Here’s a quick geography quiz. Picture a town with attractions including the salmon-stocked River Tweed and Scotsgate, part of a boundary of carefully preserved defensive walls. Nearby, there is a museum dedicated to the history of The King’s Own Scottish Borderers infantry regiment. A Royal Bank of Scotland and a Bank of Scotland stand almost adjacent to each other on a main street, while The Rob Roy B&B, to the south, overlooks mist rolling in from the sea. One final clue: the local team plays in the Lowland League, the fifth tier of Scottish football. Where are you?
Berwick was a ping-pong ball for centuries
It’s a trick question, of course.
You’re not in Scotland, but in the northernmost town in England. This is Berwick-upon-Tweed, a harbour settlement on a hooked-shaped estuary on the sand-blasted Northumberland coast. And yet, historical quirks and head-scratching peculiarities from all perspectives make you think of the country’s northern neighbour, just 4km away.
That’s because, long before the town became English, Berwick-upon-Tweed was as Scottish as Edinburgh, Dundee or Glasgow. In the 1120s, it was one of only two royal burghs in Scotland, with a teeming quayside that laboured as one of the biggest ports in Britain. For almost 200 years, merchants took wool and yarn to Flanders, France and beyond, with history claiming that the port generated a quarter of the equivalent tax revenue for all of England. This was Berwick-upon-Tweed’s lucrative golden age and the “Alexandria of the North”, as the town was known, was the most important economic anchor in Scotland.
That, according to Derek Sharman, a local historian who’s been studying the town’s tangled timeline for 33 years, is just the start of the story. Because from this point in Berwick-upon-Tweed’s curious history, the tiny harbour town then feverishly swapped sides in a political and economic tug of war between the two nations. In fact, it did so a bewildering 13 times.
“Berwick was a ping-pong ball for centuries,” said Sharman, when we met on an aglow July morning for a walk through the town’s living history. “It was captured, controlled, sacked, traded and fought over, time and again. Both nations wanted control of Berwick. But these shifting allegiances have led to the town having its own inimitable sense of independence – and today there’s not any feeling of English or Scottish sentiment or nationalism.”
As Sharman puts it, the town now has a palpable third identity. “People here are genuinely first and foremost Berwickers,” he said. “Do we have a third ‘nationality’? You bet we do. And I say this with feeling: I’m a proud Berwicker.”
Take a short stroll around the town’s historical centre today and it’s clear to see that Berwick-upon-Tweed remains a place pulled in opposing directions. If not exactly a town divided, it is one with a complex sense of its own uncommon identity. You feel you are not so much in a town as in a scrapbook of British history.
To begin, start on St Andrews Place near to Queen Victoria’s Fountain and The Elizabethan Town House B&B. Wallace Green, a historical marketplace that may or may not be named after mythic Scottish warrior William Wallace, looks on to St Andrew’s Wallace Green and Lowick Church of Scotland. Also in view nearby is the town’s undoubted highlight: an imposing curve of fortified walls and ramparts built during the reign of Elizabeth I.
The most expensive and ambitious project during the English monarch’s dogged regime, the arrowhead-shaped bastions were built 450 years ago to keep out the unwelcome Scots. From here, you can see the one-time border country, home to some 30 battlefields and fought over for centuries by the two warring nations. Not for lack of history, there are no souvenir stalls, no postcards, no other visitors.
This understatement is typical of Berwick-upon-Tweed: only a laminated plaque hints at the structure being one of the best-preserved examples of fortified walls in Europe. Elsewhere, the platform of the town’s railway station is built where the Great Hall of Berwick Castle once stood. All manner of kings and nobles – King David I of Scotland, Edward I of England, banner-wavers Robert the Bruce and Richard the Lionheart among them – played a role in the fortress’ history during the border squabbles. Not that the commuters rushing through to elsewhere today would ever know.
“The border has never mattered to locals,” said Jarman, as we walked with views over the River Tweed, which helped establish the England-Scotland border in its current form in 1237. “But Berwickers have great pride in what the town has been over the centuries. It’s a warranted pride, not a pin-on-your-shoulder pride. Our identity – though complicated – runs deep.”
Do we have a third ‘nationality’? You bet we do.
Today, there is a sense that this complex third “nationality” is driven not only by nuances in dialect, attitude and self-reliance, but by the service town’s isolation and anxiety over creeping financial disparity from the rest of north-east England. Though not geographically far from Newcastle, at just more than 100km north, there is a lack of sustainable industry, and Berwickers feel cut off, economically, psychologically and otherwise. As if, in fact, their town is an island.
Another peculiarity about Berwick-upon-Tweed: it took until 1746 – nearly 40 years after the formal union between England and Scotland in 1707 – for an act of parliament to officially recognise the town as part of Britain. Captured for the final time by the English in 1482, it wasn’t until the Wales and Berwick Act 1746 – nearly three centuries later – that Berwick-upon-Tweed was fully annexed to England, rather than its previous status of being ruled by England but not officially part of it. How does the historian explain that?
“Prior to 1746, Berwick had been ‘of the Kingdom of England, but not in it’,” Jarman said, reading from a photocopy of an archive document. “It’s a contradiction in terms, of course, and a direct result of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace brokered by James IV of Scotland and Henry VII of England in 1502. What it meant was that Berwick was semi-independent – it was a little kingdom all of its own.”
If we go to Newcastle, we’re Scottish. But if we go to Edinburgh, we’re English.
Away from the town’s historical core, along the cobbles to the quayside, place names reflect the borderland geography. The River Tweed, meaning “border” in an ancient Celtic tongue, flows almost between the two nations, while old salmon shiels, a Scots word describing antiquated huts for fishermen, dot the banks deep upriver into Scottish territory.
In the foreground, commanding the western horizon, is the magnificent Royal Border Bridge. Opened by Queen Victoria in 1850, it provided the final rail link between the two capitals, London and Edinburgh (today a four-hour ride south and 40-minute ride north-west, respectively). Rather handily, a new gateway to Scotland – and to the Queen’s holiday home Balmoral in Aberdeenshire – was born.
Seen from the prow of a boat named “Border Rose”, while drifting upstream in the company of born-and-bred Berwicker David Thompson, the stone bridge is one of the architectural highlights of north-east England. Or as Thompson, owner of Berwick Boat Trips, put it, “muckle bari”, meaning “really pretty” in the local dialect.
“To be a proper Berwicker, there was a time you had to be born there,” said Thompson, pointing ahead to the town’s historical maternity hospital, which sits just beyond the bridge. “Growing up here, it’s common to feel you are in no-man’s land. If we go to Newcastle, we’re Scottish. But if we go to Edinburgh, we’re English.”
To a remarkable extent, the reality of Berwick-upon-Tweed’s third “nationality” is that it has even more complications. Within the confines of the town’s broader limits, there are a number of other clearly defined identities. If you come from Tweedmouth, on the south bank of the river estuary, you are a “Twempy”. Live farther south in Spittal, meanwhile, and you are a “Spittaler”. If ever there was a setting where the concept of three places, two nations, one town, makes sense, it is here.
“We’re all different, of course,” said Thompson, proudly. “But we’re also part and parcel of the same broad-church, if you know what I mean. We’re all Berwickers and proud.”
Places That Don’t Belong is a BBC Travel series that delves into the playful side of geography, taking you through the history and identity of geo-political anomalies and places along the way.
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