At about the same time as Alexander the Great was conquering Persia, an explorer named Pytheas, from the Greek colony of Marseilles, in the south of modern France, travelled along the Atlantic rim of Europe. It is in the records of his voyage, almost exactly two millenia before the act of union brought Scotland's and England's parliaments together, that we first encounter the words Brettanikaí Nêsoi, the British Isles.
At that time these islands were inhabited by a multitude of Celtic-speaking tribes few of which occupied a territory much greater than one or two modern counties. What bound them together and made them Brettanoí was simply the fact of their shared occupation of this group of islands. Britishness, from its beginnings has been about place.
When the Romans occupied the island they gave the name Britannia to their province, with its fluctuating boundaries, and it is probably their failure to gain any lasting foothold in Ireland that gradually led to that island becoming ‘less British’ than this one.
The two islands had their own names, Iwerijo for Ireland, and Albijo for the larger island. These names survive as Eire and Alba, the Gaelic names for Ireland and Scotland respectively. The medieval Gaels were guilty of the same chauvinism as the Romans when they came to limit the use of Alba to the part of the big island that they occupied.
When Pytheas visited the islands the local Celtic dialects probably varied from place to place but it is unlikely that the fundamental difference between groups of dialects that allows the modern Celtic languages to be divided into Gaelic (Irish, Manx and Scottish) and Brittonic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton), had yet emerged. Again, this division was probably a product of Roman occupation. Yet even after this division occurred and a new language, English, had arrived, the sense that these islands together played home to a connected community survived.
In medieval Gaelic (Old and Middle Irish) the word Gall is used to mean ‘foreigner’, but a close examination of its usage shows that this definition of ‘foreigner’ does not include Britons, Saxons and Picts. So these three ‘Insular nations’ may not have been seen as Gaels, for sure, but they were not considered quite foreign either.
The sense that there are ‘home nations’, which are only ‘half-foreign’, long pre-dates the political Unions of the early modern period. Britishness is not predicated upon political union, it comes with the territory. Even if global warming and environmental catastrophe wipe humans from the face of the planet, the island of Britain will still be here.
In the context of the debate about an independent Scotland one of the big questions is how Britishness will be articulated after any secession.
In a post-Independence world Britishness might just become a term related to geography but it is more likely that various institutions would retain a pan-British identity simply for practicality and economy of scale.
The dominant language in all the home nations will remain English for the foreseeable future and ease of movement in the present and the future along with shared history and family connections will constantly remind us of the links.
One need only think of the relationship of post-Independence Ireland with the other home nations to see this. Historical figures as different as the Duke of Wellington and Oscar Wilde are both British and Irish and although their stories may be spun slightly differently in the two countries they do inhabit the national consciousness of both.
Prehistorians have for a long time argued that what they call ‘peer-polity interaction’ has long been one of the driving forces of social and technological process. What they mean by this is that when peoples with a shared culture and language are divided between multiple states which constantly interact, as for example amongst the city states of Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy, they are far more innovative than large empires.
In the Ancient Middle East the great monolithic states like Egypt and Assyria retained regional hegemony for a thousand years or more but with little internal development or innovation. When scientists and artists can move from one polity to another with little difficulty then patrons are forced to compete and experiments in government, economy and the arts, can be watched with informed interest by the neighbours and can be adopted, adapted or avoided as seems appropriate.
In our own age we can see this happening in Scandinavia, by far the most progressive part of the West. The whole region was united under a single crown between 1378 and 1523, after which Sweden broke away in a bloody war of Independence. From 1536, and particularly after constitutional reforms in 1660 Denmark and Norway became more integrated, only being separated by the Great Powers after the Napoleonic Wars, in 1814.
Norway had been effectively the junior partner in a Union with Denmark for 436 years. The majority of Scandinavians all speak dialects of what is in linguistic terms a single language, written forms reflecting the historical usage in the different metropolitan areas of the three kingdoms.
Ideas and people move freely between them and they give institutional priority to harmonising policies where possible. One could argue that Scandinavia is a failed state, that it has not fulfilled ethno-linguistic destiny of unification. If that is what failure looks like, bring it on.
Dr Alex Woolf was brought up in East Sussex and attended University in Sheffield. After a brief stint of teaching at the University of Wales Lampeter, he came to Scotland in 1997 to take up a lectureship in Early Scottish History and Celtic at the University of Edinburgh before moving to his present position as a lecturer in Mediaeval History at St Andrews in 2001. He is the author of From Pictland to Alba, volume 2 of the New Edinburgh History of Scotland, and numerous academic papers on aspects of early mediaeval history. Though his primary political colours are green and red he has gradually come to believe that an equitable society would more easily be achieved in an independent Scotland than in the United Kingdom as it is now constituted.