Middleland, our lost realm
A great kingdom spanning England and Scotland died when the border went up, says Rory Stewart MP, a member of the Asia Scotland Institute’s International Advisory Council
The ideas of “England” and “Scotland” are immensely powerful in the year of the referendum. Perhaps this is why it took me so long to understand that what are now two were once three.
I’m half-English and half-Scottish. I spent years living and working on borders, from the Balkans to Afghanistan. And I’m now the MP for the only constituency with border in its name. But over the past five years of walking, writing and finally making a BBC documentary I have slowly come to terms with the “Middleland”: a nation with its own kings, languages, traditions of art and literature and forms of religion that existed for more than 1,000 years.
It extended from the Firth of Forth in the north to the Humber in the south, stretching over what is now all of southern Scotland and northern England. It has never entirely disappeared.
I have got to know Willie Tyson, for example, who lives beside a mountain called Blencathra and says “yan, tan, tethera” when counting sheep instead of “one, two, three”.
The name of the mountain and the numerals are from the ancient Middleland language of Cumbric, quite different from English or Scottish Gaelic. The Middleland is a sparsely populated territory of open moorland and peat — an upland terrain of small family sheep farms, not at all like the Highlands of Scotland or the English south. And archeology suggests this was an egalitarian society, with no obvious centres of wealth and power, as long ago as 700BC.
Hadrian’s Wall ripped the Middleland in two. Flying over the wall with the archeologist David Woolliscroft, I saw the wall did not follow a great river or mountain ridge. It cut, ruler-straight, through flat fields. (Archeologists can still see the lines of the Iron Age ploughs running under the wall.) About 15,000 Roman soldiers manned what was, in effect, an 84-mile long camp for 300 years. This colonial line tore tribes and families apart. My experience as a deputy governor in Iraq made me feel the brutality of this foreign occupation.
In the northeast there is evidence the Romans cleared the native population from the territory beyond the wall. When the Romans withdrew, economic and governmental structures collapsed. The warlords of the Middleland, who had been created under the Roman occupation, were sucked into civil war.
Then, after 200 years of obscurity and chaos, there was a miracle. Within two generations from AD630, the pagan, illiterate Kingdom Middleland — then called Northumbria — became briefly the greatest Christian civilisation of its time.
It attracted Byzantine sculptors and Scandinavian jewellers, Catholic missionaries from Syria and Italy and Irish ascetics. It changed our understanding of astronomy, of tides and the nature of history. It produced the finest sculpture in Europe and masterpieces such as the illumination of the Lindisfarne gospels.
This revolution in scholarship, spirituality and art stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Humber and included Edinburgh as much as York. Even after Northumbria faded, a wonderful cross-border culture survived in the Kingdom of Cumbria, connecting Penrith to Glasgow, a Christian civilisation interfused with pagan Scandinavian symbols and mythology. (In Penrith churchyard we filmed a cross decorated with a mythical Norse serpent.)
The kingdoms of the Middleland were destroyed first by the Vikings: we had to film a full Royal Marines amphibious assault crashing over the cold waves to give a sense of the terror of a Viking attack. Then the English and Scottish kings combined to crush what remained. When the eastern Middleland attempted a final rebellion, William the Conqueror “harried the north”, killing 100,000 people; the Scottish king followed up, enslaving the survivors.
The last independent King of Cumbria vanished some time in the 11th century. But even after the independent kings had gone, a Middleland culture survived. Monastic foundations expanded across the border, bringing new learning, turning the fellside into pasture and creating fortunes through the international sheep trade. (A single monastery could keep 20,000 sheep.) As late as 1290 people on both sides of the border married each other, traded with each other, worked for the same nobles and the same monasteries and spoke the same Northumbrian dialect.
The scar of the Roman wall had never entirely faded, however. In many sections it stood 10ft tall for more than 1,000 years. All the early medieval maps of Britain showed the Roman wall. King William II of England put his frontier forts precisely on the Roman line. (His successors pushed the border further north in the east, but in the west the Roman frontier remains to this day.)
The victory of the Scottish king Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314 gave this artificial border its final sinister life. Bruce’s family owned estates deep into Yorkshire, and his father had been keeper of English Carlisle (where Lord Dacre, whose descendant, Philip Howard, I met during filming, was later governor). Bruce banned cross-border landholdings: the people of the Middleland were forced to choose to be English or Scots. It was forbidden for an Englishman to marry a Scot or to enter Scotland without written permission.
For the next 300 years the border destroyed the lives of everyone who lived alongside it — creating murderous raids, mafia bosses fuelled by proxy war. (In the Bailey Valley I stayed with and filmed families who still celebrate their descent from border reivers: singing their ballads and showing me their swords and gallows trees).
In 1604 the border vanished — the two halves were joined again under a single king. James “Sixth and First” tried to resurrect the Middleland as the “Middleshires”. Without the border the violence ceased. The Middleland found a second golden age as Walter Scott and Wordsworth made it the central landscape of the European imagination. New, more nuanced cross-border identities emerged.
At Longtown auction mart, a farmer told me: “My grandmother was from Scotland, she was a Scot. My grandfather’s from Northumberland, my wife’s from Durham city. I’m from Cumbria, so I think I’m British.”
On September 18 a referendum will determine whether this border, invented by the Emperor Hadrian, becomes again the line of separation between two nations. Will anyone remember the culture and the people that once reached — and still reach — across the modern border, linking southern Scotland to northern England? Will anyone remember the beauty and the glory of the Middleland?
Rory Stewart is the Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border and a member of the Asia Scotland Institute’s International Advisory Council. Border Country — The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland is on BBC2 on Sunday, March 30, and Sunday, April 6, at 8pm
Read more articles by Rory on his website