Friday, 26 September 2014


Dumfries hospital outpatients reception
It is T S Eliot's birthday today, an excuse to revisit The Waste Land and the Four Quartets.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Cricket against slavery

 Pope Francis and his cricket XI

A wonderful day on Friday at the inaugural charity cricket match in aid of Global Freedom Network, the Vatican vs Church of England at Kent County Cricket ground in Canterbury. The sun shone all day, and the C of E won with a magnificent four off the second ball of the last over. Then we all went into the members' pavilion for a slap up dinner and much house red.
One of our party (in pink) with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the background

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

On the Eve

Ivan Turgenev
The great and wonderfully readable 19th century Russian short story writer and novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote a novel in 1859 called 'On the Eve', which, like all great novels, is hard to summarise in a few sentences. However, for the purposes of relevance to our own referendum ballot tomorrow, it is worth mentioning that one of the main protagonists is a Bulgarian freedom fighter, seeking to liberate his country from the Ottoman empire.  In 1853, the year 'On the Eve' is set in, Britain, France and the Turks were on the verge of going to war with Russia over the Crimea, and the good people of Moffat burned an effigy of Tsar Nicholas I in the High St, which he had visited as a teenage Grand Duke thirty seven years before.

An item on last night's 'Newsnight' broadcast live from outside St Andrew's church in Moffat asked if the secession of Scotland from the Union might be the last installment in the story of the British empire, very largely built by Scots. There is another way in which this novel is timely: it was written at the time that Garibaldi ( a great hero and personal friend of Thomas Carlyle of Ecclefechan) was leading the fight to unite Italy.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum tomorrow, it has been an enormously exciting process, a testament to the benefits to be derived from actually sitting in a public space like Moffat Town Hall with neighbours and having a serious peer-to-peer among equals discussion about stuff that matters to all of us. How about tackling the blight of the Mercury Hotel next?  

Wednesday, 10 September 2014



Sir Walter Scott was married in Carlisle Cathedral


A few hours spent in Carlisle last week reinforced the extent of our cross-border ties.

A dispassionate historical analysis of the idea of Britishness was recently published on his blog 'Senchus'
by Tim Clarkson, author of 'Men of the North'

 "I don't have a particular axe to grind as far as Scottish independence is concerned. I'm not a Scot, nor do I live in Scotland. I don't have a vote in the referendum. However, as someone with a keen interest in Scottish history I do take an interest in the debate. I'm particularly interested in how the terms 'Scottish' and 'British' (and 'Scot' and 'Briton') are used by people on both sides, usually when a point about identity is being raised. In recent years, I've spent quite a bit of time studying how these terms were used in Scotland in the early medieval period or 'Dark Ages', the era of the Picts and Vikings. In two books (one already published, the other forthcoming) I've looked at what it meant to be a Briton in the Scotland of a thousand years ago, and why people in those days regarded 'Britishness' as different from both 'Scottishness' and 'Englishness'. Early medieval texts show that even the umbrella term 'Britain' could be used in ways that excluded Scotland and England, to distinguish the territories of the Britons from those of the Scots and English.

The Britons of early medieval times were descended from the people we used to call 'Ancient Britons' in the school history lessons of my childhood. We were taught that the Britons fought the Romans, then the Anglo-Saxons (the ancestors of the English) and that their language survives today in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. All of this is broadly true, although more could be said. In Scotland, the clearest reminder of the Britons of old is the distinctive, twin-peaked mass of Dumbarton Rock, which gets its name from Gaelic Dùn Breatann, 'Fortress of the Britons'.

Fast forward a thousand years and we're all Britons now, regardless of whether we live in England, Scotland or Wales. The modern notion of a common British identity is fairly easy to grasp - or at least it should be. Unfortunately, not everyone who voices an opinion on Scottish independence seems to understand what 'Britishness' means in the twenty-first century. Some commentators think the name 'Britain' applies exclusively to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They believe a Yes vote on 18th September will herald the 'end' or 'break up' of Britain. They're mistaken. Britain is a geographical entity, a large island in the North Atlantic, known as 'Great Britain' to distinguish it from Brittany or 'Little Britain'; the UK is a political entity, constituted in the early twentieth century after the creation of the Irish Free State. An independent Scotland will still be part of the island of Great Britain. The people of an independent Scotland will still be British. Separation from the UK will not dilute their 'Britishness' in any way. This is a simple geographical fact. It is not affected by the outcome of next week's referendum.

* * * * *

Epilogue: Some references to 'Britishness' in early medieval Scotland

1. Scots, Britons and English (Anglo-Saxons) as separate peoples.

From the Annals of Ulster:
952 AD - Cath for Firu Alban & Bretnu & Saxonu ria Gallaibh.
'A battle over the men of Alba [Scots] and the Britons and the Saxons [English] was won by the Foreigners [Vikings].'

From the Prophecy of Berchan:
c.960 AD (reign of King Ildulb of Alba) - 'Bretain, Saxain, maircc fria a linn, fria a re an lonsaiglithigh airmglirinn mo glienar Albancha leis idir thuaith is eglais.
'Woe to Britons and Saxons in his time, during the reign of the champion of fine weapons; joy to the Scots with him, both laity and clergy.'

[The Britons mentioned in these two references were the people of Strathclyde, the last surviving kingdom of the Britons in the North.]

2. Britain = 'territory ruled by Britons' (not 'the island of Britain' as a whole)

From the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba:
c.972 AD - Cinadius filius Maelcolaim regnavit [xxiv] annis. Statim praedavit Britanniam ex parte.
'Cináed son of Máel Coluim reigned 24 years. He frequently plundered part of Britain.'

['Britain' here means Strathclyde which lay on the south-west border of Cináed's kingdom.]

* * * * * * *

Thursday, 4 September 2014

How do you sleep?

Hugo Rifkind

  Hugo Rifkind in today's Spectator magazine reports that he has been in Scotland on referendum watch:

"... of all the people to whom I spoke — and there were hundreds — the one who sticks in my mind was an incredulous Dutchman. I don’t remember the exact words he said to the ‘yes’ campaigner at his door, because I didn’t write them down. But the gist was this.

‘You’re mad,’ he said. (Or didn’t, but nearly did.) ‘And selfish. Selfish and mad. Have you seen how screwed up the world is? All the evil? Ukraine? Isis? Boko Haram? Holland can’t do anything about that — we’re tiny. Britain can. And you want to leave it. Because you don’t care about anybody except yourselves. How do you sleep?’
Not an argument I’d heard before. Doubt Scots would really have gone for it. But my God, it sounded good on that front step."