Rethinking the Anglo-Scottish Borders

On 1 June 2018, the Borders and Borderlands Research Group held a symposium on the Anglo-Scottish Borderlands at Northumbria’s Institute of the Humanities. The symposium gathered together a wide range of scholars from across several disciplines to think about the past and the future of this fascinating, occasionally fractious, and culturally rich region.

Borderlines, in the age of President Trump’s plans for a ‘beautiful’ border wall and ongoing crises from Syria to Myanmar, are unusually vexed. The largely ‘soft’ border to the north of us linking Scotland and England does not possess this level of threat. Following the Brexit referendum, however, the social, economic and environmental future of the region looks increasingly uncertain. The symposium performed its own act of ‘border crossing’, asking artists and academics between the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to think about the rich cultural resources of the region. Central to the day was an exploration of how understandings of the past might shed light on the present and help us to imagine the future of this predominantly rural region with its common bonds, shared resources but often a mutual sense of disconnection and isolation.

Across the day, the borderlands began both to come into focus and to seem increasingly complicated. Borders history presents an area that interweaves cultural, political, and environmental strands into what Professor Ysanne Holt (drawing on the region’s rich textile heritage) described as a ‘weave, a meshwork’. How to read the landscape, with its bogs and mosses, its hills and ‘debatable lands’, its rivers that connect and divide, became a productive, if unsettled, question. For many of the contributors, the methods that we use to read the area must themselves be open and flexible. Art practice – creative writing, dance, map-making, glass-making, photography, film – offers uniquely valuable responses to that question.

Border

[Photo credit: Oliver Moss]

This is an area often forgotten and difficult to map. The referenda on greater Scottish Independence and EU membership seem to have raised more questions than settled answers for the region. That so much of the area is rural is a part of this, and many contributors reflected on the importance of listening attentively to the voices of the region, voices that possess their own winking humour and flexible pragmatism. But a rural region is not one stuck in the past: the area has always been mobile, always been a place of change that is open to the world. The difficulty we have in mapping it may be one of its greatest strengths as we look to address the wider issues of borders and borderings so prominent in today’s society.

Claire Pençak, a Borders-based artist, described the area as one in which ‘alternative arrangements’ proliferate. The multiplicity of responses the area offers to us suggest its vitality. Perhaps we can learn to be guided by Hermes (a.k.a. Mercury), the deity of borders, crossroads, translations, transactions, who ‘signifieth subtill men, ingenious, inconstant: rymers, poets, advocates, orators, phylosophers, arithmeticians, and busie fellowes’.

This is the latest of an ongoing series of events by the Borders and Borderlands Research Group. For more information contact Professor Ysanne Holt (ysanne.holt@northumbria.ac.uk) or Dr David Stewart (david.stewart@northumbria.ac.uk)