Scottish nationalism needs to reconsider the country’s “deep South”

On crossing the border at Deadwater into Scotland, the signage is surprisingly dull. Scottish Borders and the Forestry Commission offer a muted welcome in fonts that resemble Comic Sans.

Turn around, however, and you get a stone plinth with lettering and brightly painted shields straight out of a history book, proclaiming simply “England and Northumberland”.

Despite the fact that this border could come to matter a great deal more in the years ahead, the moorland and blocks of forestry are of course interchangeable on either side. The landscape at this mid-point of the boundary seems to make its significance absurd: there is not much here to dispute, save the odd conifer or ewe oblivious to what jurisdiction they happen to grow or wander in.

Several years on from the first go at making this an international frontier once again in 2014, Brexit means that the European Union can no longer act as guarantor of a seamless crossing should Scotland become independent. This stands in contrast to one of the most mundane, yet essential, claims of Scottish statehood: this particular line on a map, unlike so many others all over Europe, has remained static for some 500 years.

Like the signage, this signals something strange about the relationship between the South of Scotland and Scottish nationalism. This is a region that has too often been relegated to a non-place, a vast forgotten corner with slim corridors of major infrastructure and sparse hinterland in-between.

Of course, the face that a landscape presents to a traveller is often deceptive. You could easily pass through such a wild place and forget that, within living memory, these dales and fells would have echoed with the sound of rail traffic passing through Saughtree and the now-dead village of Riccarton. The Riccarton Junction once fastened the Waverly Line from Edinburgh to Carlisle to the Borders Counties Railway to Hexham.

What now seems like a naturally deserted interior was made that way by human policy, rather than some accident of nature or geography. This process of ripping out the old arteries of the South presents a puzzle for Scottish national identity today.

Northumberland, as the England flags and Euro 2020 slogans I passed in town squares and tiny hamlets alike testified, seems all the more English because of its northern position. Conversely, no one in Scotland refers to a ‘deep South’ as a place with the same depth of character, and influence on the national psyche, as the far north of the Gàidhealtachd.

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Tory majorities in the South

Since the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, in response to the Tory constituencies stretching from Wigtownshire in the west to Berwickshire in the east, it has become routine to jest that we should simply shift the border north a hundred miles or so.

Partly due to a tactical abandonment of these seats by the Liberal Democrats, and a series of boundary changes, the flip to solid Tory majorities now mirrors the situation in the three adjoining constituencies on the English side. They are of course quite similar: places of affluent retiree boltholes, farms, and market towns increasingly dependent on seasonal tourism to prop up struggling high streets. Local newspapers somehow battle on, but like the defunct train stations, the memory of truly regional economies and cultures are increasingly distant. Yet there is one point of consistency: the dynasties who once ruled the roost here, the Percys, Buccleuchs and Roxburghes, still own much of it.

The recent abject failure of George Galloway’s Alliance for Unity to set up shop here on a hard unionist ticket may tell us little beyond the candidate’s ever more brazen desperation to find a parliamentary seat on any terms, anywhere. But it does perhaps suggest that the South’s now solidly blue electoral map is not simply about unionism, but rather an ongoing sense that it is misgoverned and equally distant from both London and Edinburgh. Perhaps the latter, being smaller and closer, simply seems easier to kick against.

The raw deal has been long in the making. Unlike the Highlands and Islands, the South saw only limited benefits from the European Union’s regional development funding due to a statistical quirk that lumped the region in with the central belt. In 1996, its two regional tier authorities were squashed down into the unitary system, which effectively disadvantaged areas of low population density. Thus a council like Clackmannanshire, with a third of the population and roughly 2% of the landmass, is afforded the same powers as Dumfries and Galloway.

While the immediate political concerns are markedly different on either side, that blue border is an indictment against the failure of Holyrood to devolve power to regions and localities in turn. If democracy is about a fair and sensitive distribution of power, the current setup remains distant and shallow.

A new vision for Scottish Independence

Roaming through the borderlands, you can’t help but be reminded that the two figures who gave us the template for modern Scottish national identity (and all the ensuing tartanry of the nineteenth century) were also what we might call ‘Southerners.’

Robert Burns and Walter Scott were to varying degrees drawn to the culture of the Highlands, just as it was about to be decimated by the forces of lowland Scottish capitalism. Ever since, there has been a kind of magnetic north pulling at Scottishness – which manifests itself in all sorts of strange ways – not least endless argument about where the central belt begins and ends.

But if we have tended to erase the obvious and palpable ways in which those two national bards were definitively Southern, it is perhaps because they lived at a moment when the lowland rural culture that they emerged into was already on the brink of collapse. This process was memorably defined by Peter Aitchison and ‎Andrew Cassell as the ‘lowland clearances.’

While the dramatic depopulation of the Highlands is writ large when we look at its particular landscape, we forget that the “emptiness” of the South is also the product of deliberate decisions.

Still, I think you’d struggle to find anywhere more quintessentially Scottish than the douce, rivalrous and fiercely independent border towns. At a micro level, such proud places remind us of the reality of Scotland as a nation of diverse and distinct regions: a reality that, after two decades of a modern national Parliament, has too often been obscured in favour of political expediency.

Reinstating the latent potential of Scotland’s deep South, and indeed empowering places at all points of the compass, would make the case of independence far more compelling than the quick and easy thrill of a second referendum tomorrow. Why? Because the case for Scottish statehood has always been, at its heart, about where power lies, rather than lines on a map and colourful signs.


Featured image © Copyright kim traynor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Comments (46)

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  1. Blair Breton says:

    I live near Hawick within sight of Carter Bar. The principle routes into Scotland are well marked. And you are welcomed. England announces itself and there are some quite old stone signs. The voting in the Borders seats are getting closer. In fact one of them was captured in 2015. Demographics are changing. Big concern is border processses. Many here have relations and friends across the border and vice verse. For independence the border proposal needs to be a strong one.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      An interesting response, Blair Breton.

      I am particularly interested in your final sentence, regarding the ‘border proposal’ and independence. What do you think such a border proposal should entail?

      I live in Glasgow, so the border does not have a daily presence for me.

      1. Blair Breton says:

        First common travel area. Second trusted trader scheme where firms can register vans and truck.use ANPR to police. Unregistered vans and trucks stop at the border post. There are a limited number of border crossings. It’s not like Ireland. Trains will be block licensed. Planes similarly.

        1. Mouse says:

          In order to have a common travel area between Britain and the R. of Ireland, the R. of Ireland has to align it’s immigration policy with that of Britain (eg. no EFTA membership, no Schengen mambership). Not signing up the the Schengen agreement is one of the things that prohibits EU membership, nowadays, with opt-out only granted to Britain and Ireland. Of course, for a Scottish State that wouldn’t make the slightest difference in reality.

          In the face of a lack of the predicted Apocalypse, and an actual debate, I have my doubts that Scots would vote to join the EU. All the major party’s would have to explain why they like an organisation who’s principal purpose, by a mile, is giving money to rural landowners for nothing.

        2. Mouse says:

          In the face of a lack of the predicted AIn order to have a common travel area between Britain and the R. of Ireland, the R. of Ireland has to align it’s immigration policy with that of Britain (eg. no EFTA membership, no Schengen mambership). Not signing up the the Schengen agreement is one of the things that prohibits EU membership, nowadays, with opt-out only granted to Britain and Ireland. Of course, for a Scottish State that wouldn’t make the slightest difference in reality.

          In the face of a lack of the predicted Apocalypse, and an actual debate, I have my doubts that Scots would vote to join the EU. All the major party’s would have to explain why they like an organisation who’s principal purpose, by a mile, is giving money to rural landowners for nothing.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            The principal purpose of the EU, as laid down in its founding treaty, is to facilitate European integration.

            The Common Agricultural Policy, which ‘gives money to rural landowners for nothing’ (i.e. ‘subsidies’), is informed by that purpose, insofar as it evolves as an integrated effort to: support farmers and improve agricultural productivity, ensuring a stable supply of affordable food across Europe; safeguard a reasonable living for European farmers; help tackle climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources; maintain rural areas and landscapes; keep rural economies alive by promoting jobs in farming, agri-foods industries and associated sectors.

            The problem with the EU is that its founding treaty negotiates tensions between member states that seek deeper integration (unionists) and those wishing to retain greater national independence (nationalists) in such matters as agricultural, fiscal, foreign, and social policy. This tension is what lies behind the series of treaty ratification crises that have bedevilled the history of the EU and, ultimately, Brexit.

    2. Colin Robinson says:

      I bide owre in the west Southlands, and I don’t understand the Borders folks’ concern owre the border. The boundary between the two authorities is already there. Unless you envisage pulling up the drawbridge to prevent free movement between the two authority areas after Independence, I don’t see how much will change. All being well, I’ll still be able to use my bus pass to go and watch the fuitbá in Carlisle.

      What concerns us about nationalism is its increasing nationalisation of the country and the growing administration of life in the Southwest from Edinburgh. What we’d like to see is greater devolution of power and responsibility to the real centres of our lives, in municipalities like Dalbeattie, Langholm, and Newton Stewart, rather than its nationalisation.

  2. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

    I would contend that it is too simplistic to lump the whole of the south of Scotland together. Galloway is not part of ‘The Borders’ is not in the economic sphere of Carlisle and looks to Northern Ireland and Ayr/Central Belt in large measure.

    What it does share with the Borders is a failure of national and local government policy. It is an area where the local resources (be they land for growing sitka spruce or wind farms) are exploited and where most of the economic added value is obtained by those outside the area. In the early days of the Forestry Commission local workers were employed and housed in purpose built rural villages like Dun Deugh and Glen Trool. This policy was abandoned and nowadays contractors from outside do the work and the villages are populated largely by retirees.

    Young folk head to Glasgow, retirees arrive (mainly from England, especially the NW). They are driven there by high Lake District house prices. Thus the population changes.

    Land reform is nowhere on the SNP’s agenda, if anything Galloway farm land ownership is consolidating with fewer owners benefitting from huge subsidy.

    Communications are poor in terms of roads (the failure of the SNP Government to sort the A75 is a constant source of votes for Tory candidates). Broadband is still patchy.

    There is a sense that the SNP Government is not particularly interested in the area.

    1. Blair Breton says:

      I agree Galloway is quite different. I would put the new Irish border post in Stranraer to put back some trade into the town.

      Michael Russell wrote yesterday in the National about land reform. I think his thinking is more grouse moor and not forestry.

      1. Carol Mapley says:

        Spot on. Although an SNP supporter and resident of D&G I agree. D&G has slipped off the radar in favour of the SNP heartlands. Until and unless the SNP gets its collective finger out and takes a real interest in D&G things won’t change. Within the region, there is a perception that only those living around Dumfries count and the rural communities further west are peripheral and don’t really count.

        And yes, English immigration is an issue especially in Nithsdale, oh and I am English although I have lived here for forty-plus years. In the village where I live houses come on to the market and go very quickly to English incomers and stay empty except for occasional holiday use or as boltholes for the current epidemic. In that regard a hard border wouldn’t be a bad idea, it would make people think twice about buying property here. It would perhaps cause people to pause and realise that they are guests in a sovereign state and that their presence is not one of entitlement. Unwelcome guests can be thrown out when they become troublesome which many do and it’s the poor old Scots who apparently have issues with alcohol.

        1. Blair Breton says:

          Common travel area is a given I think.

    2. George Anderson says:

      Sturgeon’s outlook is entirely urban and it has been unfortunate that she left conservative Fergus Ewing to hold sway over rural issues. As a result the SNP has been poor on land reform. Much of the momentum set up during the Labour/Lib Dem years was lost. With Ewing ousted from the cabinet and more progressive younger politicians coming through I think land reform could soon be back on track.

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        Let’s hope so!

  3. Sean Clerkin says:

    I agree with you that we largely forget the south of Scotland and it has a potential and this article is a reminder that all Scots in all parts of our land needs to have power and money decentralised so all feel part of the whole. A very good piece of writing if I mays say so.

    1. Blair Breton says:

      My thoughts are

      Scots tartan produced in Selkirk
      Still textile mills in Hawick, love cashmere, Johnston’s, Hawico and others. Reinstating the railway to Hawick and beyond would assist the town. Locals report decline since Beeching. Put the new Irish Border post in Stranraer’s derelict port.

  4. Graeme Purves says:

    As Walter Scott certainly recognised, Southern Scotland has a strong claim to be the cradle of Scottish literature, with a tradition going all the way back to Guillaume le Clerc’s ”Fergus of Galloway” and Thomas the Rhymer!

    I agree with the thrust of Christopher’s article, but the Scottish Government deserves some credit for establishing South of Scotland Enterprise. As Scotland’s second National Planning Framework (NPF2) put it in 2009, the South of Scotland “needs to develop an indigenous institutional framework as vigoeous and successful as that of the Highlands and Islands.”

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      A nationally planned indigenous institutional framework… There’s the crux of the problem right there. Civil society in all parts of the country already has ‘indigenous institutional frameworks’. Why not just let them get on with it? Are we too stupid – or what? – to run our own affairs?

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        The second National Planning Framework (NPF2) identified the institutional frameworks which civil society in Southern Scotland had already created. The statement on the need to strengthen them reflected the views which stakeholders in the South of Scotland had expressed to the Scottish Government. Of course people in the South of Scotland need to take the lead in developing their own institutional frameworks. The word “indigenous” explicitly recognises that. The job of the Scottish Government is to be supportive and work with the institutional frameworks in the South of Scotland to achieve strategic objectives. It seems to me that Christopher Silver is arguing that the Scottish Government needs to take more interest in the South of Scotland and be more supportive of the aspirtions of the people who live there. I agree with that.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          I take the view that the Scottish government should take less interest in the Southlands and that, as communities, we should aspire to be as independent of the Scottish government as we can for our welfare.

          That doesn’t preclude our giving the Scottish government a subsidiary role; e.g. in matters where we have common interest with other countries in the larger realm and where it would be advantageous for those countries to collaborate in pursuit of that interest. It only precludes giving the Scottish government a sovereign role in our civic affairs.

          1. Graeme Purves says:

            Gaun yersel! I don’t think that’s quite in the spirit of Christopher’s article.

          2. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

            Colin, I take it your comment above is another of your jests designed to provoke a reaction. If the south is to be independent of the Scottish Government in terms of welfare and (presumably if I get you right) much else and given that the south is one of the lowest per capita income areas in Scotland (and the UK) how much of that self-provided welfare do you think will be available?

            Anyhow you’ve achieved another first for me, in addition to being the only person I’ve ever met who appreciates Border TV you are also the only person I’ve ever come across who travels from Scotland to watch football in Carlisle. I once knew a chap from Birmingham who travelled to all Clydebank’s home and away matches, you’re not quite in that league though!

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            Are you suggesting that our communities are too small to administer their own affairs? (Where have I heard THAT before?)

  5. MBC says:

    You forgot to mention Hugh Macdiarmid.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Though ‘MacDiarmid’ the persona was born in Montrose, and his best work was done there and on Whalsay.

  6. Graham Ennis says:

    Well, in practical legal terms, thre border has moved only 45 miles in about 2000 years, and not at all in the last 500.
    Its there. In ther event of independence, international law applies. Immediatly, the border roads have to have a yello line across them where they leave Scotland, and official border posts and checks, in the absence of a common travel area. Meantime, the border has to be actually marked, (the line is a bit wobbly in some places, and can be hundreds of meters adrift from where people think it is. likewise, the border has to be made livestock proof, (a 2 meter fence would do. )This is due to European and international laws regarding health, taxation, services, etc. on top of that, in the absence of a CTA, then its passports, check points, and customs. This would mean the closure of many crossing points, tht have low traffic. Even then, it might require up to 50 main border posts, and acess gates, for emergency services, etc. having said that, all this would sharpen minds. The boder counties are there for the next 500 years. The border would be an international frontier, with or without rejoining the EU. If it did, then it becomes a Hardened frontier, with patrols, guards, etc. Most Scots voted to stay in the EU. Looking at the general direction of things in the Remaining UK, this might be a blessing.
    Apart from that, there are also strategic issues, such as NATO, and its alternative, which is Neutrality, like Ireland and also Sweden.
    These are all hard facts, and harder issues. Given the direction of events, in America, we are likely to see NATO vecoming ETO, and there are issues there as well. All of this from a line on a map. The English border counties are in fact in the same position as the Scottish ones. There are also cultural issues. Maybe the “Umbrians” might like to join. Al;l of this is going to be a direct, live issue, within 5 years or even less. Sturgeon now has a voter mandate to take Scotland out of the Union. (Cue “Irish” events? The London regime absolutely needs the natural resources of Scotland, and its military bases, It will probably get ugly.Very ugly. Comments please.

    1. Blair Breton says:

      That’s a hard border you thinking of,if I read you correctly My expectation is soft border is much more likely.

  7. Malcolm Kerr says:

    For my part, I’d like as soft a border as possible. But that question is purely academic if we don’t achieve Independence in the first place. One of England’s current threats against the national movement is the talk of partition. It is really important that those communities, constituencies, and counties adjacent to the border become strong for Indy. But I see no sense at all the the SNP has a plan in this regard, strongly embedded in urban, centralist mindset. Meanwhile, expect the borders and Galloway to be showered with direct funding from the UK Government.

    1. MBC says:

      Clearly their ploy.

  8. Jim Sansbury says:

    If they want to be Tory, let them be Tory.
    It will be a free country after independence.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      But it’s not about deepening democracy, Jim. It’s about winning the South over to the nationalist/unionist cause. Two dogs fighting over a bone. Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

    2. Andrew Anderson says:

      The Tories got 47% in Galloway & West Dumfries, 51% in Ettrick, Roxburgh & Berwickshire, 47% in Dumfrieshire (and 30% in South Midlothian, Tweeddale & Lauderdale which has a significant part of the Borders Council population), so slightly less than half the vote in spite of much unionist tactical voting. There is scope for the pro-independence to win votes in the region, but as Christopher Silver notes there is a need for positive engagement, understanding of differences and some stronger local voices.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Yep, with a little work, the SNP could also win slightly less than half the vote; then IT would have the bone.

        What a way to do politics!

  9. MBC says:

    Also forgotten is James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd. From whom Scott got all his lore.

  10. Wul says:

    Dunno if it’s as complicated as Christopher Silver suggests.

    Take a look at a map of good, arable farmland in Scotland…it maps almost perfectly with blue Tory votes in Scottish and UK elections. It is, and always has been, about land. The better the land the bluer the vote.

    Those with land, money and property know that the best way to hold onto it, squeeze tenants and lock in their privilege for ever is to vote Tory. If you want them to vote for independence you’d need to answer the question that is forever on their lips: “How will this make me richer?”

    I’d say forget them.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      But those with land, money, property, tenants to squeeze, and privilege to lock-in are few and far between and constitute only a very small part of the electorate down here. It’s a majority of folk the nationalists need to win over in these non-nationalist countries in order to advance their schemes in the state, not just the Duke of Buccleuch and his henchmen.

      1. Annie says:

        People who work on the land make up a small proportion of voter, land owners even smaller. And besides very little of Dumfries and Galloway is high value arable land (possibly just the Machars)

        I think a much bigger factor in the Tory vote, along with lower support for independence, is a large proportion of English people. And I know there are exceptions – my own parents are English incomers to Galloway and are as far from Tories as you can – but more often they’re often well off retired folk who’d probably vote Tory anyway and are even more likely to to keep SNP out. It makes it hard for left / pro Indy win campaigns but I imagine greater localism and more of a plan for a soft border would help.

        For the record, South of Scotland Enterprise was only set up by Scottish Government in response to demand from an equivalent to HIE from people here. I too was surprised the article didn’t mention it because for people working in two Councils and anyone else interested in economic development it’s an important change.

        1. Blair Breton says:

          There is a English yes group in D&G

        2. Colin Robinson says:

          70% of the land in Dumgal is under agricultural use, though agriculture is a minor contributor to the economy (8% EVA). By far the largest contribution to Dumgal’s economy comes from the taxpayer, who funds the salaries of the public sector employees in health, education, social work, police, etc. The taxpayer funds a great deal of the ‘agricultural’ income too, through the subsidisation of agricultural activity for the maintenance/conservation of the countryside as a public amenity. Next to public service consumption, the biggest contributor to our economy is retail.

      2. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

        That’s right Colin. As reverse land reform continues apace in Galloway as well there are fewer and fewer individual landowners owning more and more land. But their ‘soft power’ is quite pervasive in the local communities that they increasingly dominate. These landowners are accruing vast wealth from subsidy and capital appreciation (eg our local trusty MP Alister Jack trousers c. £100,000 pa while his family has Courance, Duchrae and Dornell farms (at least). These types are the ones that decry welfare state benefit recipients as ‘scroungers’.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          That’s right, Micheal; they’re the scum of the earth. And there’s still a lot of deference shown towards them by the hoi polloi. But they still have only one vote apiece. You can hardly blame the gentry for the rejection of nationalism at the polls.

          1. Carol says:

            I live in Nithsdale which is owned by the that poor destitute man the Duke of Buccleuch. How the man has the effrontery to sell land back to local communities such as that at Wanlockhead is breathtaking. There again its an old story the rich seizing land from the poor and then making it their own only to sell the unproductive parts back for a ‘small consideration’.

          2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            The ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ – Robert Tressells’s great opus published nearly 120 years ago – had a character Sir Graball D’Encloseland who was the MP for the borough in which the story took place. The families of such robber barons had enclosed the common lands centuries before, appointed themselves lords and, via ‘rotten boroughs’ had themselves elected to Parliament to pass laws to make what they had done ‘perfectly’ legal. I would suggest that the current Duke of Buccleuch, with his seat in the House of Lords, is a present day Sir Graball.

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            ‘Seizing the land from the poor’ is putting it too strongly. The land was never in the possession of ‘the poor’. The land was taken back from the Douglas’s and granted to the Buccleuchs by the favour James II who, as the sovereign power in the state at the time, had it at his rightful disposal. This is 15th century feudal Scotland we’re talking about, not some 19th century Scott romance of robber barons and oppressed yeomen.

            By the way: ‘the poor’ of Wanluckheid weren’t all that keen on buying the land; 44% of them voted against it, much to the consternation of Oliver Mundell, a key supporter of the campaign to transfer the land to community ownership, who attended the village meeting at which the matter was decided.

            “This is the first big step towards a brighter future for our community. If we can own the land, we can make our own decisions about its use. Today, locals said ‘yes’ to self-empowerment and self-determination. It is an historic day for all of us.”

            Which perhaps accounts for a big part of the Tories’ ‘anti-nationalist’/localist appeal down our airt.

          4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            And how did the Douglas’s get the land, Colin? (Thanks, by the way, for your informative – and entertaining – contributions to this thread).

          5. Colin Robinson says:

            I believe the first Douglas (Theobald the Fleming) was granted the first of their lands by the Abbot of Kelso for services rendered. Over the centuries, more and more lands were granted by successive feudal superiors in return for service. At no point were they ‘seized from the poor’.

          6. Colin Robinson says:

            That’s how real estate worked in those days. Even the poor were granted land by their feudal superiors in return for service. There was no ‘ownership’ in the modern sense.

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