Hub for the Study of British Identities

Research network, journal and blog

‘What do British identities mean to me?’ – Part Four

This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’

Our fourth and final blog post comes from Alex Dold, and Erasmus exchange student from the University of Bonn.

First things first: I am a German student who has been living in Scotland for a little over two weeks now. Prior to that I have only ever been to Great Britain on holidays and it was confined to England, mostly London. Now living in Scotland as a resident, this post shall present my personal experiences so far and describe what British identity means to me as a German. I will try to define what British identity is, though I am not sure if an exact definition is even possible. For this purpose, I would like to limit my descriptions to one particular place where I had to spend quite some time so far trying to get everything I need: the supermarket. Apart from the fact that some supermarkets are open 24/7, there are other factors that surprised me and that represent British identity to me.

First, the obviously very British habit of queuing. Apparently British people do not only queue perfectly at bus stops (as we were told in school), but also at the checkout counter. In contrast to Germany, no one is annoyed when it takes me a while to fit all my food into my backpack and they sometimes even flash me a reassuring smile. To me, it seems to be British is to be sophisticated and polite while waiting in line, not only in the supermarket but also at the bus stop even when a bus is already late and yet everyone has to buy a ticket.


Another observation I have made so far concerning British identity is patriotism. Coming back to the example of supermarkets, this can be found here as well: on blueberries, milk cartons, and spinach packages. No matter what I am looking for, there is always a locally produced alternative bearing the Scottish flag. It might not be British identity per se, but definitely Scottish. I am not used to that kind of patriotism since there are only few occasions at which we Germans present our flag: national holidays, to pay respects, and during the football world cup. This might be due to the historical background of Hitler’s Germany or because we simply are not as proud of our country, but either way, there is a striking difference to Great Britain.

Scottish Flag

Lastly, I would like to talk about the thing that appears as the most British to me: drinking tea. In the supermarkets, there is an enormous variety of different kinds of tea. Shockingly for me, I did not know any brand from Germany which made the decision about which one to buy quite difficult. Of course, there were also brands showing off the Scottish flag, but also the British one was presented. As per usual, I got the wrong brand of black tea, according to my Scottish flat mate. I let myself be guided by a British flag, thinking this was as British as it gets, and of course, the low price. However, the tea experience does not stop there. The same Scottish flat mate then showed me how to make the perfect ‘English’ tea, letting it steep just short enough and how much milk (from a carton bearing a Scottish flag) is needed. Quite confusing.

Glass of Tea

So far, I have learned some things about British identity: the rumours about the queuing are true, at least the Scottish marketing is quite proud of their country, and not even the locals know exactly when to differentiate Scottish, English, and British identity (as seen in the example of the perfect ‘English’ tea from a ‘British’ brand made by a ‘Scottish’ guy). British identity cannot be summarised in a short blog post like this one, but it can be presented roughly. In my opinion, there often is no clear distinction between Britishness and, for example, Scottish identity because no one can actually make out a difference, only point out similarities.


‘What do British identities mean to me?’ – Part Three

This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’

Our third post comes from Grischa Dick, an Erasmus exchange student from the University of Bonn.

When I think of the term ‘British identities’, I try to approach the two words that constitute the term separately in order to come to a valid conclusion. Therefore, it is reasonable to begin with discussing British and to talk about the associations that are triggered by thinking about the term. In the first year of studying I figured out that I had been using the term ‘British’ in a misplaced sense since I had always associated Britishness with characteristics such as the Royal Family, James Bond, London’s and Manchester’s music culture, as well as an overall politeness and a propensity for drinking tea. When I realised that those factors do not primarily refer to the nation of Britain but rather to solely England, I was shocked and I felt somewhat ignorant. From that moment onwards, I have been trying not to mix characteristics up or even forget about non-‘English’ (in the sense of solely England-based) contributions. But on the other side, this mistake made me realise how England-centered mine and others’ notions of Britain actually are and how little, especially in the German school system, was being done to challenge those assumptions.

Talking about identity, it is reasonable to refer to it as a complex as well as a very dynamic phenomenon. Identities are constantly being constructed and re-constructed and therefore, there is no such thing as a static identity or the identity. Applying this approach to answering the actual question, it feels harder to find an adequate answer for the question ‘what does British identity mean to you’. In order to find a remedy, I furthermore think of factors that constitute identities in general, such as social surroundings, the society, (personal) conflicts and the (constructed) interest in specific fields. Considering the ‘pool’ of various hybrid sub-identities, I think I have gotten closer to a personal definition or rather understanding of an actual British identity.

Since Britain consists of different countries, one must not forget that each of those countries contribute to the understanding of Britishness and British identity, and this is basically the point. All those different countries (in this context one could as well call them factors) have their own important characteristics of which some are internationally known. However, since each of the British countries is ruled by one monarchical system, they do share one specific political system, which in a way connects them. The different states could be regarded as siblings and Britain is the institution that holds together, the family so to speak. Another aspect that is shared across Britain is they have the same supermarkets. This leads me to one specific point that I associate with British, namely the supermarket Tesco. Whenever I am in Britain, I look forward to going shopping at Tesco’s since there is the best that you can get as a vegan, as well as if you would like to have an inside into local food culture. Britain is known for its tasty food, whether it is simple fish and chips, salt-and-vinegar crisps, fudge or the infamous haggis. I believe that nearly every British citizen can tell a story about a specific dish and tell how to serve it best, and that is very special.

To sum up thus far, it has been stated out that identities are not something static and can be seen as hybrid phenomena. Finding a specific definition for British identities in this case is subjective and my associations are based on the experiences that I have made in Britain through the years and what I have taken from my studies so far. It is important to me that I have changed my original (and mostly false) notions of Britain during my undergraduate studies and I am curious to find out more about the important aspects that constitute a British identity.

‘What do British Identities mean to me?’ – Part Two

This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’

Our second blog post comes from Sarah Christoph, an Erasmus exchange student from the University of Bonn.

Growing up in Germany with no British background whatsoever, my perception of Britishness must be quite different from how British people themselves understand facets of their identity. My early associations with Britain were solely based on media and pop culture and only later developed into something tangible when I started travelling and became a student of English Literatures and Cultures.

Possibly my first ever memory of Britain is footage from Royal celebrations at Buckingham Palace. As a young girl, I was particularly fond of Lady Diana and her two sons. I believe that the Royal Family influenced my perception of the British, who in my imagination, made up a society of posh people, drinking tea in their tweed clothes in grand mansions. This, of course, is a young girl’s generalisation but this stereotypical thinking is arguably still faintly present in outside accounts of British identity.

My highly-romanticised view of Britain changed when I was starting to learn the language in school and became more interested in music. Britpop was alive and kicking, and I immersed myself in the works of Oasis, Blur and Pulp. My perception of Britain arguably shifted from royalty to working class. It became a little more multi-dimensional but was still very partial.

As a teen, I also started to identify myself more with Britpop’s fashion in contrast to the traditionally-clad Royals or even trends within my own country. Thus, my own German identity was already influenced by another nation’s pop culture.

Oasis brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher performing in 2005 By Will Fresch – originally posted to Flickr as oasis.gallagher.bros.001, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The rise of the internet had a huge impact on my perception of British identity. Being able to research information on topics I liked, instead of relying on the school’s curriculum, enabled me to deepen my knowledge of the UK. Jane Austen’s novels, the Sherlock Holmes adventures as well as their corresponding TV/film adaptations created the ultimate wish to visit Britain myself. My frequent travels to London and the English-speaking friends I made by then shaped my view on Britishness.

Sherlock Holmes Museum in London By Anders Thirsgaard Rasmussen – Sherlock Holmes Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0,

I realised that British identity is multifaceted just like German or any other identity is. It is not solely aristocratic and traditional or even old-fashioned, it is also fast-paced, innovative and can be rough as well as ugly. London’s architecture might serve as a good metaphor where the grandeur of St Paul’s or Parliament is contrasted by the Shard and the Millennium Bridge. I still associate tea culture and politeness with Britain, but by now I am just as aware of the many great coffee roasting houses and the occasional catcall on the street.

St Paul’s Cathedral and Millennium Bridge from the Thames riverside By I, Nattfodd, CC BY-SA 3.0,


2013 I decided to take my interest in the UK to a scholarly level and started studying English Studies at Bonn University. With lecturers from Germany, the UK, Canada and the US, my knowledge and perception of Britishness grew even more diverse. Every teacher aimed at a different approach based on their own culture. I was now able to discuss my love for English literature and pop culture in class but also learned more in-depth about the unpleasant politics and effects of (post-)colonialism.

Thus, my view on Britishness went through different stages correlating with my own biography and interests. The internet and especially my studies turned my partial perception into a more diverse view. For me, Britishness, as well as other cultural identities, is an ever-changing concept, approachable from many different angles but never entirely fathomable.

There may be typical associations with British society, but I believe that these are accompanied by the danger of stereotyping. In the end, British identity is the whole of individual identities, and one should bear in mind that they should not be deprived of their agency.







‘What do British identities mean to me?’ – Part One

This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’marlene pic

Our first post comes from Marlene Wöckinger, an Erasmus exchange student from the University of Salzburg.

… It’s Complicated…

English is not my mother tongue. If you could hear me speak you would notice a strong accent. When I am travelling people ask if I am German. No, I answer, I am from Austria. Not Germany! Even though we speak German, we – Austrians – always make sure we are not mistaken for Germans. After the first and second world war Austria struggled to find a national identity. We now like to be known for Schnitzel, Strudel, skiing and Mozart. But one of the most important things is to stress that we are not German.

Even in Austria – a rather small country – there is a great variation between different regions. Folks who do not live in Vienna do not like the people there. Each state has its own national dish, their own dialect, their own history. On a micro level, even people from one valley know from the way you speak if you come from a different valley; they sometimes can even be aware of the village you grew up in. Origin is important to us.

Not all my childhood friends were Austrian. They came from Croatia, Turkey and Germany. Sometimes they did, sometimes their parents did, sometimes their grandparents did. Growing up, it did not matter to us. Now some of them struggle with their complex identities. It happens most of the time when they are challenged by others who cannot get their head around a person having more than one identity, more than one country they belong to.

Earlier this year I became even more aware of the extent people use national labels to define who they are. When traveling to Palestine and Israel one can easily offend someone by using the wrong term. To give a brief impression of what I mean by that, here are some examples of different identities I came across whilst travelling: ‘Israeli’, ‘Arab’, ‘Palestinian’, ‘Arab with an Israeli passport’, ‘Jew’, ‘Arab Jew’, ‘Israeli with Polish or German ancestors’, … some used more than one of these labels. It is astonishing how many different identities there are. Some defined themselves against someone else, others used relational concepts.

Concerning British identities: looking at Britain one can make comparisons to the examples above. Even though people speak English, never assume they are English! Just like with Austria and the German language, the language you are speaking does not define were you come from and who you identify as.

Scottish or English? Big difference! North or South England? Big difference! Manchester or Liverpool? Big difference! City or countryside? Big difference! Every region has their own identity, their own prejudice, the things they are proud of, the things they like to hide. Being aware of the global, regional or micro level you are looking at is therefore important.

Dealing with British identities one should discuss quite a few opposing but also complementary identities. With its rich history many aspects (migration, race, sexuality, and so on) have to be included in the analysis in order to paint a representative picture of the people.

Coming back to my example of the many different self-definitions I was confronted with in Israel and Palestine, it is vital to point out how national identities differ from person to person. What might fit one, does not fit the other. I still cannot grasp how many ways people have here to describe themselves. It is much more complex than being British, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh.

Journal of British Identities Issue 1

JBI CoverWe’re delighted to mark the start of a new academic year with the publication of our very own journal – the Journal of British Identities.

The JBI is a free, peerreviewed, open access, online interdisciplinary journal which aims tencourage public debate about Britishness. The journal has developed from some of the conversations which have been taking place on this research network blog for the past couple of years, where MLitt British Studies’ colleagues and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands, academics from across the world, heritage professionals and members of the public have shared their thoughts on the complexity of identities in the British Isles and British World.

Our first issue of JBI features four articles reflecting on various different aspects of British identities. First, we have Marzia Maccaferri examining the development of debate about Europe amongst British intellectuals from the Suez crisis to the first referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EEC, back in 1975. Stephen Collins’ article on Invernessian folklore in the 1870s shifts our focus towards the British Empire and how Alex Fraser’s work on wells and water in the Highlands can be read as part of the developing discourse which saw folkloric practices through the lens of imperialism. We then move back to seventeenth and eighteenthcentury Scotland, where Alan Montgomery’s article establishes how an earlier connection between Britain and Europe  the Roman Empire  shaped certain aspects of Scottish identity during the early modern period. And, finally, we have Gareth Jenkins’ reflection on how historians have characterized the cities of Belfast and Liverpool in the latenineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries, examining the subtle interactions of local, regional and national identities in the development of sectarian political culture.  

All the articles in the first issue of JBI, then, engage with debates that continue to have contemporary political resonance, from the UK’s decision to exit from the EU to discussions of ‘Empire 2.0’ and Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth, to the increasing importance of Northern Ireland to the fortunes of Theresa May’s Conservative government following the 2017 General Election. What these events, and the articles presented here, tell us is that understanding British identities is key to making sense of the world today and, importantly, that these identities are shifting, malleable and have changed (and continue to change) over time.

We hope this first issue of JBI opens up more public debate about Britishness. We will shortly be making our second call for papers (for the issue to be published in September 2018) and we welcome contributions from researchers of all backgrounds, including submissions from the public outwith academia, and from early career academics and students.  In the meantime, we hope that you enjoy reading JBI and we look forward to further exciting and fruitful public conversations about British identities in the future.

The North British-ers – or Northern Europeans?

This week’s blog comes from one of our MLitt British Studies students, John Macdonald, and was written as an assessment on our module ‘British Identities’. John MacdonaldJohn runs a tour company in the Highlands and Islands – The Hebridean Explorer

With its totemic protruding toe, the statue on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile of the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume has become a superstitious fixture for modern day philosophy students hoping that touching the toe will help gain knowledge, wisdom or even just a little bit of luck.

David Hume by Bandan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

However, as a renowned figure of the Scottish Enlightenment – that great intellectual and scientific renaissance in eighteenth-century Scotland – David Hume would have had considerable distaste of such practices.


After all, Hume (one of history’s great philosophers) famously advanced the notion of critical thinking – the development of new ideas and approaches within philosophy and the sciences based around the principles of reason and human nature, using scientific processes and reasoned observations.[1]


Another modern day practice that may not have been agreeable to Hume and many other eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment figures was their subtle, but nonetheless noticeable, appropriation in support of modern Scottish nationalism during the 2014 Independence Referendum.[2]


The great paradox of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was that whilst it was undoubtedly a tremendous Scottish endeavour, most of its influential thinkers were Unionist in their sympathies. Indeed, during this period many even advocated a further strengthening of the relationship with England, in essence a ‘completing of the Union’.[3]


Why – in the view of many Enlightened Scots  – would the Union require further completion? As the Act of Union in 1707 was, for the most part, driven by an anti-Jacobite and pro-Hanoverian agenda (chiefly, with the aim of securing a Protestant succession in Scotland and England) it did not necessarily fulfil the constitutional ideals of a new state.


Although 1707 brought a political union, Scotland continued to retain its own distinctive judicial, religious and educational structures. However, those were widely deemed as secure, identifiably Scottish institutions not warranting change or integration into a wider British state.


What then was missing from Scotland within the Union? Many Enlightenment figures believed it was the need for an Anglo-Scottish identity, one that would support and facilitate an emerging sense of Britishness in Scotland – a North British identity.


However, North Britishness was not a new, clearly defined, and structured identity, rather, it was a general response of the Scottish intelligentsia to the Union from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. This Anglo-Scottish response was – by its very nature – a fluid, layered, dual identity where, for example, Scotland’s access to the economic benefits of being part of Britain could sit alongside emotional attachments and loyalties to elements of Scottishness and Scottish identity.[4]


North Britishness manifested itself in many aspects of the social and cultural life of Enlightened Scots, for example, the deliberate process of adopting English vocabulary and pronunciation in a conscious effort to remove ‘Scotticisms’ (Scots words and phrases) from contemporary language – a clear trait particularly found in the works of David Hume.[5]


Importantly, a core factor driving this developing identity was the perception that the adoption of Britishness – through the notion ‘North British’ – would allow fuller access for Scotland to appropriate well-established and entrenched English constitutional values and ideals.


Essentially, they considered England to have already done the historical ‘groundwork’ for mapping out the route towards, not only a prosperous economy, but also a successful constitutional and liberal landscape, and by adopting these English liberties they could improve Scotland within the Union.


Three centuries later, it is hard to argue that the core thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment would have viewed their appropriation (however subtle) by nationalists during the 2014 Independence campaign favourably.


However, it is worth noting that these Enlightened Scots did not restrict their admiration to elements of English liberties. They aspired to be part of wider a European cultural community.


Maybe, given the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (but with Scotland in favour of remaining), eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment figures would have found the notion of their appropriation in support of a Scottish state within Europe more acceptable – the Northern Europeans!


[1] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London, 1739-40).


[3] See lecture by Tom Devine, ‘The “Death” and Reinvention of Scotland’, 11th June 2013,

[4] Colin Kidd, ‘North Britishness and the Nature of Eighteenth-Century British Patriotisms’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 39:2, (1996), pp. 361-82.

[5] Craig Smith, ‘The Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Independence’, Economic Affairs, Vol. 33:3, (2013), pp. 334-47.


William Wallace: Unionist, Nationalist, or both?


DSCN0777This week’s blog comes from another of our MLitt British Studies students, Sarah Hunter, and is one of the assessments on our module ‘British Identities’. Sarah has recently graduated with a PGDip in History of the Highlands and Islands.

Linda Colley writes that ‘Identities are not like hats.  Human beings can and do put on several at a time.’[1]  With this in mind, it is intriguing to consider the seemingly contradictory identities attached to William Wallace, firstly in the halcyon days of empire in the mid-nineteenth century – when subscriptions were collected to erect a monument in his memory – and, secondly, in the late twentieth century, when the Hollywood film Braveheart was released.


Today, more than twenty years after the release of Braveheart, with the SNP the dominant force in Scottish politics, it seems incredulous to imagine Wallace as anything other than the mythic figure of independence into which modern culture has moulded him.  The image of Mel Gibson’s Wallace charging into battle, yelling that Scotland shall be free, is burned into our collective minds as the visual representation of a man who died centuries ago. However, at the time the Wallace Monument was constructed, common belief among unionists was that Wallace was integral to ensuring that the Act of Union was a marriage of equals.  Rather than ensuring Scotland’s separateness from England forevermore, Wallace was deemed to have secured Scotland space to grow into a worthy partner. [2]

By Finlay McWalter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Graeme Morton describes Wallace’s life as ‘One of the great myths in Scotland’s national past’.[3]  From Blind Harry’s epic to the romantic poetry of the nineteenth century to Braveheart itself, there is no one, single story agreed upon by historians, antiquarians or archaeologists – and it is that lack of certainty, of proof, of fact, almost, that allows us to adorn Wallace in such different, seemingly diametrically opposed, hats with the same outfit. When so little is known about any person, it is easier to bend their identities to our will; the absence of evidence that an event occurred, for example, becomes proof it could have as nothing is known to the contrary.  With Wallace, this cloaking in myth allows us to consider him an icon of both nationalist independence and unionism.


To me, the unification of these two identities initially seemed ludicrous.  Yet, watching Braveheart I began to understand how this contradiction evolved.  If we consider religion, for example, Wallace is depicted as a devout Catholic – but not an absolutist; the absolutist figure is the ‘pagan’ English king, Longshanks.  Transporting this to the mid-nineteenth century, when Wallace was an icon of unionism (a thoroughly Protestant notion, in Colley’s opinion), we can transform Wallace into a man practicing the modern religion of his contemporaries, and his antagonist Longshanks that of his repressive ancestors.  This removes the Catholic Stuarts’ absolutism from association with Wallace, allowing him to be identified with Protestant unionism in spite of his religion.  He stands for freedom and peace; Longshanks tyranny and war. [4]

On the set of Braveheart, 1995 By Scott Neeson (Scott Neeson) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
        The example of William Wallace highlights the truth in Colley’s statement; we are all the sum of our parts, parts which must be addressed individually.  Wallace is identified in both instances as a patriot, fighting for the freedom of ‘Scotland’, a unified entity that did not exist within his lifetime.  Where our two icons differ, is the purposes for which the myth behind the man was used.  The pro-Union Scots of the mid-nineteenth century were as correct in their assessment that Wallace’s actions ensured that Scotland was not incorporated into the English state in the same manner as Wales (thus allowing for an Act of Union), as the pro-Independence Scots of the late twentieth century were to argue that he fought for a Scotland free from England’s rule.  We are thus able to separately adorn Wallace in two very different, seemingly antithetical, hats.


[1] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the nation, 1707 – 1837 (New Haven: 2014), p. 6.


[3] Graeme Morton, ‘The Most Efficacious Patriot: The Heritage of William Wallace in Nineteenth-Century Scotland’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 77:2 (1998), p. 224.


British Studies in the Inverness Courier

We’re delighted to have appeared in the Inverness Courier this week. The article is now available online:

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 09.44.44

We did the interview with the Courier‘s Donna MacAllister some weeks ago now – before the latest policy ruminations on ‘Empire 2.0’ and before Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to pursue a second referendum on Scottish independence. It seems, though, that with every passing week, what we do on the MLitt British Studies becomes yet more relevant!

And this is what the MLitt British Studies at UHI is all about. On the course, students explore historical, philosophical, archaeological and literary perspectives on British identities and use them to understand the contemporary world around us. In teaching my module ‘British Identities’, I’ve found it exhilarating to look at, say, eighteenth-century ideas about liberty, freedom and nationhood or early twentieth-century debates about the economics of empire and apply these discussions to the latest fall-out from Brexit or IndyRef.

So, if you’re interested in learning more about the roots of debates about Scotland’s place in (or out) of the Union or Britain’s relationship with Europe, come join us on the MLitt British Studies! You can find our more about the course here, where you can also apply online.


Who won? The Battle of Hastings and national identities

This week’s blog comes from another of our MLitt British Studies students, Brian Symons. This is one of the assessments on our module ‘British Identities’, but Brian has also reflected on some of the material covered by our Archaeology module, ‘Britain Begins’. BS Img

Last year marked the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.[1] For those not raised on the school version of history (despairingly known as M3 – Monarchy, Military and ‘Mpire) the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. William the Bastard[2], a Norman Duke who claimed the throne to a substantial portion of Britain, invaded England, and defeated the indigenous army. Subsequently the Norman soldiers slaughtered the local population, primarily Saxon, burnt houses and crops, and killed livestock particularly in the area north of the River Humber. William then apportioned the country between his Norman Baronial supporters for their exploitation.

“Cavalier Normand, 1066.” by Vinkhuijzen, Hendrik Jacobus is licensed under CC0 1.0
‘Cavalier Normand, 1066’, by Hendrik Vinkhuijzen, licensed under CC0 1.0

Sitting on the seafront at Hastings two questions come to mind: why are we celebrating an invasion – apart from the obvious tourist potential, and why do I feel unsure if ‘we’ had won or lost?

It is tempting to search for continuity of ethnic identity in Britain; studies of the DNA of Celtic-Italic Y-Chromosome suggest that in early prehistory British ethnic identity was much the same as large parts of Western Europe, having a shared linguistic grouping with the European mainland.[3] Whilst this may represent a degree of ethnic homogeneity, by the time of the Roman invasions, according to Roman sources, the British Isles were populated by a large number of independent tribes or kingdoms most probably having some sense of separate identity[4].

The Roman invasion introduced to Britain significant numbers of troops, administrators and traders from the extensive racial and tribal diversity of the Empire: with consequent effect on the British gene pool.[5] Even in the Highlands where the Romans established some settlements, it is safe to assume that some degree of miscegenation, voluntary or involuntary, would have influenced the genetic mix even in areas with less direct Roman contact.

From the seventh century onwards there were extensive Norse invasions and settlements of Ireland, Scotland and the North of England with some thriving commercial settlements with Hiberno-Norse populations.[6] Additionally, if we accept 18th century writings, then far from being remote, the Picts and Scots ‘had frequent intercourse with the Romans, the Britons and the Western Highlanders, the Irish and merchants from different countries’.[7] It can be assumed that ‘intercourse’ in this context refers to contact, however it can be expected that such contact would also include the alternative reading of the term with consequent hybrid offspring.

Harley 7182 f.60v
British Isles from BL Harley 7182, f. 60v by Ptolemy, licensed under PDM 1.0

Interestingly, records at the time of the 7th to 9th century commenting on Scandinavian settlers in northern and eastern England, distinguish between the Danes and the Norsemen, the latter being those invaders who had come from Dublin.[8] In addition to the Norse, Danes and Romans, the centuries saw successive migrations to the British Isles of Celts, Jutes, Angles and Saxons with much mingling of these peoples; and of course the Normans.[9]

I choose to identify myself, if pressed, as English yet I have Cornish and border Reiver recent ancestors. I love music and savour melancholy so does ancestry and disposition make me Celtic? London is my spiritual home, not because I see it as superior but it was where I spent my formative years, but now I live in the Highlands. So which part of this makes my identity: Britishness, Englishness or Scottishness or some other fusion of genes and character? Having lived and worked in many places the notion that identity arises from a blend of place and culture is a weak paradigm for me. Certainly I identify with British culture, even if I am often at odds with some of its elements, but this feels like a small, plastic identity in the current world.

“Franklins 1066” by wonker is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Franklins 1066” by wonker, licensed under CC BY 2.0

However there is certain value and perhaps pride to be taken in the hybrid nature of the British but little to support any notion of a racially pure (if such a thing exists) British identity or indeed any of the four nations’ identities. Identity is not physiological; in the historian’s view identity and national identity is a subjective process by which we and our associated groups identify ourselves, usually with reference to common interests or by contrast with ‘others’.[10] All identities are therefore constructed: we are given them in childhood and they are socially and culturally reinforced by education and the media; however in the end we choose our identities. Starting with my own self-referential meta-identity of British, a descriptor of the geographical identity of being of the British Isles, then sub identities under this umbrella are fluid but in the end equally self-referential.

Whilst the conventional qualities of identity are currently being challenged as being over simplistic[11], they have an emotional resonance, else why should I feel, without any intellectual justification, that ‘we’ lost the Battle of Hastings.

[1] ‘ROOT 1066’ <; [accessed 15 November 2016].

[2] John Gillingham, ‘William the Bastard at War’, in C. Harper-Bill, et al., Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. Allen Brown (Woodbridge, 1989), pp. 141–58.

[3] Patrick Sims-Williams, ‘Bronze- and Iron-Age Celtic-Speakers: What Don’t We Know, What Can’t We Know, and What Could We Know? Language, Genetics and Archaeology in the Twenty-First Century’, The Antiquaries Journal, 92 (2012), pp. 427–49.

[4] Barry W. Cunliffe, Britain Begins, First Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5] Cunliffe, Britain Begins.

[6] James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey, Vikings in Scotland : An Archaeological Survey (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).

[7] Anon., ‘A Speculation on the Origin and Characteristical Manners of the Picts and Scots’, The Scots Magazine, 56 (1739), p. 756.

[8] Dawn M Hadley, ‘Viking and Native: Re–thinking Identity in the Danelaw’, Early Medieval Europe, 11.1 (2002), pp. 45–70.

[9] Norman Davies, The Isles: A History (London: Macmillan, 1999).

[10] Peter Mandler, ‘What Is “National Identity”? Definitions and Applications in Modern British Historiography’, Modern Intellectual History, 3.2 (2006), pp. 272–74.

[11] Mandler. ‘What Is “National Identity”?’

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