Can history help us define British identity today, or is it part of the problem?
Five-sevenths of history is story. In the Romance languages the equation is exact. History and story are the same word: Spanish historia, French histoire, Italian storia, and so on, all from the Latin historia, ‘a narrative of past events’. The word itself, though, is older, rubbed down by many tongues: not even the Romans invented history, or its name, though on this island they are often credited with many beginnings.
But who is to be its narrator? The victor, as is usually claimed? Is history then a fiction, a story squabbled over? In a war of words? Words themselves are as ancient as human discourse, linguifactual heirlooms from antiquity, not so solid but perhaps as valid as the archaeologist’s found artefact. Their history is often overlooked.
Linlithgow is a small West Lothian burgh, former haunt of Scottish kings and birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, less than twenty miles west of Edinburgh. The reverse of its burgh seal (on its obverse patron St Michael everslays a writhing dragon) shows a greyhound bitch tethered to a tree on an island in its loch, from a local tale. It also demonstrates a common phenomenon: folk-etymology, which explains and makes sense of what seems incoherent.
Locally Lithgow (whence the surname), pronounced Lithca or Lithgae, in the Middle Ages the burgh-name was deemed by someone of influence to have a Gaelic origin, from liath cù ‘grey dog’, a notion which was taken up folklorically. But the name is older than that. Another Celtic language was spoken here earlier, for centuries before Gaelic arrived, as it was in most of what we now term ‘England’: Welsh. Much of the best early Welsh poetry (including the Lothian-crafted Gododdin) stem from central Scotland. The tongue persisted in many parts into the last millennium, at least to the 12th century, particularly in the kingdom of Strathclyde and the remote Borders uplands.
Few Scots know this. Scottish dictionaries largely ignore it. Not generally taught in schools, Scottish history before the land was polarised between Gael and Angle is the chained skeleton in the national cupboard. If realised, it is often played down. The Welsh once spoken besouth the Forth is termed ‘Cumbric’, and benorth it ‘Pictish’, for no reason other than political correctness: what true Scot, named already from a kindred of Irish immigrants, wants to know his ancestors spoke Welsh?
Welsh (Old English wealh) actually means ‘(Celtic- or Romance-speaking) foreigner’: Britons dubbed strangers in their own land. But place-names whisper the historical truth. As with Aberdeen, Glasgow, Lanark, Perth and Stirling (and Kent, London and many another), Welsh gave the name Lithgow: something like *laith-cau ‘damp hollow’. The full modern name *linn-laith-cau draws in the loch, modern Welsh llyn, to mean ‘lake-in-damp-hollow’, rather than the more intriguing ‘grey-dog loch’. But the story has evolved: today’s Linlithgovians (or should that be Linlithwegians?) are known as ‘Black Bitches’.
Other examples abound. As with all inheritances, words may be used by us their inheritors according to our own lights, bright or dim as the wattage may be. But as soon as words, in themselves objective, are processed by us, whether actively or passively, they become subjective, and this is the bind we cannot escape.
Though etymologically false, such explanations are passed on as memes (units of memory), often by teachers or other local worthies, and become part of our collective heritage. They are as willingly relinquished as a terrier’s stick. Each may be termed an irreality, an individual or vaguely consensual imaginary construct having little relation to any historical or physical actuality but more than the purely notional in that we use it to build our realities, our worldview, around.
As further easy examples, take the boundaries we’ve imposed on our small island. The twin tide-marks of the Romans, the weaker northern one of turf, the more southerly of stone, signal a mindscape still divided to historians of this day at Solway and Forth. Offa’s Dyke marks a later march thrown up like the Thames Barrier against an enemy perceived as urgently threatening as today’s sea-surges. Each of our island nations’ sovereignties is most in peril where the firm but irreal map-line shows her strongest, opposed by different ethnicities defined mostly by tongue or accent: the Same faced up to by the Other. And how many have died for the notion of nation?
It’s good philological practice (as in the derivations of Linlithgow above) to denote with an asterisk a hypothesised early form of a word deduced by analogy with later or even earlier ones: a philologist’s good guess in other words. This has been called ‘asterisk-reality’ and considered a major factor in the fantasy don lit works of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, professors and philologists both, who devised parallel British dimensions of myth.
How close is it to our take on history? As TV, film and book make clear, what the majority wants is imaginative fantasy, taking us out of time (history’s domain) for its duration. What the greater mass of humanity knows of history, if it knows anything at all, is the potted Hollywood version, an Americanised irreality.
William Wallace, the late 13th century ‘freedom-fighter’, though probably not a native Welsh speaker, was of that cultural lineage, as his surname makes clear. Potentially at least quadrilingual (Latin, Norman French, Northern Middle English and Gaelic), in Braveheart he became pan-epochal, daubed in Iron Age woad beneath a quasi-fantasy-movie mullet, sporting pseudo-medieval Scottish garb and speaking modern Antipodean Morningside Glaswegian. Was its star director laughed back over the south-eastern horizon? Far from it: he was lauded over the western one, winning an Oscar, and the film, however briefly, rekindled the fires of Scottish independence.
In a climate of creative history, conspiracy theories thrive. What is justifiably termed a historical novel, Dan Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code is based on a series of errors, either innocently ingenious or deviously disingenuous, not least of which are his acceptance of the existence of the Prieuré de Sion (a 20th century hoax rather than an ancient order synchronous with the Knights Templar) and his derivation of Roslin (also Rosslyn).
Written Roskelyn around 1240, whatever this place-name does mean (‘holly-moor’ or ‘promontory by the pool or waterfall’?), it is Welsh or Gaelic, not English, and has nothing to do with roses, lines or spuriously derived compass rose-lines, with which it doesn’t in any case tally. Much like Linlithgow’s Black Bitch, the device is pivotal to the whole irreality. It has influenced millions of world-views, spawned a tourist trail and a predictably blockbusting film: what author could ask for more? What those of us who think we know think or say doesn’t matter: here folk- (or in this case pseudo-scholarly) etymology has made quantum evolutionary leaps, forging myth in the process.
The history of our small divided islands is little better. All history was story before historians were called up into being. What mattered was the meaning behind the event rather than the chronicler’s or diarist’s minutiae, the statistician’s number-juggling or the easily-nettled pedant’s vested actualities. The British poet David Jones, whose quirky output taps into our insular mythology, knew that collective myth, like the individual psyche, ‘cares nothing for discrepancies of time or circumstance.’
Partly because of this, what we call history is usually our notion of history, constantly reshaped. ‘One damn thing after another’, history is not in itself ordered, except retrospectively. We stagger on from one contingent crisis to the next, ending up far from where we would have wished.
Hindsight is the world’s most efficient editor. Like folk-etymology it orders the inchoate into a semblance of design from which we may learn. Or not.
We ride an ungraspable present into an unforeseeable future. Objectively verifiable facts and dates are our historians’ blind-man’s-kerb through the dimness of the past, which shifts as we look. Once we step away from it, our path is less sure, and we teeter into subjectivity, slip into myth. Is our accepted mainstream history nothing but the academic historian’s irreality, his causeway through a bog, his best guess?
Think for a moment on King Arthur, claimed as their own by Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, fostered by England. Some historians believe in him, some don’t. He may never have existed, certainly not as a medieval chivalric paragon. We have crowned him once and future king, both real and imaginary, by our own imaginations. The inscrutably wise William Blake, another who plumbed his vaticinations into our British meme-pool, saw him as the star Arcturus, and modern Welsh etymology hints he may not have been far out. It may be that all our story-telling grew from ourselves as projections onto, or dialogues with, earth and stars, a dialogue preserved by some place-names, and much myth. The blanker the screen the better. Historically we know next to nothing about the ‘real’ King Arthur, and all his entourage, doughty English knights once Celtic gods. But the next-to-nothing has filled countless books.
Our present monarch, the full weight of church, government and entire age-old establishment solidly behind her, traces her ancestry back to the Anglian Woden, a duplicitous mercurial one-eyed god with shamanic antecedents. Friend to wolf and raven, lord of the meadfeast, of the hanged and otherwise strangled, of warriors slain in battle, father of dynasties, psychopomp, masked and many-faced, his Wednesday name has been construed as ‘raving mad’ or ‘poetically inspired’… How real is that?
As real as all story. At least it roots into an aspect of our national past. Yet to say she is ‘Anglian’ (or even German) is to ignore Welsh (Tudor) and Scottish (Stuart) input, and – who knows? – Irish. She is in fact, as are we all, a walking microcosm of our insular history.
Yet still the Celt is seen as strange and Other, and has been for more than a millennium and a half. Early insular history of any worth is hardly taught in schools. What is is piecemeal and falsely-based. Stereotypically, but not too far from archetypally, our mindscapes are fundamentally polarised between Celts and Anglo-Saxons.
The first are imaged as primitive dark- or red-headed whisky-swilling noble savages, the second hard-headed rational blonds, prone to beery hangovers yet leaders by Aryan birthright. They dominated the ‘Dark Age’ land, sweeping any survivors north and west, then got down to longterm plan the British Empire to a blueprint inherited from the Romans, whose empire had in its time enlightened the Iron Age Celts: if not naked woad-besmeared fen-skulkers to a man (read Gibbon), then grimy shack-dwellers on windswept heights.
Our national names proclaim us peculiar in England and Scotland. We see ourselves as heirs to invaders of an appropriated land of gone British tribes, victims of natural selection. The tongue we speak is also viewed as invasive, equated with the ‘race’ of the invader: because we speak English we are Anglo-Saxons, whose ancestors all crossed the North Sea. But what truth is there in all this?
Not much. For a start, that bio-mysticism we call genetics insists we are all one. The only race we are entitled to refer to is the human one. Even so, distinctions blur at the edges: we have much DNA in common with corgis, midges and shamrock.
Secondly, most scholars agree that the only viable definition of ‘Celt’ is someone who at a certain point in time speaks a language classed as Celtic. This broadens our perspective considerably. Two millennia ago, Celtic was spoken throughout Britain and from Ireland to Galatia (modern Turkey) and almost from the Baltic to Iberia. Many hundreds of millions of Europeans can claim Celtic ancestry, even identity, if they wish. This includes a majority of English folk.
Thirdly, language is a cultural commodity, as an instant’s thought on the pandemic global spread of English and its accompanying meme-mish-mash confirms. Like it or not, the language perceived as most prestigious, for whatever reason, always predominates.
There is growing evidence that Anglicisation was a centuries-long process, not an event. It continues, not only in Scotland and Ireland, where you can still hear ‘I’m after (doing something)’, meaning ‘I have just (done something).’ This is an aspectual construction shared by both Welsh and Gaelic and is in fact a direct translation, a relict of what we term ‘language shift’.
The Irish will always be Irish, despite speaking English. When they shifted to English, the first generation used the brogue, with much lexis, phonology, and syntax transferred from Gaelic. In the next generation, far fewer words were swapped. The third was monoglot English, despite the State’s attempts to reanimate Irish. Now the main characteristic is the accent.
Britons in what we now call England found it beneficial to learn Anglo-Saxon. Initially they would have been bilingual, learning it in their own way, shaping what was to become English. Their eventual monoglot offspring, flaunting themselves as Anglo-Saxons as eagerly as our own children boast baseball caps, would have looked down on their old fogey monoglot great-grandparents as Welsh. In some quarters it’s muttered that the venerable Bede, who despised Brits, was of recent British stock. A fanatical convert: belief is involved. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ poet Cædmon, with his Welsh name (Cadfan), definitely was. But this is just to say that his ‘Britishness’ was more overt.
English dictionaries perform gymnastic contortions to explain away mam, dad, nan(a) ‘grandma’ and babe/baby, all familial words from British antiquity. Much of our vernacular verbal system, using gerund or verbal noun, may be inherited from Celtic. Use of the continuous present is as common in the Celtic tongues as in colloquial English, which, like many English placenames and more vocabulary than we think, wears Cymric underclothes beneath garb made in England.
In other words, linguistic studies tell us Anglo-Saxon was laid down over a substratum of British Celtic now called Welsh (Cornish in the south-west). English, long considered a Germanic language, is anomalous within that group because of it. It says a lot that most research into these topics takes place outside England, where they meet most opposition because of an ongoing ideological struggle between maverick ‘Celt’ and establishment ‘Saxon’, each suspecting a hidden political subtext or agenda in the other.
Genetics has revealed that the greater bulk of North-West Europeans descends from Upper Palaeolithic hunters in the same area. With such finds as the Cheddar Man and his modern descendants, we can envisage a stable British population for around 10,000 years, an insular DNA pool breached by a steady trickle of incomers. Archaeology tells us there were no major prehistoric movements of folk into Britain. Insular Celtic, long judged an Iron Age import from the continent, is now in many quarters considered a home-grown tongue, developed in Britain and Ireland, perhaps in the Bronze Age. It too would have spread on the wings of a culture, a meme-wave almost like a virus, learned by speakers of an earlier language who left their prints on it.
Insular Celtic differs from its late continental cousins, is as deviant within Indo-European as English is within Germanic. For over a century there has been a small minority of scholars striving way beyond the mainstream fringe to show that Insular Celtic exhibits linguistic descent (or at least prehistoric influence) from some Mediterranean Hamito-Semitic tongue, a theory championed now by the American linguist Dr Orin Gensler. Today usually called ‘Afro-Asiatic’, this large family of languages includes Ancient Egyptian, Coptic, and Berber on the one hand, Phoenician, Hebrew and Arabic on the other. Who could have brought such a tongue here? Seafaring Phoenician tin-prospectors, even if they were on our shores by 1000BC, came too late.
It is unusual to find different disciplines in any sort of accord over our prehistory. More recent genetic research is suggesting that the stable and antique population in Ireland and Britain has some affinity along the Atlantic seaboard with Brittany, Iberia and North Africa (where Berber is spoken), a relationship predicted by a synthesis of archaeology and geography. Amongst our insular genetic stock is a clan who comprise almost one-fifth of European genetic identity. Their source? The Middle East. They may have been the first farmers.
While genetic synthesis is still remote (and only genetics can really be the arbiter), if these hypotheses are true then long before the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids or the Hebrew scriptures were written down, folk we could claim as our island ancestors were speaking a language akin to theirs.
So how do we define British identity? Who do we see as Same, who Other? Whose gang do we join, whose taunt? Which designer ancestry do we choose? We are luckier than many in that the sea defines us. Should we not celebrate our archipelagian diversity?
But how do we circumvent those twin frustrating irrealities, politics and religion, which both, despite protesting the contrary, interpret myth as history and dichotomise in the same way? Ireland, always linguiculturally closer to us than the continent, knows more about this than the rest of us.
If our notion of history spins the facts, politics bowls googlies with the fiction. Politics is the spin put on the past to define the present and predict the future, or at least set it on the desired course. The Myth of the Promised Golden Land Just Around The Corner? But the future isn’t what it was. Nor will the past be. If religion is the opium of the people, politics is their caffeine. Yet few people trust politicians or believe religion, because of this same spin. But what else is there, for imaginative and creative humans?
Our answer has to be an obvious and resounding ‘yes’: history can help us define British identity today, but what we perceive as history always gets in the way. Both British history and British identity are nourished by myth. They are irrealities, stories. It is a matter of which story we choose.