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Across England’s northern border, the upcoming main event is the vote to decide whether Scotland will become independent. In the English village of Branxton, on the northern edge of Northumberland, there is a Vicars and Tarts vintage tractor rally. (“Men must be dressed as a vicar or a tart”.)
There is also, on September 9, the 501st anniversary of the most dramatic event in the village’s history, the Battle of Flodden. This commemoration will not match the quincentenary in 2013, but that event has given the battlefield a lingering publicity boost: 2014 visitor numbers are expected to stay quite close to last year’s 40,000. A decade ago there were about 600.
For Flodden is a battle hardly anyone remembers, even though it was both bloody (15,000 dead) and consequential. The English, frankly, have too much history cluttering the attic of memory to care much; and the Scots’ problem with Flodden is that they lost.
Their king, James IV, was killed; he was succeeded by his infant son. Confusion followed and the Scots lost the opportunistic self-confidence that propelled James to take on the English while Henry VIII was fighting the French. Arguably Scottish pride has never recovered – until, perhaps, they vote to split from the UK next month.
So while the Scots’ victory at Bannockburn 700 summers ago is marked by a £9m visitor centre; the Flodden equivalent (“the world’s smallest”) is an old red telephone box, sold off by British Telecom for £1. “We’ve spent at least another tenner doing it up,” says Clive Hallam-Baker of the Remembering Flodden Project.
In fact, much has been done to provide marked trails round the site, which is both lovelier and lonelier than Bannockburn. This is partly due to the anniversary and the growing enthusiasm for visiting old battlefields. But the Northumberland-based military historian John Sadler thinks there is another factor: “It’s become very sensitive because of the new perception of Scotland and England as possible independent states.”
Around Coldstream, on the Scottish side of the River Tweed, opinion is strongly in favour of a No vote. To the south, concern is mixed with a sense of helplessness. Unable to vote, the English borderers have to conceal their worries behind the shrugging indifference that characterises the rest of the nation.
“We bank in Coldstream, we shop in Coldstream,” says Mr Hallam-Baker. “We have everything there except our solicitor, because the Scottish legal system is already different.” Most worrying of all for an ageing population, it is much further to a hospital on the English side.
The interconnection will be epitomised on Thursday when 300 horses from Coldstream will be ridden to Branxton for the town’s own commemoration of the battle. This tradition dates back only to 1953 but has become an established symbol of the unthinking ease of crossing this border. It includes the leader of the parade bringing back a sod of turf and placing it in Coldstream Abbey. “I think they may be trying to take over England one piece at a time,” mused one English sceptic.
There really is little cause for Scottish pride over Flodden. Far from being heroic underdogs, they had a huge technological advantage: pikemen in phalanxes – “the tanks of the day”, according to John Sadler – whereas the English were armed with just longbows and billhooks. James IV had the high ground but was outmanoeuvred by the English commander, the Earl of Surrey, who executed a flanking movement that encouraged the Scots forces to come down from Branxton Hill straight into the bog on the valley floor. Their pikemen died en masse, knee-deep in mud.
The cause was not even noble. This was no heroic quest for Scottish liberty; James was supporting his French allies by diverting English forces while seeking glory and booty.
Mr Hallam-Baker sees an analogy with Alex Salmond in the king’s overconfidence. “Salmond also thinks he holds the high ground. He wants to keep the pound but who says he can? He says they’re going to stay in Europe, but that may not be possible.”
Julie Jones (born in Scotland, resident in England), who runs the lively village shop in Cornhill-on-Tweed, is very alarmed. “We’re all mingled in round here, and a Yes vote could affect us drastically,” she says. “It would be a huge upheaval and we don’t even have a say.”
As for the rest of England, the feeling was summed up by Julie Turner from Wakefield, who was visiting Flodden on a cycling holiday wearing Union Jack Lycra gear. Was she making a political statement?
“Ooh, no,” she said. “I bought it for when the Tour de France came to Yorkshire.” So did she think Scotland ought to stay in the Union? “We don’t know the implications of it. Until it happens.”
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