Thursday, 31 May 2012

'Accent and Identity'

For this post I have shamelessly borrowed the title and logo of a fascinating research project undertaken at the University of York. I hope they won't sue me for this because my intention is only to encourage you all to learn more about their work. The project is called Accent and Identity on the Scottish-English Border, or AISEB for short.  The picture on the right is of a poster spotted in the window of the Fishermen's Mission in Eyemouth, seeking to recruit subjects for what sounds like an equally interesting piece of linguistic research being undertaken at Aberdeen.

I first learned about AISEB from a talk given by one of its researchers to the Berwick Civic Society back in May 2010. We listened rapt as he ran through graphs and played sound clips which provided hard scientific proof of what all of us in the Borders know intuitively from everyday experience. Accent follows the line of the political border. No matter that there are no physical barriers whatsoever between Berwick and Eyemouth, that the bus journey between them takes only fifteen minutes and runs every half hour, that many people commute across the border every day - the accent boundary between these two towns falls like a curtain at the point on the road where the signs say Welcome to Scotland/ England and the difference between the two sides of that curtain can be detected by wholly objective recording equipment.

The researchers concentrated on certain key features of pronunciation, notably the presence or absence of a trilled quality to the letter R, and the length of the vowel sounds, which most clearly differentiate Scottish and English speech. Not only is the difference between towns on opposite sides of the border but only a few miles apart quite distinct, the difference is becoming greater over time. The researchers recorded older and younger groups of subjects and found that the difference is more marked in young people in their teens and twenties. One delightful anecdote concerned a young couple who were in Borders terms a mixed marriage, where the wife worried about her husband's speech impediment - an impediment which the researchers found to be nothing more than his English pronunciation of the letter R.

There is some evidence that this process of increasing differentiation is a very long term trend. In his book about the Border Reivers, Alistair Moffat quotes from 16th century reports which comment that it is impossible to tell which side of the border a person comes from by their speech. These observations were made in the context of intense exasperation on the part of the authorities at the difficulty of keeping track of the shifting political and military allegiances of Borderers, who were sometimes known to change sides in the middle of a battle if it seemed advantageous. Evidently such fluidity was helped by the lack of association between speech and nationality. As the process of political centralisation advanced and the Borders were brought more under the control of their respective capitals, dialect became increasingly identified with national loyalty. The coming of compulsory education probably speeded up this development. Scotland and England have different education systems and it is awkward to transfer between them during the exam years, which means that most children experience a schooling which is either entirely Scottish or entirely English. Peer pressure in the playground brings about conformity in speech. The latest development is that - get this! - there is a statistically significant correlation between the strength of a person's support for Scottish independence and the objective Scottish-ness of their speech. Yes, even in Eyemouth, only five miles into Scotland. This may seem hard to believe, but the nifty computer programmes of AISEB have proved it.

The researchers at York merely observe, they do not presume to explain. Any comments and ideas on this subject would be welcome. In a future post I will write more about the speech of the Northumbrian side of the border.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Royal Border Bridge

"This is the night mail, crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order ... " Anyone old enough to remember the famous film about the post office trains with its verse commentary finds it almost impossible to stop themselves quoting these lines when they first see a train going over the railway bridge at Berwick. Obviously this isn't the night train, because if it was dark I wouldn't have been able to take a picture - duh!  And, as previously explained, this bridge does not actually form the border between England and Scotland. Despite this it was officially named the Royal Border Bridge when it was opened in 1850. The architect-engineer was the great Robert Stephenson, son of the even more famous George, who invented the first locomotive. Queen Victoria came to declare it open but refused to cross the bridge herself because she thought it didn't look safe.

It's a dramatic sight, and the fact that I can just see trains going over this bridge from my kitchen window outweighs all of the less desirable aspects of my kitchen. Though I wouldn't want to live in any of the houses in Tweedmouth which are so hard against the bridge that curious passengers can look down and see what the residents are eating for their tea. The railway line was driven ruthlessly not only through the villages of Tweedmouth and Spittal but through the ruins of the medieval castle of Berwick. Imagine the fuss if they tried that now. The second picture shows the sole remaining wall of the castle (and a water-skier about to zoom through an arch of the bridge in impressive fashion). I confess to a sneaking admiration for the Victorian spirit of progress which felt that building splendid new structures was better than preserving every last relic of the past. Goodness knows there are plenty of other castles in Northumberland and southern Scotland. In fact I can suggest a couple of others that English Heritage and Historic Scotland could cross off their lists and leave to decay with no great loss to anyone.

A burden shared by Berwick and Dunbar is that they are the main reception stations for passengers who after a hard evening's partying in the Scottish capital have boarded a train at Edinburgh Waverley station in a state of noisy intoxication and end up being ejected from it by the staff with the help of police whom they phone and ask to meet the train at the next station. The seriously obnoxious revellers only make it as far as Dunbar, twenty minutes out of Waverley. The marginally more sober are tolerated for forty minutes and then dumped at Berwick. Such people then find themselves spending a night in police cells and appearing before the local magistrates (in England) or sheriff (in Scotland) the next morning. For those partygoers who were travelling back to homes much further south it must be a strange and disorientating experience to find themselves hungover in a court in the Borders, especially if it's a Scottish court using unfamiliar terminology. From a recent case reported in the local papers I learned that the offence which is boringly known in England as 'resisting arrest' is in Scotland called 'obstructing or hindering a constable in the execution of his duty', which has an archaic ring which I quite like. After all, the phenomenon of rowdy drunks is much, much older than the railway.  

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Seal Update

My March post about the young seal that had taken up residence beside the Old Bridge in Berwick seemed to be popular with readers, so I thought you might like to have an update. The seal is still there. Yes, two months later, it is regularly to be seen in exactly the same place. As you can see in this photo, it is quite aware of its human audience, and has indeed been accused by some of playing to the cameras. See how cute I am, it seems to say. By now the cameras mostly belong to visitors, the locals are so used to it that they hardly give it a second glance. But in the interests of my readers I went out in the kind of weather for which the Borders are famous to take these two pictures, in a wind so strong that it was impossible completely to avoid camera-shake, for which apologies.

Why is it still there? This is not normal seal behaviour. Mother seals care for their pups for only a few weeks before becoming preoccupied with the next round of mating, and by now this youngster will have been well and truly booted out into the cold, cruel world. Most of its fellows swim back to the Farne Islands after their fishing expeditions and haul out on the rocks there when they need a rest and a snooze. But for some reason this one has fixated on this sandbank in the estuary. For a while we thought that it might be ill and too weak to swim away. But you can see that it has got bigger and fatter since March, so it is managing to catch fish somehow.

So great is its devotion to this particular spot that it is often seen swimming round and round waiting for the tide to fall far enough for it to be able to lie there. This photo on the left was taken a few weeks earlier and shows the seal triumphantly perching on a barely exposed piece of sand.

If any readers know more about seals than I do and can offer suggestions about what's going on, I would  love to have your comments. I have been trying to read any books I can find about seals, but there are surprisingly few of them. The Seals and the Curragh by R.M. (Ronald) Lockley is a lovely account of the author's time living among seals on an isolated stretch of the Welsh coast in the 1940s. It has a mystical streak which he developed further in his later book Seal Woman, a fantasy novel about a love affair with a woman who appears to be half seal. Myths about such seal women seem to be found in the folklore of many regions. Any recommendations for seal related reading would be welcome. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Cromwellian Church

This is Berwick parish church, surrounded by the current spring loveliness. When I say parish church, it’s the Church of England church of the Church of England parish, which means that it’s what Americans and Scots call Episcopalian, a word never used and rarely even understood in England, where the C of E is tautologically defined as Anglican. Only a stone’s throw away is another church, which is of the persuasion now known in England as United Reformed, formerly Presbyterian. This one however never describes itself as United Reformed but always as Church of Scotland, because it’s so close to the border that everyone knows what that means. The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian. Just to emphasise the point, the C of S church in Berwick is dedicated to St Andrew, patron saint of Scotland. The C of E church is dedicated to the Holy Trinity and St Mary. On the whole those who attend the C of E in Berwick are English and those who go to the C of S are Scottish or have family origins north of the border.So far, so typical of the religious divisions of the United Kingdom. But what makes Berwick parish church very unusual, quite independently of its position as the northernmost bastion of Anglicanism, is that it is one of only two churches in England built during the period of the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.

Some of my readers may by now be feeling a little lost in the maze of English history. The Protectorate refers to the form of government during the twenty year interregnum between the deposition and execution of King Charles 1 and the restoration of the monarchy under his son Charles II in 1660.  As far as I can tell, the provision of the funds for a new church was not due to any particular favouritism or reward for loyalty by the Cromwell government to the citizens of Berwick but simply because the previous church was by then in a ruinous state and urgently needed to be replaced.

The architecture of the church embodies the religious principles of the Cromwell government. It has no spire or tower in which bells could be housed and is built in a plain square shape. Internally, it originally had  no altar, no screen across the nave, no coloured glass and no wall decoration of any kind. Unfortunately the Victorians could not leave well alone and the original purity of the design has been sacrificed to the nineteenth century love affair with Gothic. An altar, a screen and an organ were installed and a few stained glass windows, though the church still has far more plain glass windows than is usual in English churches. The problem of the lack of bells was solved by building a bell tower as part of the Guildhall, erected in the eighteenth century. The sound of bells ringing inside this secular structure has been a source of endless confusion down the years. Some visiting preachers have even been known to turn up at the Guildhall on Sunday morning by mistake.

When I first came to Berwick I was entranced to find this memorial to the English Revolution, as it was termed by the historian Christopher Hill, of whom I am a fan. Great was my disillusionment to read that the vicar had attended a service held in London on the anniversary of the execution of Charles 1, apparently to apologise and atone for this act. Those of us who are not wholly convinced that the abolition of the monarchy is an event to be deplored wish to dissociate ourselves from our vicar’s actions in this regard. Next month a service to celebrate the present Queen’s sixty years on the throne will take place in the church, which I’m sure will be a bitter disappointment to any spirits of the revolutionaries of the seventeenth century that still linger among the stones.

Political and religious views put aside, we can all share in condemnation of the recent theft of the church's original seventeenth century lead drainpipes. These unique and irreplaceable items, worth far more as historical artefacts than the value of their metal content, have become just one more piece of our national infrastructure to have disappeared into the hands of unscrupulous dealers in scrap metal as commodity prices soar.  And sadly I never got around to having a good look at them before they went. 

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Riding the Bounds

In other places the first day of May means a celebration of the workers of the world or the chance to put spring flowers in your hair and dance around a pole, but in Berwick it means only one thing, the Riding of the Bounds. Here is the scene outside the Guildhall at 10.30 am. This year's chief marshal, on the white horse, accepts the order to ride the bounds from the mayor. As a long line of other riders waits in the high street, a choir of local primary school children sings Oh Berwick for me. The man at the head of the waiting line joins in lustily and makes encouraging gestures at the crowd pressing against the barriers, but the crowd is too bashful to sing along. After some general cheering and clapping the horses wheel about and trot up the street and out of the town to the north, on their way to patrol the boundaries of the borough of Berwick. Are they clearly marked, secure and free from suspicious signs of incursions by Scots?

This ritual has allegedly been carried out continuously since the 16th century. Personally I have the gravest doubts about this, as the event shows every sign of being what anthropologists call ‘an invented tradition’.  I’m sure that in the days when Berwick was a true frontier town it was necessary to check the boundaries regularly, but this ceased to be politically relevant after 1707 with the Acts of Union between England and Scotland. Curiously enough the Acts came into effect on 1st May, so choosing this day to stage a re-enactment of the riding of the bounds has arguably turned it into a commemoration of its own redundancy. Nowadays the Riding is essentially a jollification for local people who are keen on horses. They have a picnic lunch and a bit of a gallop around, and then parade triumphantly back into town in the afternoon, to report that the bounds are safe.

This photo shows the scene on the Guildhall steps at 3.15 pm. Getting a decent picture without any horses' backsides in the foreground proved difficult, but I think this one gives an excellent sense of the symbolism of the flags carried in the parade. On the left, the blue and white saltire of Scotland; on the right, the red and white cross of England; in the centre, the red and yellow check design which has been adopted in the last few decades as the flag of Northumberland. Here in visual shorthand is the political situation of Berwick upon Tweed, dutifully displaying loyalty to three jurisdictions, to none of which it actually gives wholehearted allegiance.