“British”? Or “Anglo-Scottish”?

I have referred before to Duncan Morrow’s recent lecture which seeks, in my view entirely justifiably, to re-define the Northern Ireland conflict as one deriving from a state which was designed not so much as a “gerrymandered majority Protestant province” but as a “gerrymandered means of containment” (my words, not his).

It is becoming apparent to me – but I write this merely as a theory rather than a statement of a clearly defined view – that this “containment” point is central to the whole issue of what has gone on and continues to be argued about in this small part of the world. To push this theory further, I am going generally to replace the term “Irish” with “Gaelic Irish“, and the term “British” with “Anglo-Scottish” – let us see if this helps our understanding. All comments welcome!

The “British Isles” were in fact initially so named 2000 years ago by Ptolemy. As with anywhere else, they were contested for a considerable length of time but from the Norman invasion onwards, and particularly from Tudor times onwards, they had settled into three major “nations” (in the original sense of the world, referring primarily to “peoples”). I do not mean to exclude the Welsh, or indeed the Cornish or Yorkshirefolk or Scousers, but history dictates that these three “nations” have been fairly well defined and have formed three “states” of their own within the past 700 years or so.

In no particular order, we have:

– the “English” nation, resident in the state (long-standing kingdom) known as “England” under English law, religiously predominantly “Anglican”, and ethnically predominantly “Anglo-Saxon” (let’s just say “Anglo” for the sake of this piece);

– the “Scottish” nation, resident in the state (long-standing kingdom) known as “Scotland” under Scots law, religiously predominantly “Presbyterian”, and ethnically predominantly “Anglo-Gael” (not to assume any mixing but let us just say “Scots” or “Scottish” for the sake of this piece); and

– the “(Gaelic) Irish” nation, resident in the state (now republic) known as “Ireland” under Irish law, religiously predominantly “Catholic”, and ethnically predominantly “Gaelic (Irish)” (as noted above, let’s call this “Gaelic Irish“).

Clearly, the boundaries between the “nations” and, once established, even between the “states” have been blurred on occasions – not least during the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms” in the 17th century. Towns on the island of Great Britain such as Berwick and Carlisle have shifted between England and Scotland, but it is worth noting that so has Carrickfergus on the island of Ireland; Wales was incorporated into the “Kingdom of England” under English law and is predominantly Anglican, but has a separate ethnic and linguistic (and thus national) identity; there is a significant ethnic division north/south in England and Highland/Lowland in Scotland. Territories such as Cornwall and the Isle of Man have had uncertain and changing status over time. Ireland in particular is prone to very significant local loyalties as well as an overarching national identity. So I am fully accepting that the above is somewhat simplistic. But I suggest we can run with it…

This brings us to what is now Northern Ireland. Rather than a conflict between two competing sides – “British/Protestant” and “Irish/Catholic”, it may in fact be better to see Northern Ireland as a competition among three nations, at least initially. By effectively renaming the sides identified in the 1998 Agreement as “Anglo-Scottish” on one hand and “Gaelic Irish” on the other, we in fact free up terms such as “British”, “Irish” and “Protestant” to be used with greater precision in more useful ways. Immediately, for example, it is apparent that there can be crossover identities – if you have “Anglo-Scottish” and “Gaelic Irish”, who then are the “Anglo-Irish”? Inserting “Gaelic” in front of “Irish” allows instantly for other types of “Irish” – thus obviously allowing for loyalty to the “(all-)Irish” rugby team while allowing at the same time for non-allegiance to the “(Gaelic) Irish” state.

It also makes it easier to fathom how someone can be both “British” and “anti-English” – if they are instead “Anglo-Scottish” and “anti-English” this is more straightforward (whether it is justifiable is another point, of course). It would do no harm either to clarify that while there is a strong “Ulster Scots” identity among the “Anglo-Scottish”, there is also a non-Scottish element to that identity (thus any direct correlation between “Ulster Scots” and “Protestant” or “British” can immediately and easily be rejected).

It perhaps also helps distinguish the constitutional options. The option of a “United Ireland” can be clearly distinguished from “incorporation into the Gaelic Irish republic (as it currently exists)”, with the emphasis switched to “united” rather than “Ireland”. Likewise, “maintenance of the Union” essentially means maintenance of the “Anglo-Scottish united kingdom”, which immediately recognizes that the immediate threat to it may be a split of the Anglos and the Scots – a split which would cause obvious difficulty to people of “Anglo-Scottish” origin in Northern Ireland who instinctively have a foot in each camp. Additionally, the “Anglo-Scottish” are not at home in either “England” or “Scotland” (which deprives them of half their identity) but in “Northern Ireland” – a shared state which is wholly “Irish” in a broad sense but not entirely “Gaelic”.

All of this explains why “Northern Ireland” will never truly be a home for any single one of the three “nations”; and why full incorporation of it into any of those nations’ states (England, Scotland or Ireland) would be obvious folly. Does clarifying the starting point in such a straightforward way not then make it rather easier to work together towards the end goal?


10 thoughts on ““British”? Or “Anglo-Scottish”?

  1. james McKerrow says:

    For a second source of eludiation between the failures of multiculturalism and the advantages of racial purity see Adolph Hitler’s analysis of the shortcomings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the advantages of a Greater Germany, in “Mein Kampf”.

    We have the benefit of knowing what happened next, and the corrrosive and devastating nature of extreme fascism. Give me the fuzzyness and ambiguous potentials of multiculturalism every time, and a pragmatic and incremental approach to relieving the divisions in our society.

  2. Myra Zepf says:

    I’m thoroughly confused now! Why is England just ‘English’ – what happened to the influence of the Romans, the Saxons, the French, to name but a few? Why is Ireland ‘gaelic’ but Scotland is not? You’re missing the biggest connection here between us all in that the Scots and the Irish are all the same people anyway. (‘Scotia’) So, then, why ‘Anglo-Scottish’ – where did the Angles suddenly come into this? As for the ‘Anglo-Irish’, should the distinction be between the ‘Old English’ (aka French) and the new (plantation) ‘Scottish-Irish’. My brain is in tangles. It’s way too early in the morning for this!

    But the thing that fascinates me in all this talk of influxes of peoples, is why most ‘conquests’ just blended in and merged together, but others stay/ed distinct. I have to say, to put a cat among the pigeons, (and back to the old religious labels you’re trying to avoid), that it is maybe a consequence of religion, or at least of a certain type of unyielding, more fundamentalist, religion.

    • Myra,

      This is the point.

      “English” by definition incorporates Roman, Norse, Angle, Saxon, Norman influences.

      “Scottish” by definition incorporates Norse, Angle, Gael, Norman influences.

      “Irish”, sadly, has come too often to be debased and mean merely “Gaelic”. Yet in fact in Ulster alone we have the Norse-Gael MacDonnells and Sweeneys, the Hiberno-Norman Savages, the Cambro-Norman MacQuillans, and so on – even before plantation (never mind the German “Zepfs”!)

      The Irish and Scottish are most definitely *not* the same people, by the way – although there is a Gaelic commonality (between many Scottish Highlanders and many but not all Irish, predominantly but not exclusively Catholic Irish). “Scotti” referred to a single “tribe” and now happens to be assigned to all of “Scotland”, in the same way “Angle” applied to a single tribe (from near Bremen) and is now assigned to all of “England” (except in Irish, of course). Which is all ironic, since Scotland is predominantly “Angle” and England predominantly “Saxon”…

      Ultimately, the whole point is, as James says, that arguments of “ethnic purity” are seriously flawed and need to be recognized for the zero-sum (and nonsensical) game they are and quickly consigned quickly to the dustbin.

  3. Myra Zepf says:

    On that level, I agree wholeheartedly! Hear hear!

  4. Myra,

    I think the main reason that the English are now just “English” as opposed to “Norman-Saxon-Roman-Welsh” is because the English people themselves have abandoned those distinctions. They may still be of academic importance, but no longer hold any political relevance. Other ethnic dividing lines are still raw.

    Ian, hope you don’t mind me leaving a link to my Pithy terminology series for the benefit of your readers, as I think we’re pulling in the same direction here.

    I would question the accuracy of “Gaelic Irish” though. There is a significant amount of Anglo-Norman influence in the “Gaelic” culture, which increases the further east one goes. Dublin has always struck me as very English-looking in comparison to the more Scottish Belfast. Although it could just be the weather…

    Perhaps I will get around to that blogpost about the syncretism of Anglo-Scottish (“Hun”) identity someday soon.

    • Indeed, as noted above, “Gaelic Irish” is far from perfect. It could be argued that, like the “English”, the “Gaelic Irish” have long since abandoned those differences. And yet of course they haven’t – Fitzgerald, d’Arcy, Lacy, Burke, and so are all Norman names, and (for the whole period since the Civil War) all are much more likely to be found in Fine Gael than Fianna Fail…

    • I’m sure you could find a similarly disproportionate number of Norman surnames in the Conservative party. As I said, this is of fascinating academic importance. But what may once have been an ethnic distinction has fossilised into a class distinction, with different political dynamics.

      • Well indeed – but then, that does justify the overall “Gaelic Irish” label. (It’s not helpful to use merely “Gaelic” or “Irish” because, unlike “English”, these are contested if used alone).

  5. otto says:

    Article for you Ian – “When the Planter was the Gael” from Fortnight magazine.


    Gives a bit of extra push for “Scots-Irish”, which I always prefer to Ulster-Scot as it’s less divisive, links us better to our diaspora and I like country music, little churches and whiskey.

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