Saturday, 27 October 2012

FAQs about Berwick upon Tweed

This is a photo of the railway bridge in Berwick on a nice sunny day, by way of contrast from my last post.

I've realised that some people who have only started to look at my blog recently may be unclear about where Berwick upon Tweed is and what's so special about it. So I thought that I'd provide a handy summary in the form of questions often asked by visitors.

Is Berwick in Scotland or England? I'm confused ...

Leaving aside the question of whether it ought to be or not, Berwick is, at the present time, as a matter of legal fact, in England.

So is the county of Berwickshire in England as well then?

No. Originally Berwick was the county town of Berwickshire, but the town was taken over by England while the county was left in Scotland. This is why the local press has to produce two separate newspapers, the Berwick Advertiser and the Berwickshire News, and struggle to find enough news to fill both of them.

How many times has Berwick been handed back and forth between England and Scotland?

According to all the books, fourteen. Most of these handovers were due to military conquest, they took place over a relatively short historical period and they were sometimes only a few months apart. The last time Berwick changed hands was in 1482 and it has been in England ever since. More precisely, it hasn't been owned by the Scots since then. For a long time the English regarded it as an occupied part of Scotland rather than as a proper part of England, similar to the English outpost at Calais. Until 1746 it was mentioned  in Acts of Parliament as a separate legal entity. At some point the authorities stopped doing this and started treating Berwick as a true part of England and of the county of Northumberland, but none of the books seem very sure when. Hence the 'grey area' in the title of my blog. And hence the belief of many Scots that it is still occupied territory.

Is it true that Berwick is still at war with Russia?

Probably not. Because of the persistence of the habit of listing Berwick separately in official documents, there is a hoary old story that the declaration of the Crimean War listed Berwick as a belligerent power but the peace treaty did not, and so Berwick is still technically at war with Russia. But the highly knowledgeable local historian Francis Cowe says that this story is not true.

And the Tweed is the river Berwick is built on, yes? That's the river in the photo?

That's right. Berwick is built on the north bank of the estuary of the river Tweed, which was at one time the border between England and Scotland. It's likely that it was called Berwick upon Tweed to distinguish it from the town of North Berwick which is up the road a bit (in Scotland). The village on the south bank of the Tweed is called Tweedmouth and it has never been in Scotland. In fact it's only been in Northumberland since 1835, it used to be part of the possessions of Durham Cathedral. It is now part of the Borough of Berwick, but both Berwickers and Tweedmouthers still talk about 'crossing the bridge' as if it were a big deal involving foreign travel.

What does the name Berwick mean?

All of the standard reference books about place names explain the name Berwick as meaning a barley farm. 'Bere' means barley and 'wick' is a common place name element meaning a farm. One book I've consulted says that 'wick' means specifically a small farm outlying from a larger estate. Francis Cowe says that the whole word 'berewic' means this. The town crest shows a bear and a wych elm tree - 'bear' and 'wych', get it? That's just a joke (actually it's called a rebus) but it confuses a lot of people.

Notwithstanding the consensus of all the books, a keen Scottish amateur historian once pinned me down for a good twenty minutes to explain his conviction that 'wick' comes from the Viking word for a bay. I suggested that if that's true then it's hard to explain why there are so many towns with 'wick' in their names that aren't on the coast. His answer was that it might mean 'farm' in England but in Scotland it comes from a different language and it means 'bay'. Not sure where this leaves Hawick, thirty miles inland and definitely on the Scottish side of the border. I think this is taking linguistic separatism too far.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Ford Village

This is the Old Forge in Ford, a picture perfect village in North Northumberland, about twenty minutes drive south-west of Berwick. I was there today to talk business with the proprietors of the antiques shop which has recently set up inside it, but, email confirmation notwithstanding, when I got there it was closed. So as not to let the trip be a complete waste, I took a few photos. The new owners of the Forge claim that it's the most photographed building in the county, and they could be right. The doorway is designed in the shape of a horseshoe, which never ceases to delight visitors.

It was a dank, misty day, the light so poor that the flash on my camera was triggered (hence the reflections on the door I'm afraid). The autumn leaves were slowly falling from the trees and turning into mulch on the sodden ground. Far from depressing me though this somehow made me happy. This is the way I will always think of Northumberland - grey stone buildings, grey skies, chilly air, damp ground smelling of wet leaves, browsing sheep looming out of the mist. Days of bright sunshine here are relatively scarce and somehow always seem like a bit of an anomaly. My childhood memories are located mostly in an eternal autumn.

The photo below of the churchyard, the mist and the autumn trees captures this perfectly. Sorry if it just looks like a gloomy picture of graves to you. I think that if I were ever living in some foreign land of endless sunshine, seeing this photo would make me cry with homesickness. But one 16th century courtier sent north to serve the English king on the border famously wrote home begging to be relieved of his post in 'this accursed country where the sun never comes'.

I've been waiting for an opportunity to recommend an artist called Peter Podmore, and this seems to be a suitable time. Although he is not a native of the area he has lived in North Northumberland for a long time and paints landscapes which capture the spirit of the place wonderfully. Round here we have a great many bad artists inflicting feeble watercolours of local views on us, but Mr Podmore is not just manufacturing souvenirs for tourists, his paintings express the darkness and harshness of this region as well as its beauty. He has now published a gorgeous and most desirable book of his work called Cold Breeze, Dark Fire: Paintings and Drawings of North Northumberland. Have a look at his website and see what I mean. Then come and visit us in autumn after the crowds have gone and see it first-hand!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

'An Historic Day' - the Referendum Comes Closer

This week for the first time ever Debatable Land has travelled to the extreme limit of its range and brings you pictures of the Scottish Parliament. It's a beautiful building but then for what it cost (£414.4 million according to the official statement on the Parliament's website) it really ought to be. It is magnificently located with a splendid view of the hills which frame Edinburgh so dramatically. I went on the guided tour last year and can report that the view from the committee room we were shown is good enough to make many tedious discussions more bearable.

I felt that this week I should comment on the agreement signed on Monday by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, and David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, setting out the legal framework for the referendum on Scottish independence which will take place in about two years time. The agreement allows it to be held any time before the end of 2014. If it hasn't happened by then the agreement will expire under what they call a sunset clause. Both the Scottish and UK governments have agreed to respect the result.

The next day I made a point of buying a copy of The Scotsman so I could swot up on the details. The Scotsman is the leading serious newspaper of Scotland - yes, they are aware that the name is sexist by modern standards but it seemed okay in 1816 when it was founded and it's too late to change it now. If you've been following me this far you won't be surprised to hear that Scottish newspapers are on sale here in Berwick. The front cover had the headline 'an historic day' and a large photo of Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron shaking hands in a statesmanlike fashion, though it was noticeable that neither of them were smiling with their eyes.

The most significant outcome of the long negotiations between Holyrood and Westminster that led up to this agreement is that Mr Salmond has not got his way about the inclusion of a second question on the ballot paper offering the option of endorsing the so-called 'devolution max' position rather than outright independence. Under devo-max the powers possessed by the Scottish government would be extended so that it could set taxation independently of Westminster but it would remain part of the United Kingdom and could not pursue a separate foreign policy. Mr Cameron has succeeded in limiting the ballot to one Yes or No question on whether Scotland should become independent. All the polls suggest a majority in favour of devo-max but only a minority for full independence, so by removing this fallback option the stakes for which Mr Salmond and his nationalist party are playing have been considerably raised.

For the purposes of this blog I try to maintain a policy of neutrality on Scottish independence. I was once rather keen on calling the blog The Middle Shires, which was the name King James VI and I urged his newly united subjects to use instead of the Borders, but I rejected this because it would have implied that I have a Unionist agenda. My personal position is that I am broadly sympathetic to Scottish independence in principle but can see an awful lot of problems with it in practice and worry about the effect it would have on Northumberland, which is where my heart lies. My personal prediction about the outcome of the referendum is that it will fail to get a majority for independence and that the SNP will then start all over again to campaign for devo-max, which will be achieved eventually after a few more years of negotiations and another referendum. But truly, almost anything could happen in the next two years.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Great Fishing Disaster of 1881

I'm staying in Eyemouth this week because we are approaching the anniversary of the terrible tragedy which hit the local community in 1881. This seems to be little known outside the area, at least I had never heard of it myself until I visited the town's museum, even though all the keen photographers I grew up with used to go to Eyemouth regularly to get their quota of shots of 'boats and ropes'.

As you can see on the memorial, the total death toll in 'the great east coast fishing disaster' was 189 and the great majority of those lost, 129 men, came from Eyemouth. This was about one in three of the entire adult male population of the town. Many women lost both a husband and a son, sometimes two sons. Those men who survived the disaster never recovered from the trauma of seeing so many comrades drown. The population of the town took a hundred years to get back to the level it was at before that day.

Soon after the fishing fleet sailed out of Eyemouth on 14th October 1881 a violent storm blew up. The wind seems to have been almost hurricane strength. The boats were battered to destruction. Attempts to return to harbour were hopeless in the face of such a wind, and all those boats which did try to return were driven onto the rocks known as the Hurkurs which surround the bay (shown in last week's post). Desperate relatives and friends of the fishermen tried to reach them but failed. In some cases women on shore watched their husbands and sons drown and were close enough to hear their cries for help. The only boats which returned safely were those which did not attempt to re-enter Eyemouth harbour during the storm. Some continued down the coast and were able to land at ports on Tyneside. One crew rode out the storm far out at sea  and finally returned home two days later when all hope for them had been given up. The skipper of that boat was so exhausted he had to be carried ashore. The next day he attended the funeral of his son who had been lost overboard from another boat.

This account is taken from a very good book about Eyemouth by Peter Aitchison,  a native of the town who had a successful career as a journalist. It was originally called Children of the Sea, but since tragedies have more sales power it has now been re-published under the title Black Friday, the term which came to be used to refer to the day of the disaster. Peter's chapter about the storm and its aftermath is one of the most harrowing historical narratives I have ever read. He sets out to answer the question of why the loss of life at Eyemouth was so much worse than in other places. The fishermen of most ports on the east coast stayed at home that day when they could see a storm brewing, but those at Eyemouth felt obliged to go to work. Some ports had better harbours which gave returning boats more shelter, but Eyemouth had no protection against the rocks, and was notorious for the shallowness of the water near shore which made it difficult for ships to return home on an ebb tide. Peter concludes that the answer lies in the archaic requirement to pay a proportion of the income from fishing to the church as a 'tithe', money which would otherwise have been paid as harbour fees and funded improvements to the port.

So the Church of Scotland seems to have been little loved by the locals, but there are other Christian organisations which have made a more positive contribution to the lives of fisherfolk. This is the building of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen located right on the harbour in Eyemouth. It provides practical help and emotional support to fishermen and their families. Read more about its work here. So many landlubbers have no idea how hard the life of a seafarer is.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Smugglers of Eyemouth

This is Gunsgreen House in Eyemouth. I've mentioned Eyemouth before in connection with the study which compared the accent of its residents with that of Berwickers, so I thought it was time to provide some visuals. It's the closest Scottish town to Berwick, about fifteen minutes drive straight up the coast. Walking between the two along the coastal path is popular with the sort of keen hikers who visit this area in large numbers, but count me out, thanks, I'll stick to the bus. Two routes run by Perrymans, who won an industry award last year for being the best small bus operator in the country, shuttle back and forth across the border all day, every day. Many people travel in both directions between Berwick and Eyemouth to work or shop.

Gunsgreen House has been developed as a popular visitor attraction by emphasising its historical connection with smuggling. The Nisbet family, whose fortune was built on smuggling, apparently built it with this in mind, creating large cellars which could be reached quickly and easily from a boat moored at the harbour wall, and even secret hidey-holes in the walls. Eyemouth was a notorious centre for smuggling in the 18th century, during the period when the duties charged on luxury goods such as brandy, tobacco and tea still differed between Scotland and England, even after the Acts of Union. The local customs officers mostly ended up as ineffectual alcoholics after being bribed to keep quiet with free supplies of the goods, while those in Berwick had no jurisdiction over the border.

Of course the smuggling of cigarettes is once again a thriving trade, not necessarily in Eyemouth (my lawyers have advised me to add) but in many places down the east coast, because of the amount of tax piled on to the legitimate kind by successive governments who claim that they are only doing it to discourage smoking but would actually find the budget deficit even worse than it is if the whole population really did quit.  Economists of the laissez-faire persuasion would say this just proves that you can't buck the market, not in the 18th century and not now.

It is fascinating to speculate on whether we would see a resurgence of smuggling in the event that Scotland acquired the power to set taxes independently of the Westminster government, under either full independence or the so-called 'devolution max' option. A few weeks ago I wrote about the controversy surrounding the decision by the Scottish parliament to introduce minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks and the resulting incentive for Scots to travel south of the border to buy their booze. At the present time there are no restrictions on how much drink you can transport from England to Scotland other than the breaking strain of your car axle. In the event of Scotland's being able to set its own taxes across the board, for example to vary or even abolish Value Added Tax, we could well see incentives to transport a range of goods in large quantities across the border. I am not making any assumptions yet about which direction they would be travelling in, but eventually the government of whichever country was losing out would probably decide that enough was enough and impose legal limits on the quantities of goods from the other country which could be transported or sold. In that case we could well see the resurgence of Eyemouth and/or Berwick as centres of significant smuggling operations. Particularly since times are hard in the fishing industry and boat operators need to diversify. Once again parents could be bidding their children, Watch the wall, my darling, when the gentlemen go by!