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Residents of England’s Northernmost Town Share Their Thoughts on Scottish Independence

Berwick-upon-Tweed has been passed between England and Scotland 13 times in the past 1,400 years, and now residents are anxiously awaiting the results of Thursday’s referendum.

by Sally Hayden
Sep 18 2014, 1:19am

Photos by Sally Hayden

Berwick-upon-Tweed is the northernmost town in England, and many of its residents are Scottish-born. Located just a few kilometers from the border, the town has been passed between the two countries 13 times in the past 1,400 years. Now residents are anxiously waiting for the results of Thursday's referendum.

The town's Scottish heritage is evident almost immediately upon arrival. The sound of bagpipes is audible, and a shop beside the train station sells haggis pizza. The proprietor of a nearby stationary shop said he has lived in Berwick since birth but identifies as Scottish.

"We don't have a vote of course, but if I did I would vote no," Neil Fairbairn told VICE News. "I think it's better as it is. There's too much up in the air and we just don't know what lies ahead."

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When asked what makes him Scottish, he replies, "It's just the way your family bring you up. If your family brings you up as being Scottish, you're Scottish. It's more for a sport thing I think. If there was a football match between the two I'd support Scotland."

Marianne Morrison, a customer Fairbairn's shop, wasn't as fixed in her loyalties. She said she'd vote against independence, and, if it were a sporting event, she would support "whichever team wins." Her husband quoted the first (but hardly last) Robert Burns of the day: "To Britain still, to Britain true, among ourselves united."

JD Marshall, stall proprietor.

Out on the main street, a small market has existed since a charter by James VI in the 1500s. A man named JD Marshall working at a small stand that sells Doc Martins called the referendum "silly."

"The Scottish thinking against the English is based upon battles 500 years ago," Marshall said. "I think they would have been better off to get more representation in our parliament, and they would have been more stable than on their own."

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Jim Herbert is Berwick's local historian. He explained that Berwick's heyday was the thirteenth century, when it was "the most important town in Scotland." He thinks the idea of nationalism is ridiculous.

"The Union flag is just a bit of bloody patterned cloth," Herbert said. "I'm not a nationalist. I'm not proud to be British or English. I'm not ashamed either, I just don't care about that kind of thing."

He added: "In the minds of a lot of people in London we don't exist. This whole county doesn't exist to them. That's a real thing and a huge problem."

Jim Herbert, historian.

Herbert said the town "would be better off in Scotland," and noted that geographically the place is almost located closer to Edinburgh than to the British county council headquarters. The local British officials, he said, "don't give a shit about us."

Berwick's newspaper publishes two separate editions: the Berwick Advertiser, which services the English town, and the Berwickshire News, which was created for the adjacent Scottish county. Of the eight editorial staff members, four live in Scotland and four in England. After 114 years in the same building, the paper is moving offices next week, a move that editor Phil Johnson acknowledged is perhaps symbolic in light of recent events.

Phil Johnson, Berwick Advertiser/Berwickshire News editor.

Johnson lives in Scotland, but said he can "see England from my garden." He explained that the two papers share most of their arts, sports, and entertainment reporting, but the news sections are unique owing to the different systems of government on opposite sides of the border.

In their coverage of the referendum, Johnson said that the Scottish publication carried more opinion pieces, while the British version recognized that readers could not vote and focused on the impact that the results could have. Johnson said he wouldn't criticize the British media for their handling of the debate, but he knocked the Better Together campaign for panicking in recent weeks.

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"I think people in the south were taking it for granted that Scotland would vote no," he said. "We were aware that it was much closer than that."

Johnson said if there's any resentment among the townspeople, it's toward the government in Westminster.

Katie Davies, artist.

"For us it's just part of life that you're in Scotland and then in England," Johnson said. "People from Berwick feel Berwickers first and foremost."

Signs for the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival are ubiquitous around town, and this year it has the pertinent theme of "Border Crossing." The main event is the "Riding of the Bounds," where locals reenact hunting for rogue Scotsmen. Artist-in-residence Katie Davies described it as "a bit like Top Gun on horses," with some added, "men drinking rum and milk in a hut."

John Wallace, another artist at the festival, said that people farther south in England are desperate to retain Scotland because they've lost their own identities.

"Britishness is a proxy for an English identity that desperately needs to be re-established," Wallace said. "After devolution, it was like Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all reclaimed their identities, but England remained a province of proto-fascists. It's not cool to be English at the moment, and that's a shame."