Our third blog post in the ‘What do British identities mean to me?’ series comes from our MLitt British Studies student Lynne Mahoney, who lives in the Highlands and is the curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch.


Hat,_boater_(AM_1968.105-6)
Mayfair Collegiate straw boater, CC BY 4.0 Auckland Museum

‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!’ Robert Burns words in To a Louse remind me that we rarely see ourselves as other see us. Thinking about how we view ourselves as Britons and how the rest of the world sees us is a startling prospect. Wondering what British identity means to me specifically felt like an enormous challenge.

So, I asked myself some questions.

Do I, as a British person, often think about my identity?

Well, I like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and rhubarb crumble. I would wave a Union Jack along with the rest if I saw the Queen trotting along The Mall. I used to stand out in the pouring rain spinning my rattle and drinking my Bovril at half time during the football season. I have sighed deeply while walking beside the daffodils that line the banks of the River Cam while watching the punts gliding by. Does this mean I am British? Does this mean I am English? Not really, lots of people of other ethnic groups indulge in British and English culture all the time.

I do think about being British when I go abroad and wonder how others see me. It is when I can’t speak the language or, depending where I am, clearly standing out due to my burning skin and big floppy hat. It is when I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about the ‘Brits’ and hate that they might think we are all hooligans and lager louts. So, am I ashamed to be British? No, not at all. I just don’t want people to get the wrong impression. I think about being British when I am driving on the left-hand side of the road in a right-hand drive car. On a holiday to Spain some years ago I remember looking for Heinz tomato soup in a supermarket to appease my child. I think my Britishness is rather clichéd when I am abroad and that makes me feel self-conscious.

Am I British because my ancestors were British?

It’s true, as far as I know and as far back as I can go, my ancestors were all straw platters working for the hat trade in Luton. Straw boaters, a very British hat indeed. British or English? There’s the rub. The ones who weren’t straw platters were agricultural labourers. My Englishness is tangible; my family have worked English soil for generations. Yet, am I any more British than the person who has had Britishness foisted upon them? Can I claim to be more British than the people from other parts of the world that were swallowed by the British Empire. I think the answer is no because although I can trace my family back to the early eighteenth century it is more than likely that they came from somewhere else. In the end, it seems, everybody comes from somewhere else.

As a child my English heritage did not occur to me because I grew up in an area that was predominantly white, with families who had, like me, ancestors deeply rooted in the Bedfordshire countryside.  I therefore saw myself as English and people who were a different colour or ethnic origin as ‘other’, although I could not articulate that at the time. When a Scottish family moved in locally they were white but culturally different and so also ‘other’. By the time I got to secondary school my circle of friends had begun to widen and included Indian, Italian, West Indian and Scottish people. I recognised them all as British but also as exotic.

Am I British or English in Scotland?

I moved to Scotland when I was 24 and I am now 53 so clearly I have lived in Scotland longer than I lived in England. In my view my accent has not changed. According to my family it has. I use Scottish words and phrases and they notice that the intonation of my voice has changed. I am married to a Scot, I live on a Croft and have a child with a Highland accent. To those who knew me when I lived in England it is me who is now ‘other’ because I have moved away. In Scotland, despite the fact that I am immersed in Scottish culture far more than I ever was in English culture, I am still identified by my English accent.

The conclusion I have come to is that, for me, the question of British identity can be confusing and misleading, fraught with the pitfalls of believing what Linda Colley calls ‘bad history’. Yet, as children we can only build our identity on our cultural background, what we learned at school and how our parents viewed the world. As an adult, my identity became more fluid and I could see myself as part of a bigger picture. It was possible for me to view England from the outside, putting into perspective the paradoxical and complicated relationship it has with the rest of the Union.

 

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