Day 34: Edinburgh to Alva

‘Freedom isn’t free’ – Jamie, Stirling.

After a good night’s sleep in Edinburgh, I get up and potter about the high piles of intriguing books in Chris’s flat. In one, I find the words of George Borrow, that

‘There are no countries in the world less known by the British than these selfsame British Isles.’

Before I left, me and my partner spent a few hours trying to learn the counties of Wales and Scotland. Almost all of them I had never heard of. Can you locate Ceridigion, Angus, Clackmannanshire or Rhondda Cynon Taf? Whilst much of the towns and landscapes of England have been familiar to a degree, as I look out on the map of Scotland, I feel nervous and excited. Education and popular culture has woefully underprepared me.

I read in another excellent book, The Isles by Norman Davies, that confusion still remains over what we even call ‘British’ or the ‘UK’. In actuality, Britain is not an ‘island nation’, but made up of many. Unless it depends what we mean: is Britain a shorthand for the political state of the UK, or the geography of Great Britain (as I most often use it), or the ancient Britons, or some historical aspect of the British Empire? Most often, it’s not spelt out. Speaking of the British people as a historical entity is also confusing, particularly when the union has only been around for about 300 years. Popular history often takes the Tudors to be British, when in fact they were monarchs of England but not Scotland. Based on the lessons of the national curriculum, few if any of us could name or explain the life of a Scottish monarch.

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Day 28: Berwick-upon-Tweed to Edinburgh

‘London? Too full of people.’ – heard twice in an hour, Berwick.

It’s a deliciously sunny and golden morning in sleepy Berwick, and I gaze out at the empty pier and lighthouse in the distance. Sat next to me is the ghost of L.S. Lowry, occasionally peering up from his easel as he converts the glory of the morning sea into one of his characteristic Berwick seascapes.

I am on the threshold between two countries, England and Scotland, one which lacks any real idea of its own identity, and another which realises it, and recognises the importance of political independence.

In truth England does have a kind of identity, one that belongs to upper middle-class London and the south-east. It has been aggressively normalised through school education, the centralisation of financial and political power in the capital, the Received Pronunciation of the BBC, the London-centric bilge that passes for popular journalism, and decades of casually ridiculing and economically depriving other regions of England. But this is not England, and the different regions I’ve travelled through have either quietly asserted their identity (like Yorkshire, or the West Midlands) or cried out for one (like south Essex).

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