The upcoming independence referendum in Scotland has me pondering borders.
Borders fascinate and unease me.
I’m obsessed with maps. When I was a kid, borders were usually the most salient feature on the maps that came in the National Geographic Magazine. Their coloured lines divided the world into nameable chunks, and if you cut them into puzzle pieces (always along political boundaries) they fit together so satisfyingly perfectly – almost inevitably.
However, my adult life has been spent in search of exploring and communicating (even promoting) the fundamentally ambiguous nature of human existence. No individual, group or culture can ever be definitively defined, yet borders are apparently so definite. They separate land and divide people into in-groups and out-groups.
In Scotland I have observed as an outsider the various ways in which the people around me define and differentiate themselves. Overlapping identities coexist and come into conflict along many geographic and emotional lines. While currently the most politically pertinent division is Scottish/English (and the separate but more ambiguous Scottish/British), there are numerous others, such as Catholic/Protestant, Highland/Lowland, Glasgow/Edinburgh, Edinburgh/Leith etc.
This comes literally close to home when a temporary wall is erected outside my door to segregate Protestant and Catholic fans during particular football matches.
So, this past weekend I took my bicycle on the train to Berwick Upon Tweed to visit some of the border crossings in that area.
First up, the border crossing of the east coast main line. I’ve caught the charming blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign that marks the border as it flashed by the train window on a few occasions. Since this was where I first crossed into Scotland, and because the sign was so appealing, I wanted to try to capture it.
Fortunately, from Berwick there is a coastal path that leads the 5 or so miles to the border. As anyone who’s taken this section of train knows, the scenery is gorgeous; I always look forward to it. The rail skirts the tops of red sandstone cliffs that drop to the sea. I must have hundreds of photos taken from the train as it travels along this stretch. The footpath winds along the clifftops between the tracks and the cliff. I wish I could have savoured it more, but I had an ambitious schedule and, this being late November, not many hours of daylight.
Also, while it’s a wonderful path, it is not suitable for bicycles. I’d been advised that taking the road (the A1) up wouldn’t have been safe, and I didn’t anticipate going back the same way, so I trudged along pushing the bike through muddy ruts and tall grass and over a style or two.
At the Border on the footpath a large sign welcomes you to Scotland.
Pass through the gate, turn left, and at the end of the field is where the rail crosses the border – and the sought-after sign (see top of this post)!
I spent a while straddling the border, futilely trying to determine what might make one side different enough from the other to draw the line here.
Borders are somewhat random - historical and/or geographical accidents. To neighbors a border it is usually less symbolically significant than it is to citizens of (usually) distant capitals.
If I’d been at a contested border I would have felt the urge to symbolically undermine it by moving things from one side to the other. As it is, this isn’t that kind of border, and the independence referendum isn’t about territorial disputes. The only subversive act I could engage in was to jump the wall onto the tracks to get some more photos (then pretend nonchalance when a train came).
I was disappointed to see that these border signs, which I’d assumed to be a charming relic of a bygone era of rail travel, were in fact printed on plastic and even badly pixelated!
Returning back south on the path I also noted that England doesn't provide the same welcome as Scotland.
Determined to not walk the bike back along the cliffs, I decided to risk the A1. It turns out there is a paved path alongside the road that allowed safe and speedy passage – past the curiously called ‘Conundrum.’
From there I cycled west, headed for the evocatively-named Union Bridge and from there to Norham.
About 2 miles from the Union Bridge (and 3 miles outside of Berwick), I learned another lesson: around this time of year farmers trim back their thorny hedges and those little bits of debris are insidious. 9 punctures later…..
At least the scenery was lovely, it wasn’t raining, and the locals out for a walk were friendly – including the owner of the offending hedge.
With the light fading fast, my puncture repair kit exhausted and still a slow leak in my tubes, I pushed on to the Union Bridge. Built in 1820, it was the longest wrought iron suspension bridge in the world and is the oldest suspension bridge still carrying road traffic. Though a marvel for its time, today it’s a lovely, if unassuming, bridge nestled in a lovely, if unassuming, bend in the River Tweed.
It’s a non-rigid structure, as is apparent when a car squeezes through the size-limiting corsets on either side and crosses.
At this point, the darkness was descending. As was the pressure in my tyres. I abandoned the idea of Norham and cycled back to Berwick, stopping a few times to top up the tyres.
I’m not sure what will come from these excursions to the Border. The land is impervious – disconnected from, yet underpinning the issues that are raging in Scotland. We create the notion of a nation then impose that idea on the land. Those of a sentimental or patriotic bent feel a connection to the land, but the land doesn’t return the favor.