The inevitability of the Union

April 30, 2021

Alex Salmond’s Alba Party is a reminder that England and Scotland treasured the same ideals long before 1707

By Tom Holland

‘Alba’ is – as Al Murray might put it – a beautiful British word. It is certainly much older than Scotland. For millennia now, it has been used to designate the entirety of Great Britain. This was why the earliest Greek geographers, when they wrote about the mysterious land that lay beyond the Ocean, referred to its inhabitants as Albiones; and why Roman encyclopaedists, even after much of the island had been constituted as a province called Britannia, would learnedly note that its name had originally been Albion. What was the derivation of the word? Perhaps, scholars suggest, it meant what in English would come to be known as Middle Earth: the dimension of mortals, midway between the heavens and the underworld. Or perhaps – alluding to the chalk cliffs along the island’s southern coast – it derived from a word meaning ‘white’. Either way, long before the emergence of Scotland or England or Wales as distinct realms, the name ‘Alba’ implied a sense of identity which seems to have spanned the entire island: an identity that we might properly call, if not Albionian, then British.

Quite how far back it reached is impossible to know, of course. Intriguingly, the presence at Stonehenge of animal remains from what is now Scotland suggests that as early as 2500 BC the stone circle was a place of pilgrimage for people across the entire island. The sense of living in a land separated by the seas from other realms, and distinctive for that reason, was certainly one that flourished during the centuries that followed the collapse of Roman rule. It was remembered that originally Britain had been inhabited by giants, and that their sway, commemorated by the standing stones and great banks of turf they had fashioned as markers of their rule, had spanned the whole of the island. Settled subsequently though it was by peoples “divided by language and separated by race according to their ancestors’ names,” , as the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin put it, yet the dream of establishing a pan-British order was one in which many of them shared. It was why, in Canterbury, the archbishop regarded himself as primate of the entire British Church. It was why, in Wales, poets foretold a time when the whole island would once again be theirs. It was also why, some time around AD 900, in the northernmost reaches of Britain, the peoples of what had previously been known as Pictland began to refer to themselves as fir Alban: the people of Alba. Their upstart realm, the nucleus of what in time would become the kingdom of Scotland, gained much by this appropriation of the name for the entire island. It gave to the fir Alban not just the patina of antiquity, but something even more precious: what Dauvit Broun has termed an “emblematic identification with the idea of ‘Britain’”.

Not that there was any prospect, in AD 900, of joining all the peoples within the island in a common union. The inhabitants of Pictland, so the great Northumbrian historian Bede had reported some two centuries previously, were only one of four different groups of people who inhabited Britain – and these four peoples were in turn forever fighting among themselves. The English, according to tradition, were like the Picts in being divided up into seven kingdoms; the Welsh, despite ruling a huge stretch of western Britain, from the Severn all the way to the mighty rock of Dumbarton, were even more balkanised; the Scots, one of the two peoples who, with the Picts, came to define themselves as fir Alban, had originally been so isolated from their landward neighbours by the mountains of the central Highlands that they had ended up inventing an Irish ancestry for themselves. Albion in the early Middle Ages could hardly have been more fragmented.

Inevitably, then, the process by which a bewildering multitude of fractious statelets came to be forged into twin united kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south of the island, was bloody and complex. Perhaps, had the Vikings not descended on Britain, it would never have happened at all. Across the entire island, kingdoms went down in flames. Where there was ruin, however, there was also opportunity. The emergence of Alba was made possible by the devastation visited by the Vikings on the traditional centres of Pictish power. Likewise, in the southern half of the island, the implosion of three ancient English kingdoms – Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia – left the field clear for the only Anglo-Saxon rulers to have stood proof against the Viking firestorm. The kings of Wessex succeeded in fashioning out of the rubble left by the invaders a united ‘Angle Land’. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, could plausibly claim to be ‘rex totius Britanniae’ – ‘king of the whole of Britain’.

Nevertheless, limits soon emerged to the reach of the precocious new English state. The northernmost marches of ‘Angle Land’ were remote from its centre of gravity in the southern lowlands. The great rock of Edinburgh, which had been in English hands since the 7th century, was lost to it soon after Athelstan’s death. So too, some sixty years later, was Lothian. The Northumbrians, whose defeat at the battle of Carham in 1018 proved terminal for their hopes of winning back their lost lands, called the men of the predatory kingdom to the north not the fir Alban but the Scots. The forging of ‘Scot Land’ was in many ways an even more remarkable achievement than that of ‘Angle Land’. By the early 12th century, three different groups of peoples, each originally speaking different languages, had come to think of themselves as ‘Scots’. Two of these, the Welsh and the Picts, had been subsumed so thoroughly into the Gaelic-speaking culture of their new overlords that their very identities had vanished. The English-speaking population of Lothian, however, were to prove more indigestible – and with momentous consequences. It ensured that Scotland would be a kingdom of two languages – with Gaelic, in the long run, coming off second-best. Similarly, the structures and presumptions of English kingship were destined to have a far greater influence on the emergent Scottish realm than the native traditions of the Scots themselves. “It is almost as if,” in the impish words of James Campbell, the great historian of the Anglo-Saxon state, “there are two Englands and one of them is called Scotland.”

A less provocative way of making the same point might be to say that the two rival kingdoms of Albion, having emerged out of such similar circumstances, were in many ways the mirror image of one another. England and Scotland, despite their consistently bloody border, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages in ways that were strikingly parallel. Both, in the wake of 1066, had a French overlay added to their twin mixes of native cultures; both, in the 13th and 14th centuries, began to define themselves in terms of an emergent sense of national selfhood. The age of Wallace and Bruce, which more than any other period of Scottish history has inspired Scots down the ages to see themselves as distinct from the English, also highlights something else: the strikingly similar way in which the two peoples mythologise themselves.

Edward I, whose relish for hammering the Scots was what forced them into their desperate and ultimately heroic fightback, was also the first king with an English name since 1066, and a noted enthusiast for the Matter of Britain, as the legends of Arthur were known. This was not just coincidence. Edward’s predecessors, as befitted heirs of William the Conqueror, had preferred France to Scotland as a field for throwing their weight around; but it was clear, by the time Edward himself came to the throne, that Normandy and the other French possessions of the English crown had gone for good. It had become, as a result, more self-consciously English – but so too had the people it ruled. Tellingly, the king who lost Normandy, Edward’s grand-father John, was the same king who signed a document that would end up enshrined as the very foundation-stone of English liberty: Magna Carta. Edward himself, desperate to fund his wars, was forced in 1297 to reissue the ‘Great Charter’ in return for a new tax. Then, a couple of decades on, it was the turn of Scottish barons to pose as the defenders of their people’s rights. In 1320, with the war of independence finally won, they assembled at Arbroath Abbey, and set their seals on a momentous document of their own. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” so it stirringly declared, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.” A manifesto pledge which, 700 years on, patently gives Alex Salmond atavistic thrills; and yet in truth, the principles articulated in the Declaration of Arbroath were as pan-nationalist in their implications as they were nationalist. Like Magna Carta, it came to serve the people of a British kingdom as something truly precious: an assurance that no one, not even a king, should be above the law. Anglophobic in tone though it certainly was, its ultimate significance lay in ensuring that Scots and English would end up treasuring similar ideals. This, as their fortunes became ever more entwined in the 16th and 17th centuries, was to prove fundamental in providing the peoples of the twin kingdoms with a genuinely British political culture. Increasingly, to many Scots and English, what divided them came to seem of less moment than what joined them. This it was that made the Act of Union not just possible, but perhaps inevitable.

“People who decry a nation’s history will never address a nation’s future.” So declared Alex Salmond, in the wake of a video released by Alba in which his party overtly compare the battle of Bannockburn to its own campaign to have Scotland secede from the United Kingdom. Many in the independence movement responded with po-faced disapproval. “Geez!” tweeted Pete Wishart. “We’re trying to win our independence through presenting ourselves as a progressive, modern and outward looking nation.” Yet Alba’s gung-ho enthusiasm for fighting old battles is, in many ways, more honest than the SNP’s claim to disdain them. The conviction that the Scots and the English are so different that they cannot possibly continue as citizens of the same polity would be nothing without the animating myths of history. It is the ambition of Nicola Sturgeon no less than it is of Alex Salmond to reimpose a border across Great Britain that would never have been there in the first place had the Northumbrians not lost at Carham back in the reign of Canute. What Wishart casts as “progressive, modern and outward looking” would be, in geopolitical terms, a return of the island to a medieval status quo.

Yet that same status quo was always ambivalent, always the seedbed for the joining of all the various peoples of Albion within a single union. The sharing of ideals and traditions that enabled distinct nations to be forged out of the once independent West Saxons and Northumbrians, Picts and Scots, have long since become the common heritage of all of us in this island. The values traced by the English back to Magna Carta, and by the Scots to the Declaration of Arbroath, were mingling and merging even before the Act of Union. Right and left in Britain: both have derived their principles from all the various corners of Great Britain. They bear the imprint of Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli; of Robert Owen and Keir Hardie. It is in our shared political and moral culture that all of us who share this island are most truly British. This identity, as Salmond’s adoption of the name ‘Alba’ for his new party should serve to remind us, is not a modern imposition on medieval nations, but  something altogether more venerable: the fulfillment of a very ancient dream.

Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster. He is the author most recently of Dominion, a revisionist, controversial account of Western history.


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