The Harried North, Wild Scotch, and Old British
“This race has now almost entirely vanished from the land, and with it, doubtless, much absurd political prejudice — but also many living examples of singular and disinterested attachment to the principles of loyalty which they received from their fathers, and of old Scottish faith, hospitality, worth, and honour.”Sir Walter Scott, Waverly
Britain, and particularly England, has long been defined by her Kings and Queens; the coronation ceremony is so powerful that it is perhaps the only sacrament that still holds the British (and American) imagination in thrall. One need only watch the coronation montage in The Crown to see how even to the most culturally debased people – though perhaps television writers and producers do exist on a plane above journalists – there is “magic” in the ritual. A man, or, in the case of The Crown, a woman, is elevated far above the mortal realm and made an untouchable figure, a living embodiment of the nation. Victoria is mostly to blame for this, though the roots of the tendency delve deep into the Tudor period – a recurrent theme for us – and we are tempted to imagine that for all of British history it has been true that Britain is her monarch. In an age of finance, it seems only natural to find national identity in the cultural figure who appears on currency, after all – one of the many reasons everyone seems to be in such a rush to scrub Andrew Jackson off the American twenty dollar note. It also defies belief that such a tiny island should contain so many different native identities and webs of loyalty; the national myth makes more sense.
It has taken a great deal of blood, fire, and death to produce a unified Britain, however, and the degree to which the unification has been successful is evidenced by the strong tendency towards devolution and secession among the outlander populations of Scotland and Wales, to say nothing of Ireland or, for that matter, America, which seceded and then proceeded to subdivide, until even those who remained loyal to the crown demanded devolution. Indeed, the British tendency towards localism has produced devolution conflicts of a more local nature in East Anglia, the Puritan heartland which would, from 1630 until the Revolution itself, populate and inculturate New English Yankeedom. In any case, when the Union Jack finally descended from above Canadian parliament, it was not so much an ending as a continuation of a long history of breakaways, devolutions, and secessions that have defined the British imperial project from the investiture of the first Norman Prince of Wales to Brexit.
One should not imagine, however, that some kind of universal spirit of independence dominates these proceedings; while certain national tendencies – particularly among the Celtic races – do play a role, each separation must be perceived within its context and local framework; the pattern owes more to differences than commonalities among the separatists, who themselves are rarely united and in their own history have often been wielded as weapons against one another by the more clever exemplars of statesmanhood in the Houses of Parliament and the King’s Privy Council. The perversity of pan-Gaelic nationalism when one considers the profound willingness of the Scotch planters to remake Ulster in their own image speaks to the strange bedfellows made by the variety of interests and identities at play on the British Isles, let alone among the colonies.
Of the Scots, there are volumes that have been written and torrents of ink yet to be spilt on that all-but-a-nation of ambitious tribal chieftains and exiles-turned-warlords whose history is so intertwined with the north country of England as to be nigh indistinguishable. Three periods of English history – the Norman conquest, the Civil War and subsequent Williamite Wars, and the Highland Clearances completely remade the geopolitical and ethnographic landscape from the Midlands through Strathclyde to the Highlands themselves, the last redoubt of a completely Scottish nation still culturally and racially independent of Great Britain. Any claim to Scottish independence following the last of these events is pure conceit – the last purebred Scotsman was driven off his tack well before the end of the Highland famine in 1855. Those that remain, sons and daughters of men of truly mythological stature that they are, are too few and far between to regard themselves as a nation.
The process whereby Pict and Gael became Scot and Scotch begins, however, not with Scotland proper but in the so-called borderlands of Northumbria and Strathclyde, one an Anglo-Saxon union and the other a confederation of the Scoti, the Hibernian Gaels who still had an outpost on Britannia. These are the perpetual backwaters of the English world, a land and people primordial and half-barbarian, the proof that American colonists did not require the Iroquois to teach them savagery. It was the foil to London, Oxford, and Canterbury, headquartered in the last semi-civilized outpost of Eboracum (before the Norsemen mangled the place-name to York) and peopled by a variety of clannish races who out of pure practicality often coexisted with a greater degree of amicability than did their Saxon cousins to the South.
The Birth of Nations among the Borderlanders
The mythical qualities of the people of the North by the time of William I were so thoroughlly renowned that the Conqueror felt only half-accomplished as long as he was not assured of the complete submission of the former Northumbrian kingdoms. Here, where Harold Godwinsson had made his heroic and successful defiance of the Last Norsemen, Harald Hardrada, the Anglo-Norse peoples had usurped their Viking and Norman Earls in favour of leadership (at least nominally) united behind the Saxon kingship of Edgar Atheling, and set out to avenge themselves against the Bastard Duke of Normandy. Edgar was by no means lacking in pedigree – descent on his mother’s side from King (St.) Stephen of Hungary and brother of St. Margaret of Scotland, he belonged to a devout and pious family, but of the House of Wessex he was unfortunately another in a line of hapless and poorly advised (unraed) kings, and the various armies he gathered to his purpose both before and after his exile were outmatched and overwhelmed by the Norman war machine. His brief reign as elected King and then Pretender, though, marks the beginning of a permanent rivalry between the Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Scottish crowns that forms the basis of the remaking of Scotland as well as the birth of the Midlands as an indepedent cultural region.
The peoples – for they are many and not one – of the Borderlands, a region extending south from Edinburgh where the Kings of Alba held court to Nottingham at the furthest, Yorkshire at least, consist a single unit in part, paradoxically, because of their diversity and in part for their similar resistance and treatment by the Norman invader. Edgar was an unfortunate king, for his accession to take place in a time of general upheaval – unity was difficult to achieve among any people, and all the more among the followers of his supporting Earls, Edwin of Mercia and Marcor of Northumbria, two brothers who detested the Normans and William in particular. Even with the aid of so formidable and charismatic an ally as Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, his bold attempts to meet the Norman armies withered as the ruthlessness of the Norman met the ungovernability of the various armies whose loyalty to Edgar was always twice or thrice removed. (Such divided loyalties plagued Edgar throughout his career as Pretender, attempting now to exploit the Scottish kingdom, now the disgruntled second son of William I, serving as erstwhile advisor to each in turn and sowing seeds of discord that briefly toppled a Scottish king and nearly ended the reign of a Duke of Normandy.) For all his troublemaking, Edgar died an old man after making his penance on Crusade. The people of whom he had sought loyalty and support were not so lucky.
The first and most profound consequence of Edgar’s attempt to regain the throne for Wessex was William’s own campaign throughout Mercia, Northumbria, and Strathclyde, known as The Harrying. The openings of the campaign offer models of the character and the political landscape of the Northern earldoms and counties – an exiled Earl from the armies of Harald Hardrada swears fealty to William only to be assassinated and ultimately replaced by an Earl loyal to Edgar; frustrated and confused, William marched to York at the head of a massive army, burning castle and village alike until he reached the city itself, thereafter sending his army out in roving bands, who reduced nearly a third of all the manors of the region to waste right before the Winter of 1070 set in, resulting in massive depopulation of the land and the death by starvation or slaughter of upwards of 100,000 people before it all was over – a Holodomor of the early Middle Ages. Refugees fled deep to the South, and the survivors were disabused of piety for their Norman rulers both secular and ecclesiastic, as the murder of the Bishop of Durham by a Northumbrian mob testifies. After a second phase of Harrying in 1080-1081, however, the pig iron of resistance had been hammered and polished into bitter resignation hiding behind enthusiastic passivity, and the last of the rebels were dead or exiled. The Midlands, centred around Norman Yorkshire, were born.
The Umbrian spirit of Saxon resistance endured predominantly in the Lowlands of Scotland, where the reign of the Scottish king was most secure. Malcolm’s queen, Edgar’s sister – St. Margaret of Scotland – bore him numerous heirs who ruled as Saxons (albeit acquiescant to the new demands of Papal Supremacy) and whose language and genetics testifies to the survival of the leaderless Anglo-Saxon population along the border. Here, among some exiles of the Harrying, the people remained hospitable but untrusting of authority, a troublesome thorn in the side of subsequent generations of London Elite, whose final solution to the Border Question would be resettlement by force or inducement to Ireland, America, and, later, Australia. Likewise, the Norman settlement of the North anticipated subsequent English tendencies in colonisation, including the Plantation of Ulster, for the land was planted by Norman lords who begrudgingly permitted the surviving Anglo-Norse to remain on their lands and their place-names and customs to remain more or less unmolested.
The Flowering of Scotland and the Castration of Wales
Some four centuries on, the land would produce both the Kirk of Scotland (the Scotch Lowlands) and the Pilgrimage of Grace (the English Midlands) as resistance movements against Tudor Reformation and subsequent Puritan zealotry emanating from London and East Anglia. Both were rooted, as one would expect, on local devolution of ecclesiastic and political authority, one as a national church free of Canterbury’s grasp (long an unrealised ambition of York, too) and the latter on the monasteries that had in Northumbria and Scotland alike been the principal font of religious devotion for ordinary people. Indeed, Highland Catholic resistance to the Kirk itself was similarly defined by the monastic – or, really, lack of cloistered monastic – life in the sparsely populated wilds of the far north.
It is telling that in spite of John Knox’s Calvinist training, his subsequent followers would be thorns in the side of both the High Church Charles I and Low Church Cromwell alike. The Scotch borderlands are dominated by such people; they are a race who from the outside appear quite nationalistic, but prior to the late 19th century thought far more readily in Royalist and Clannish terms about their identity and loyalties. To this day, the reputation of Clan Campbell is so marked by their relationship to London that even those utterly ignorant of Scottish history have at least heard of the Campbells, and some have heard enough to regard them as notorious. Even in the crisis of the Great Cause, with Robert the Bruce vying for uncontested occupation of the Scottish throne, the Scotch Lairds busied themselves more with the security of their clans and houses, motivated foremost by blood loyalty rather than reverence for the throne or loyalty to Robert himself – or any other claimant, for that matter.
A long and complex history of the Scottish throne and the Lairds, whose constant infighting made a history that would inspire Shakespeare to pen MacBeth, is unnecessary for our purposes, though doubtlessly of great interest. It suffices to say that from the death of Malcolm III to the reign of James VI, Scotland hardly saw a transfer of power that was either bloodless or untouched by London politics. The regicide of Mary, Queen of Scots at the hands of her cousin Elizabeth is a sort of culmination of Scottish royal politics, as much a result of an ongoing conflict with England as it was the logical termination of the so-called Auld Alliance between a blithely trusting Scotland and an unreliable, cynical France against their mutual enemy in London. Mary, a darling of the Scottish people who herself despised Scotland and longed for the comforts of the French court where she had been raised, is the sort of paradoxical figure who would only fit upon the throne of Scotland – for no monarch of Scotland was altogether loyal to the Scottish as a whole, even as the Scotch and Highlanders as a whole were rarely loyal to their monarch except by the conduit of their clan chiefs and local Lairds. Their Gaelic clannishness and historical tendency towards cantankerous distrust eventually caused the alienation of their King and fall of the Scottish Kingdom to the Act of Union, just as it had led to the subjugation of the Borderlands by William and would, in turn, result in the many misfortunes sufferd by the Appalachian hillfolk at the hands of the United States government.
Elitism ill befits a clannish people, especially one as defensive and suspicious as the Borderlanders would come to be. The Scottish Kirk and Scotch Presbyterianism may be mistaken for a sort of Liberal emergence, and it has subsequently been co-opted by Progressive elements of international Yankeedom, but it was by no means the same in origins as the Puritan Calvinism that produced Oliver Cromwell. This can be seen in the character of the Scottish Reformation itself; the localised nature of the Church in Scotland meant there was broad overlap between the ecclesiastic and political jurisdictions, with members of individual clans attending parishes in their clan-held lands and individual burghs being served by individual churches. Priests, likewise, were often obliged to travel, serving multiple parishes, due both to the geography and depopulation that resulted not only from the Black Death but from constant feuding and border wars between the Scottish and British crowns. Unlike the English, therefore, for whom vernacular Bibles were novelties and dioceses were well-monitored and maintained, the Scottish were obliged by their historical and cultural condition to handle religious affairs locally.
The growing intellectual class in England developed as an elite, apart from the common folk who remained by and large untouched by Reforming zeal – the intelligentsia of Scotland on the other hand spread localist ideas to a population already largely localist in inclination, thus making the Scottish Reformation a discernably popular movement while the English reformation was driven from the top down. Likewise, the Highlanders far removed from Crown and Kirk alike saw little need to change their ways – distrustful and resentful of the Lowlanders and Borderlanders, they resisted the Reformation less out of a loyalty to Rome than a loyalty to their local customs and religious leaders. Dominated by ancient Celtic monasteries and latter-day mendicant foundations (contrasted with the multitude of Crusader orders in the south of Scotland), the focal points of Catholic resistance to the Scottish Reformation were lands in which the monastery rather than the parish church dominated religious life and the clans drew spiritual waters from more ancient wells than the Scotch Lowlanders.
In all respects, the clannishness and tribalism of the Scottish defined their experience of the great upheaval that the Reformation represented. Little surprise then, that the stubborn Kings of Scotland who again and again failed to bring the upcountry Highlanders to heel with increasing impatience, simply gave up trying and became British eventually impatience (James VI & I, author of the Union scheme, refused to learn Scots Gaelic, and referred to the Highlanders, so beloved by James IV, as a race “void of the knawledge an feir of God”). The failure of the Jacobite revolts in Scotland also has as much to do with the ambivalence of Highlander and Lowlander alike towards the half-Scotch, half-Anglo Stuarts with their continental pretenses as with the infighting and clannishness of the Scotch themselves.
If the Reformation is the defining for most of the rest of Britain, the matter of the Old Britons, or as the Saxons called them, Welsh, was settled long before. The story of Wales is less important because of what it reveals about the Welsh than what it reveals about the post-Conquest English – for Wales and Cornwall represent what is truly the first kind of ethnic cleansing through concentration and reservation. While the Anglo-Saxon invasions pushed the Britons to the far West of the island, Saxon harassment of the Romano-Celtic peoples ceased there. No pretensions of power were made by the Mercian kings or the House of Wessex over the territory of the Britons until Edward the Confessor was provoked to war by Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, who had allied himself with a toppled Earl of East Anglia and sought to gain power at the expense of the Anglo-Saxon king. Even then, with the death of Gruffydd at the hands of his own forces, the Welsh returned to their previous arrangement of multiple kings and had peace until the Conquest. Thereafter, they would be harassed with regularity by the Normans until at last the Princes of Wales were obliged to pay fealty to Henry II in the form of regular tribute.
This semi-independence would last until the reign of Edward I, who before placing John Balliol on the Scottish throne and earning the moniker Malleus Scotorum, beheaded the Welsh monarchy and made his son and heir the Prince of Wales, establishing the first English colony with the Statues of Rhuddlan of 1282, which would be succeeded and intensified with the Penal Laws against Wales in 1402 (which extended the restrictions placed on Welshmen, including the bearing of arms, to all English who married Welsh women and children of those unions, effectively banning miscegenation between the English and Welsh populations). Four hundred years after the Bretons crossed the channel singing songs of Arthur in the company of the Duke of Normandy, the Lords of England decided in no uncertain terms that there was no place for the Britons in the emergent English nation. (This did not, of course, play out among the Franco-Norman aristocracy, as the rather lurid story of Catherine of Valois and her sewer (that is, footman) Owain ap Tudur attests.)
The differences and similarities in the development of Scotland and Wales reveals the legacy of the Saxon after the Norman conquest – where the Saxon was taken in, his resistance to the Norman indirectly preserved the independence, both political and cultural, of the people who took him in. The Scotch thereby prepared a future for themselves both independent and collaborative which, as Niall Fergusson’s very existence testifies, made them the joints and ligaments whereby the Imperial Bureaucracy was bound together – indeed, both Tom Devine and Michael Fry have written works on the theme, The Scottish Empire (Fry, 2001) and Scotland’s Empire (Devine, 2012). The Welsh, on the other hand, have been more thoroughly subsumed, becoming a sort of testing ground for Britain (there is a popular belief among several Welshmen I have known, but who did not know one another, that Welshmen were bred short to be more effective miners – I have been unable to confirm the factual accuracy of the claim) and an intellectual seedbed of a more robust species the essentially Anglo-Norman liberal ideology, producing Lloyd-George, a truly British Prime Minister, and the only “English” politician that Hitler considered both reasonable and intelligent – a revealing opinion for so passionate an Anglophile as the German dictator. Undeniably, the native character of each people also played a role in this – it cannot be solely ascribed to Saxon presence or influence – but it is equally undeniable that the Saxon, and the Anglo-Norman, played their own roles in shaping these various groups within the patchwork of the British nation.
How the character of the Anglo-Norman and Saxon would be recombined and produce the four – or perhaps five – principle nations of the Kingdom of England is another topic, which will propel us some five centuries into the future, to the court of Henry VII, the usurper King, and the upheaval wrought by the short-lived Tudor Dynasty. This new Harrying of England will be discussed in the next installment of our series.