that, with many in the Jacobite camp insisting that Scotland was a separate kingdom, even if their leaders thought otherwise. And in 1746, Westminster passed the “Wales and Berwick Act” mentioned above.
However after the 1746 Act, Berwick still had a status as a “county corporate”, and returned two members of parliament. In 1885, the “Redistribution Act” was passed, which cut Berwick’s representation to a single MP, and made it part of Northumberland. Berwick was now officially in England.
The English “Book of Common Prayer” also mentioned Berwick separately until the late 19th century saying: “This book shall be appointed to be used by all that officiate in all parish Churches and Chapels within the Kingdom of England, Dominion of Wales and town of Berwick upon Tweed.”
In 1959, the Town Council of Berwick applied for new Matriculation of Arms to the Lord Lyon of Scotland. They had previously applied to the Garter King of Arms (the English equivalent), but had not approved of his design which eliminated the bears and wych elm from which the town is supposed to derive its name, and which goes back to its time as one of the four Royal Burghs of Scotland. The Matriculation says:
“The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Berwick upon Tweed in the County of the Borough and Town of Berwick upon Tweed, acting by the Council having by petition unto the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, shown; that Berwick upon Tweed was anciently a Royal Burgh of Scotland and bore Ensigns Armorial as such, a version of which said Ensigns has been matriculated for the County of Berwick in Scotland in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland.”
It is worth noting here that the English spelling “borough” is used, along with English titles – Mayor and aldermen – rather than Provost and Baillies.
In 1974, Berwick Borough was merged with neighbouring English councils, resulting in the current set up. Now, the plan is to abolish Berwick Borough Council altogether and place both its Scots and English parts under Morpeth. The “Interpretation Act 1978” provides that in legislation passed between 1967 and 1974, “a reference to England includes Berwick upon Tweed and Monmouthshire”.
Modern Berwick contains many contradictions, for example, the leader of the town uses the English title “mayor”, not “provost”, but like Scottish provosts, he wears a purple gown, not a red one, as English mayors do. Furthermore, the Mayor and Corporation of Berwick are supposed to take precedence over all those in England, except London and York. Berwick is also one of a handful of “unparished” areas in England. The Tweed still falls properly under Scots Law, although this is only occasionally observed. The town has branches of the Church of England, and the Church of Scotland, the latter since John Knox himself preached there. The banks in the town are a mixture of the usual Scottish and English ones. In sporting terms, Berwick is Scottish. Berwick Rangers play football in the Second Division, although its ground is on the English side of the Tweed, and Berwick RFC plays their rugby in the Third Division. Unlike the nearby Scottish Border towns, Berwick is mainly a football town, and Berwick Rangers’ greatest moment came in 1967 when they beat Glasgow Rangers.
The media want us think that the Berwick issue is a new one. Not at all! Alan Hughes, a Yorkshire man who is Church of England vicar of Berwick reminded us back in an interview with The Scotsman in 2007 –
“My first parish was in Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes in the 1970s. There, I met Wendy Wood, the doughty Scottish Nationalist who used to stride into Berwick, ripping up any English signs and claiming Berwick back as Scotland’s ‘lost limb’”
Wendy Wood used to move the border signs into the middle of the Tweed bridge, and wrote about Berwick extensively in her autobiography ‘Yours Sincerely for Scotland’, devoting a whole chapter to it:
“The New Bridge opened in 1928 by the Prince of Wales has the English coat of arms on the south side with an inscription giving the names of the Minister of Transport and Chairman of Councils. The north end has the arms of Scotland with an inscription saying ‘Royal Tweed Bridge opened by HRH Prince of Wales – 16th May, 1928’ News reports of the time refer to the bridge as connecting two countries [...] the Scottish Land Court sat at Berwick, the local labour exchange is under Scottish administration.
Why then is the Border sign three miles into Scotland from the middle of this bridge?”
The well known poet and writer of the mid 20th century, Morris Blythman, used to write under the pseudonym “Thurso Berwick” – a name which combined the north and south of Scotland.
The British Establishment’s main concern about Berwick is not its citizens, but the fact that its return to Scotland would affect fishing and oil/gas exploration. We have already seen the transference of a large chunk of North Sea from Scotland to England. The shift in marine boundaries is, I believe, mainly a response to Scottish self-determination, rather than the Berwick question. But if the Berwick question gained momentum, the main response would be on this front. Britain has never fought fair, and we should remember that in all things.
Scotland’s land border is better established than that of many countries. Scotland isn’t split into several pieces, like Catalonia, Kurdistan or the Basque Country. It is not a recent invention, like that of Northern Ireland or Israel/Palestine. Nor have we lost our national capital, as Brittany has, with Nantes, and the départment of “Loire-Atlantique” being officially outwith “Bretagne”. That said, I believe there is a genuine Border question when it comes to Berwick. The feeling in Berwick itself is still very mixed. Some consider themselves English, some Scottish, and some just Berwickers. However, more and more want to be back in Scotland, and there are good reasons for them to be so. Wales was once written off as a lost cause. Maybe Berwick is what John Steinbeck called an “unwon cause”.