Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Richard Kiely, David McCrone, Frank Bechhofer and Robert Stewart (2000) 'Debatable Land: National and Local Identity in a Border Town'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 2, <>

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Received:      Accepted: 1/8/2000      Published: 6/9/2000


Through a systematic programme of research into national identity we have developed a sound understanding of the processes of identity claim, attribution and receipt. Central to these processes are identity markers and rules. We have always sought contexts where national identity is either salient or problematic as identity construction then becomes most clearly apparent. Berwick- upon-Tweed, a town in England but located close to the Scottish border, provides such a context.One would expect people from Berwick-upon-Tweed ('Berwickers') to claim an English national identity. They live in a town jurisdictionally in England and in the county of Northumberland. Moreover, one might think that, living only 3 miles south of the Scottish border, they would feel a heightened sense of their English national identity. However, our research shows that national identity in Berwick-upon-Tweed is complex and problematic. This is not simply due to close proximity to the border but a combination of unique forces - historical, cultural and demographic - that has led some Berwickers to avoid explicitly articulating a definitive nationality. Instead, they mobilise a specific identity strategy of localism. Context dramatically affects the willingness to claim a national identity.Key findings are presented from 70 household interviews conducted in Berwick-upon-Tweed and 48 divided evenly across Eyemouth, a nearby town in Scotland, and Alnwick, a town slightly further south in England. These data allowed us also to explore how Berwickers' identity claims are received, how national identity is attributed to them by others and how these attributions are in turn received. Two of the aims of our work are to demonstrate the fluid nature of national identity processes and the crucial importance of context to these. Our work in Berwick-Upon-Tweed has done much to meet and further these aims.

Berwick- Upon-Tweed; Identity Markers And Rules; Local Identity; National Identity


The problematising of issues of national and other identities has been one of the features of both political and academic debates in recent years. In their survey of ethnic minorities in Britain, Tariq Modood and his colleagues commented: 'Identity has moved from that which might be unconscious and taken for granted, because implicit in distinctive cultural practices, to conscious and public projections of identity and the explicit creation and assertion of politicised ethnicities' (Modood , 1998: 337). Since the mid-90s we have been involved in a systematic programme of research into national identity[1]. This work is ongoing[2] and has highlighted the benefits of studying contexts in which national identity is not taken for granted. It is generally in such contexts, where national identity is seen either to be highly salient or regarded as problematic, that the complex processes of identity construction become most clearly apparent. Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town in England but located very close to the border with Scotland, provides such a context (see Figures 1 and 2). The UK Press has long taken an interest in Berwick-upon-Tweed and frequently suggested that people there have great difficulty in deciding whether they are English or Scottish.[3]

Berwick in the UK
Figure 1: Berwick in the UK

Berwick and the surrounding area
Figure 2: Berwick and the surrounding area

In general, border towns and territories have generated particular academic as well as political interest where the border or frontier is the subject of dispute or conflict, as in Northern Ireland, or in the Balkans wars of the 1990s (Malcolm, 1994: Judah, 1997). The English- Welsh border, and of course the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland also offer opportunities for cross-border identity disputes and ambiguity. However, across the Scottish-English border there are legal-jurisdictional differences lacking in the former case, and the more explicit conflict to be found on the Irish border makes the context very different (Harris, 1972; O'Dowd and Wilson, 1996). The context could not be more different in the case of the border between Scotland and England which has remained fixed and peaceable for over 500 years. Indeed, after the Treaty of Union of 1707, the border ceased to have the same geo-political significance as Scotland and England were no longer separate states. Nevertheless, the border continues to divide two separate legal jurisdictions, reinforced by the setting up a devolved Scottish parliament in 1999, as well as having considerable cultural and symbolic significance (reflected in everyday speech such as 'north and south of the border').

Ostensibly one would expect that people from Berwick-upon-Tweed would claim an English national identity. After all, they live in a town jurisdictionally in England and in the county of Northumberland. Moreover, one might think that because inhabitants of the town live only 3 miles south of the border with Scotland, they would be likely to feel a heightened sense of their English national identity[4]. However, our research shows clearly that national identity in Berwick-upon-Tweed is complex and problematic. Many people in the town encounter problems with 'being national' and mobilise a specific identity strategy to overcome this.

Our research continues to highlight the importance of what we have termed identity markers and rules, and the significance of processes of claiming and attributing identity, as well as the receipt of such claims and attributions by a wider audience (McCrone et al, 1998: Bechhofer et al, 1999). Identity markers are those social characteristics of an individual that they might present to others to support their national identity claim. Markers are also those characteristics that people use to attribute national identity to others, and to receive claims and attributions made by others. In previous work, we have identified identity markers such as: place of birth, ancestry, place of residence, length of residence, upbringing/education, name, accent, physical appearance, dress, behaviour and commitment/contribution to place.

Underlying the use of identity markers are identity rules. These are probabilistic rules of thumb, whereby under certain conditions and in particular contexts, identity markers are interpreted, combined or given precedence over others. They are guidelines, though not necessarily definitive or unambiguous ones, to the identity markers people will mobilise in their own identity claims, as well as those they will look to when seeking to attribute national identity or judge the claims and attributions made by others. These rules also provide insight into the identity claims that are most likely to be upheld or rejected at different times by those receiving them.[5]

We have interviewed many respondents about their national identity. In general, individuals unproblematically claimed a national identity when they possessed the appropriate markers such as place of birth, upbringing, residence and ancestry, which are often seen to be the most unequivocal signals of a person's national identity. For instance, if someone was born, raised and lived in England, and had English parents, they would claim to be English, be thought of as English by others, and these claims and attributions would be generally affirmed by a broader audience. In Berwick-upon-Tweed things are different. People from the town regularly transgress some of the most common identity rules and develop alternative ones of their own. Indeed, people in the town turned out to be claiming, attributing, rejecting, accepting and side-stepping national identity, in ways that we had seldom or never previously encountered.

Here, then, we have a context where people frequently did not play by the prevailing identity rules. How is this to be explained? Why do people from Berwick-upon-Tweed not readily claim English identity? At the same time, through our work in Berwick-upon-Tweed and a nearby town and villages[6], we also began to explore the previously under-researched issue of English national identity.

This article has three key aims. First, to explain how and why the identity of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, appears to complicate the process by which its inhabitants construct their own national identities. Secondly, we will explore the 'national repertoires' that are available to residents, and their success or failure when deployed. In doing so, we will demonstrate: the national identity claims made by local people from the town; how others attribute nationality to Berwickers[7], and how these claims and attributions are received by both 'incomers' living in the town and people living in the neighbouring communities of Alnwick and Eyemouth. Third, we will outline the unusual identity strategy that people from Berwick-upon-Tweed adopt to side-step this 'nationality dilemma'.


We began our research by developing a socio- economic portrait of the town and its surrounding area, north and south of the border. As part of this, we conducted 32 face-to-face interviews with representatives from banks, building societies, insurance companies, law firms, estate agents and bus companies in Berwick-upon-Tweed and nearby towns. This was a first step towards uncovering the cultural, political, economic and symbolic meanings that people invest in and attach to the Scotland-England border. Published sources, such as the census, previous surveys and literary material (including newspapers, novels, historical guides, folksong and poetry) were also collected to assemble information on local social, economic, demographic and cultural patterns.

Interviews were then conducted with representatives from 35 Berwick-upon-Tweed based voluntary associations, covering a wide cross- section of activities including sports, politics, history, business, and culture generally. Understanding the nature and activities of such organisations helped throw light upon issues of town identity and representation. All communities are socially represented in associational forms and how these activities map onto the area reveal a great deal about identity construction.

In this paper we will concentrate on key findings from 70 household interviews (116 respondents) conducted in Berwick-upon-Tweed and 48 household interviews (69 respondents) divided evenly across Eyemouth, a nearby town in Scotland, and Alnwick, a town slightly further south in England. We decided to select households rather than individuals because we wanted to tap the familial and collective aspects of identity construction and maintenance.

We used SASPAC (Small Area Statistics Package)[8] to extract data from the 1991 census for the Wards and Enumeration Districts (EDs) making up Berwick-upon-Tweed and Alnwick, and the Wards and Output Areas (OAs) of Eyemouth. Using tables giving the 'Country of birth' (L07) and the 'Social class of the head of the household' (S90) for each of the towns, we selected 4 EDs in Berwick-upon-Tweed, 2 in Alnwick, and 2 comparable OAs in Eyemouth. These EDs and OAs matched our criteria for social composition. 'Door-stepping' and follow-up phone calls were then used to match further criteria of length of residence in the town and composition of the household, as well as to make initial contact with prospective interviewees.

Each interview included a series of semi- structured questions designed to examine the following: people's sense of national, local and regional identity; issues relating to the identity of the towns and their inhabitants; and the importance and meanings that our respondents attached to the Scotland/England border.[9] These portions of the household interviews were tape-recorded, transcribed, and analysed with the aid of Hypersoft[10]. This package enabled us to index meaningful text units within interviews, develop categories from the data, assign these to the data, perform retrievals across one or more categories and in doing so, further refine the categories and inform our broader conceptual work.

In each case, the semi-structured interview was complemented by a more formal battery of questions, completed individually by all respondents, designed to tap identity in a more structured way. We developed and employed two different types of measure. First, measures assessing the relative importance people attached to their local identity against regional and national categories. Secondly, a multidimensional measure tapping a relatively more complex issue - the salience of the Scotland-England border for people in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnwick and Eyemouth. Research that uses both quantitative and qualitative approaches is relatively rare in studies of national identity. We regard this as an important and novel aspect of our work, producing a truly innovative methodology that combines formal measurement with qualitative data in a satisfactory and convincing way.

Berwick-Upon-Tweed: an ambiguous town

Why does there appear to be ambiguity around the identity of Berwick-upon-Tweed, an ambiguity that permeates and has a complicating effect on the ways in which the town's inhabitants construct their own sense of national identity[11]? The town's identity owes much to its history and geography, and the persistence of certain forms of cross-border associational life.

Berwick, along with Edinburgh, Stirling and Roxburgh, was one of the four original Burghs of Scotland. A strongly disputed territory, it changed hands fourteen times between Scotland and England, before finally becoming part of England in 1482. A return to Scotland is no longer a serious political option but the historical legacy is still called on in the process of making identity claims. Consider one respondent's comment:

Mr: I've been inclined to think I was Scottish.
RK: Even though you were born in Berwick?
Mr: Yes, because Berwick was in Scotland originally. So, where do you start a book? You start at the beginning, not in the middle, and everything points towards it being Scottish. The times when the English took over, over the years, all they've done was massacre the town people...It was a bustling port, Berwick was bigger than Edinburgh, you know, it was looked upon as the capital of Scotland, so historically, I think we should belong to Scotland rather than England.

Until the Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed Act of 1746, the town was still being mentioned separately in Acts of Parliament, whilst the practice of including it in Royal proclamations and state documents continued for another 100 years. As the local adage puts it: 'They talk about England and Scotland indeed, But it's England and Scotland and Berwick-upon-Tweed'. It is also common in Berwick-upon-Tweed to hear the tale that the town is still at war with Russia. The claim is based upon a belief that the town had been mentioned separately in the declaration of hostilities at the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1854 but omitted from the Peace Treaty. In its booklet entitled 'Berwick-Upon-Tweed's war with Russia', the local borough council concluded that 'this is yet another of the many romantic fictions which have surrounded the town throughout its long and chequered history'. Nonetheless, this 'romantic fiction' is seen by many people in Berwick-upon-Tweed to summarise the uniqueness of their town and its identity.

The separateness and uniqueness of Berwick- upon-Tweed were often referred to by our respondents.

Berwick is Berwick upon Tweed. As I say I feel that it has got its own identity.
It's part of the uniqueness of Berwick, not Scottish, not English, but Berwick.

Berwick-upon-Tweed's identities are further complicated by its geographical location. The current borough straddles the river Tweed. 'Berwick' is the part of Berwick-upon-Tweed that lies within the Elizabethan town walls and north of the river. South of the Tweed lie Tweedmouth and Spittal. These were originally separate villages but along with 'Berwick' came to make up Berwick-upon-Tweed in the 19th century. Unlike 'Berwick', these villages were never part of Scotland. The river Tweed was seen by a number of respondents as significant in identity terms, mainly because elsewhere it forms the border between Scotland and England. For some, the river seemed a more 'natural' or 'sensible' national border.

You get the occasional person says, oh it should be Scottish. You know, the division is the River Tweed, or something like that, and maybe Berwick should be in Scotland, Tweedmouth should be England.
I mean, well not only in the town but a lot of people still regard the river as the border, and certainly when we were on the north side of the river it was always regarded for some reason as being the Scottish side of Berwick, and the south side of the river as the English side.

The location of Berwick-upon-Tweed is not only significant for its inhabitants in terms of its national identity but also its regional affiliations. The town is situated in the top north-eastern corner of the English county of Northumberland, and further north than much of southern Scotland. Many respondents spoke of Berwick-upon-Tweed's isolation from and lack of resources, compared to other towns in Northumberland.

Interviewer: Do people in Berwick think of themselves as being Northumbrians?
Respondent 1: No I don't think so, I've never classed mysel[f] as that, as far as I'm concerned I'm a Berwicker and that's it like.
Interviewer: Do you know why that is, why there isn't that sense of being Northumbrian?
Respondent 2: Geographical isolation. I mean, we're 30 miles north of Alnwick and that puts us 57 miles north of Morpeth, so we are just Berwick. Berwick has got its own separate identity, always has done and that is a hang-up from the past.

The surprisingly weak attachment by residents of Berwick-upon-Tweed to a Northumbrian identity is a significant finding from our research. This was particularly evident when comparing the views of people we interviewed in Berwick-upon-Tweed and in Alnwick. Table 1 shows the results from one of our identity measures. This asked those respondents in these towns who regarded the Northumbrian identity as applicable to them how often they would use it to describe themselves.

Table 1: Use of the Northumbrian identity in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Alnwick*
AlwaysUsuallyOccasionallyHardly Ever
Alnwick 36%29%19%16%
*Views of those respondents in Berwick-upon-Tweed (n=76) and Alnwick (n=31) who self defined themselves as Northumbrians.

Only 27% of these respondents in Berwick-upon- Tweed, said that they 'always' or 'usually' used it to describe themselves compared to 65% in Alnwick. People in Alnwick used the Northumbrian identity much more often than their Berwick-upon-Tweed counterparts and showed greater positive attachment to this identity in the interviews.

At the same time, to further complicate the issue of regional and national identification, Berwick-upon-Tweed is nominally, though of course not jurisdictionally, the county town of Berwickshire in the Borders region of Scotland. Indeed, a few respondents in Berwick-upon-Tweed described themselves as 'Borderers'. In some cases, they regarded 'Borderer' as a cross-border identity, equally applicable to people living in close proximity to the border on either side. For others, such as some ex-servicemen, the identification came from a Regimental attachment, as Berwick-upon-Tweed had been the Headquarters for The King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSBs). However, for the bulk of people interviewed in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Borderer identity was problematic because it was seen to refer to the Scottish Borders and hence was tantamount to a claim to being Scottish.

Berwickers don't consider themselves Borderers at all. The Borderers are considered the Scottish side.

As regards regional identity, there appears then to be a weak attachment by people in Berwick-upon-Tweed to either being Northumbrians or Borderers.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Alternately hung flags on Berwick-upon-Tweed High St (the English flag of St George and the Scottish Saltire) play up to the ambiguous national identity of the town. Photo reproduced courtesy of the Tweeddale Press Group.

Finally in this section, let us examine cross- border associational activity. We identified 156 associations or clubs based in and around Berwick- upon-Tweed, and carried out interviews with representatives from a sample of 35 of these. Ten out of the 35 were affiliated to a Scottish body, 13 to an English one, and the rest either UK, international, or with no ostensible affiliation. The role of these associations seems further to undermine Berwick- upon-Tweed's sense of being an English town and to heighten its inhabitants' ambiguity over their own national identity. The best known is the professional football club, Berwick Rangers, which plays in the Scottish league, but others include numerous local clubs affiliated to Scottish rather than English governing bodies, including football, rugby, hockey, bowls and cricket teams, the bulk of which also play in the Scottish rather than English leagues. The town also has more Scottish banks than English ones; Scottish and English buses compete in the town for trade; English and Scottish flags are found on alternate shops in the town centre (Figure 3); the dominant religious affiliations are nonconformist and Presbyterian (Church of Scotland); the Liberal-Democrats provide the local MP, a feature they have in common with the Scottish rather than the English neighbouring constituencies; whilst the town also has thriving St Andrew's and Royal Country Dance Societies. The result in national identity terms is summed up neatly by a couple we interviewed in Berwick.

Respondent 1: A lot of things that happen here are Scottish. I mean, it's called a borough which is a Scottish term. All the sports teams, the majority of them played in Scotland over the border....So there is a lot of that. If you went to the town there is something like a 60/40 split in the thing, the town is English but the town has a sort of Scottishness about it for some unknown reason.
Respondent 2: I mean, I'd love to know if someone walking - if someone knew nothing about Berwick, and they walked down the High Street, I don't think they would actually know which it was. I don't think either one comes out, does it? Not, oh this is a Scottish town or oh this is an English town.

Intriguingly, all the features of the town discussed above suggest that national identity in Berwick is problematic for its residents, and it is to this we now turn.

The National Identity Question in Berwick-upon-Tweed

People from Berwick-upon-Tweed would appear to have a number of options open to them when it comes to claiming a 'national' identity. We have already demonstrated that they do not turn to a regional identity (Northumbrian or Borderer) as a way of side-stepping their nationality. Let us consider each of the possible repertoires in turn. They can claim to be English, Scottish, British or even advance some form of hybrid English and Scottish identity, as Anglo-Scots or Scots-English.

First, to what extent do people from Berwick- upon-Tweed claim to be English?

Table 2: 'How often do you use the following identity to describe yourself?'*
AlwaysUsuallyOccasionallyHardly EverNot Applicable
*Views of respondents who self defined themselves as Berwickers (n=54)

Here we see that 83% of those who described themselves as Berwickers sometimes used the English identity to describe themselves, 46% either 'always or usually' and yet 17% do so hardly ever and 17% actually regarded the term as not applicable to them. On the surface, being English would seem to be the most straightforward and easily achievable nationality claim for them to make. 'Locals' in the town possess most of, if not all, the usual identity markers for claiming an English nationality. Because Berwick-upon-Tweed is geographically and jurisdictionally in England, they are by birth, residence and, if they have been brought up in the town, upbringing and education, 'English'. They may also claim to be English by ancestry if they have English parents or grandparents.

From our previous studies, we have found that birth, upbringing, ancestral ties and place of residence are the most powerful markers of national identity. If someone were to make a claim based on these markers then it would generally be accepted and upheld by others in almost all circumstances. It is then not surprising that we found some people from Berwick-upon-Tweed making an English identity claim on the basis of these identity markers.

Respondent 1: We (Berwickers) all class wirselves [ourselves] as English 'cos we was born in England.
Respondent 2: I am English 'cos the border is north of Berwick.
Interviewer: Is that why you think of yourself as English?
Respondent 2: Don't know, just think with being born and brought up. It's got a lot to do with your parents as well. I would say just like if your parents are English, you are English.

Similarly, some respondents followed the same rule in attributing identity: When they had full knowledge of others' identity markers, they put greatest emphasis on place of birth, ancestry, and place and length of residence. As a result, they attributed an English national identity to people from Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The older Berwick lot, that's been really born and bred all the time in Berwick, I would say they would claim to be right English.
If they've been born in Berwick, they'll class theirselves as English.

There are then a sizeable group of people in Berwick-upon-Tweed who claim to be English and others who would attribute to them an English identity. The same view is taken by those who live in Eyemouth, a Scottish town nine miles north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, who overwhelmingly identified people in Berwick-upon-Tweed as being 'English' as opposed to 'Scottish'. This is clearly evident from Table 3 which shows the results from another of our identity measures.

Table 3: 'How good a description do the following identities provide for people from Berwick-upon-Tweed?'*
Extremely Very GoodNot very Not at all
*Views of respondents in Eyemouth (n=35)

In Table 2 we saw that a significant number of Berwickers never or hardly ever claim to be English. What deters them from doing so? Do they use alternative strategies of claiming Scottish, British or, indeed, hybrid national identities? How successful are these other strategies likely to be?

When one considers what might deter people in Berwick-upon-Tweed from claiming English national identity, it is useful to remind ourselves that the presence of contradictory markers can undermine any claim or attribution (Bechhofer et al, 1999). For example, if someone was born in Scotland but has an English accent, a claim to be Scottish is harder to sustain. Incongruous identity markers suggest a nationality other than the one which is claimed, and may lead others to question the validity of the actual claim being made. Before this stage is ever reached, someone may choose to modify their national identity claim if they believe the presence of such markers might lead to that initial claim being challenged. Let us now consider what could be interpreted as contradictory markers for people from Berwick-upon-Tweed claiming an English nationality.

Having what sounds to others like a Scottish accent obviously makes it harder to claim to be English, even if you do possess other appropriate markers of Englishness. This linguistic marker is a key reason why people from Berwick-upon-Tweed are often attributed with a Scottish nationality by others and may have their claim to being English challenged. This was evident in our interviews with residents of Alnwick, which is thirty miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed. During these interviews, many of our respondents expressed surprise that the majority of people in Berwick-upon-Tweed did not see themselves unproblematically as Scottish. This can be seen below in Table 4, which shows that more people in Alnwick saw Scottish rather than English as providing an extremely or very good description of those from Berwick- upon-Tweed.

Table 4:
Table 4:
'How good a description do the following identities provide for people from Berwick-upon-Tweed?'*
ExtremelyVeryGoodNot veryNot at all
*Views of respondents in Alnwick (n=34)

The main reason that people from Alnwick gave for saying that Berwickers were Scottish was that they perceived their accent or dialect as Scottish.

Interviewer: Would you see Berwick as being an English town?
Respondent: I've always associated Berwick as being Scottish. Despite the fact that it isn't, I've always associated Berwick as being the gateway to Scotland.
Interviewer: Do you know why it has that sort of feeling?
Respondent: Well it's again just probably the dialect. The locals have got that little, the beginnings of a Scottish accent.
Interviewer: Would you think of them as being Scottish, people living in Berwick?
Respondent: Aye I would. I would think of them as being Scottish. Yea.
Interviewer: So you wouldn't tend to think of them as being fellow Northumbrians or English?
Respondent: No I wouldn't, I wouldn't class them as being Northumbrians. I would always class Berwick as being Scottish.

Respondents in Eyemouth, the Scottish town 9 miles to the north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, did not interpret the Berwickers' accent as Scottish, but tended to see it as Northumbrian or Geordie, and certainly English. This demonstrates nicely how the same identity claim and indeed identity markers, in this case accent, can be received in quite different ways so that the same claim is upheld in one context and rejected in another. It also neatly highlights Berwickers' problem of being national.

In turn, we have numerous examples of people from Berwick-upon-Tweed claiming that their accent makes people think of them as having a Scottish national identity, particularly when they travel further south into England. This can lead to their claim to be English being challenged by others. For example:

Respondent: I travel south, go to watch England, they class us as Scottish, our accent as Scottish. And you quite surprise them when we tell them that we're still in England. I get that quite a lot, people asking, how come you are coming to watch England when you've got a Scottish accent? But I don't, I don't think I've got a Scottish accent. But to them it must.
Interviewer: How do you respond to that when they say that you're Scottish?
Respondent: Well just try and explain to them that we are English, I was actually born in England and Berwick is in England but it's not easy.

Another contradictory marker which seems to undermine the claim of Berwickers to be English is the historically and culturally contested character of the town itself, In other words, because Berwick itself has an ambiguous past and, indeed, present, so its residents have ambiguity attributed to them. Here is a nice example of Berwickers being thought of as Scottish, because the local football team plays in the Scottish league.

It's amazing the number of people, especially the further south you go, whether it's wi' seeing, I don't know, Berwick maybe playing in the Scottish league. They think we are Scottish.

Similarly, there are important geographical differences within the borough itself, notably between the north bank 'Scottish' side of the river Tweed, and the communities on the English south bank. For example, the local maternity hospital in Berwick- upon-Tweed, Castlehills, is located on the north bank of the Tweed in 'Berwick'. One respondent observed:

The folk in the town which weren't born in Castlehills call the ones which were 'Scotchies' because there is still a hell of a lot of folk in the town even, [who] count the Berwick side as being in Scotland and the Tweedmouth side as being in England.

From these examples, we can see that for people in Berwick-upon-Tweed, claiming an English national identity is not at all straightforward. While some people might accept that Berwickers are 'English', there are sufficient grounds for thinking of them as 'Scottish'. With such contradictory markers available, those making judgements about the national identity of Berwickers have considerable leeway. It is then small wonder that Berwickers may choose to side step the question of whether they are English or Scottish.

If it is problematic for Berwickers to claim to be English then it appears even more so for them to claim to be Scottish but a smaller number did. Again it is useful to refer to our identity measures and the responses of those who described themselves as Berwickers.

Table 5: 'How often do you use the following identity to describe yourself?'*
AlwaysUsuallyOccasionallyHardly EverNot Applicable
*Views of those respondents who self defined themselves as Berwickers (n=54)

Here we see that although 59% of Berwickers do not see a Scottish identity as applicable to them, 41% do, and indeed, 15% say that they would 'always' use the term to describe themselves. To claim a Scottish national identity, they not only have to dismiss or downplay the identity markers that would usually signal an English nationality, such as place of birth, residence, and upbringing but they also have to put forward convincing new identity markers to support a Scottish claim. How do they attempt to do this? (Listed below each quote are the identity markers they mobilise to construct their Scottish nationality):

People from Newcastle might think I've got a Scottish accent and things like that so, for that reason, with me living so close I do like to associate myself with Scotland because of that.
[accent/dialect; geographical proximity]
Although I'm sort of born in Berwick which is in England, on my birth certificate, I prefer to think myself as Scottish. And because the border is so close you seem to have an affinity with Scotland, because you are that close, you know, 'Oh, what the hell is 3 mile, I'm Scottish anyway'.
[denies birth marker; emphasises geographical proximity to Scotland, hence 'affinity']
Interviewer: Would there be many people born and bred in Berwick who would actually claim to be Scottish?
Respondent 1: Your two brothers.
Respondent 2: I've got two brothers who were born in the maternity home just at this side of the river.
Interviewer: Castlehills?
Respondent 2:Yea, so yea they take that, they're Scottish, they're over the right side of the Tweed as they say.
[north of the Tweed as birth marker and place of residence]
Interviewer: So, in terms of your nationality, you would describe yourself as being Scottish?
Respondent: Ahha.
Interviewer: Do people say to you, 'oh come on you were born in Berwick', do you get that sort of thing?
Respondent: No I think it's just part and parcel of Berwick.
[location and history of Berwick-upon-Tweed]
Respondent: I would say Scottish.
Interviewer:.Can I ask why?
Respondent: I just think I would prefer, I think we would be better off being in Scotland. Because in England Berwick is so far north that we are forgotten about.
Interviewer: Would this be quite common in Berwick, that people, even like yourselves born and bred in Berwick would say they were Scottish?
Respondent: I think there would be at least 50% would say they are Scotch! [sense of remoteness from centres of power in England]

So we see how people in Berwick-upon-Tweed can and do claim to be Scottish by referring to a different repertoire of identity markers:

Respondent: I say, if you cut my arm there would be Scottish blood there.
Interviewer: So you refer to your ancestry?
Respondent: Yes 'cos it's your parents, isn't it.

That Scottish claims are made by people 'born and bred' in Berwick-upon-Tweed is highly significant, as is the fact that such claims would often be challenged. For example, those Berwickers who claimed to be English were generally unlikely to accept such a Scottish claim made by other Berwickers. Those who thought of themselves as English could simply invoke place of birth and residence as proof that they and Berwickers generally are English. For example:

I'm English because Berwick is part of England, this is where I was born, and to me it would be as ridiculous to say I was Scottish as somebody from Eyemouth who said they was English. Because it isn't an actual fact.

That birth equates with nationality as an unquestionable 'fact' is a view that we have commonly come across in our other studies. Berwick- upon-Tweed however was the place we saw this least often articulated. In this unusual context, place of birth could not be taken as an unequivocal marker of national identity.

There are two further 'national' strategies open to people from Berwick-upon-Tweed: either to claim to be British or claim some form of Scottish- English hybrid identity. Superficially, these would both appear to offer solutions to the problems of claiming an unequivocal national identity.

Some Berwickers actually did choose to identify with both Scotland and England. In response to the identity measure question, 'How often do you use the following identities to describe yourself?'[13], about a quarter of Berwickers, 24%, identified themselves to varying degrees with both Scotland and England. However, we believe that this reflects more the problems that Berwickers have with 'being national' than the adoption of a hybrid identity strategy. Our grounds for this interpretation are that where respondents are given greater opportunity to articulate what they mean by their nationality 'choices', rather than being forced by a structured question to make a definitive choice, we encountered no instances of people claiming any form of hybrid English/Scottish identity. Far from trying to forge a new hybrid identity, many Berwickers, as evident in the next section, seemed to want to avoid attaching themselves to either nationality.

One might ask: why don't most people in Berwick-upon-Tweed overcome the problem of being national by simply claiming a British state identity? This is not altogether clear. We did, in fact, encounter a few examples, as below, of people doing just that, but it was not common.

Respondent 1: I used to say British quite a lot when I was having arguments.
Interviewer: That would settle the arguments?
Respondent 1: Aye, you know, I would just say, oh well we're all British, it doesn't make any difference.
Interviewer: You say it's a difficult question for you to answer, am I Scottish or am I English. If I asked you what your nationality was, what would you say?
Respondent 2: I'd have to say British.
Interviewer: Can I ask you why you would describe yourself as British?
Respondent 2: Because I don't feel Scottish or English!
Interviewer: So it is just almost a way of by-passing the question?
Respondent 2: Well that's it.

The problem with this option, and perhaps the reason such comments did not appear very often is that 'British' is often seen as synonymous with English, and as such is not a neutral solution to the question of nationality . What we can conclude is that the existence of competing forms of 'being national' in Berwick-upon-Tweed, particularly Englishness and Scottishness, has led to a problematising of national identity.

Is Berwick unusual in this respect? It is worth noting that although both Eyemouth and Alnwick are close to the border, people from these towns did not have similar problems in 'being national'. The people of Eyemouth are decidedly Scottish, and those from Alnwick both English, and strongly Northumbrian. It appears that it is not simply close proximity to the border but a combination of unique forces - historical, cultural and demographic - in Berwick-upon-Tweed that has led some people in the town to shy away from explicitly articulating a definitive nationality. Instead, they pursue a novel identity strategy designed to side-step the potentially problematic issue of nationality. Let us look at how they do this.

'Just Berwickers'

People from Berwick-upon-Tweed have, by and large, adopted a straightforward way of overcoming the problem of 'being national'. They simply go local.

From the outset, we were struck by how frequently people made reference to their local identity as Berwickers. It became almost like a reflex reaction with subtle variations on the theme of 'We're Berwickers; neither Scots or English'. Here are a number of examples to give a sense of localism.

Interviewer: If I was to ask your nationality?
Respondent: Well, Berwicker, sort of really in between, I can't say.
I'm a Berwicker, never sort of 'I'm English, I'm Scots'.
Just being in the toon all my life like, you're neither Scotch nor English, so you're a Berwicker.

Prioritising the Berwicker identity over national and regional identities was more common than any other identity choice, certainly than strong claims to be either English or Scottish. That is not to say that such ambiguity prevents people from claiming a national identity. Indeed, a number of them did. However, they often tended to do so only when pushed on the issue and even then it would often take the form of a weak affiliation.

Respondent: Most people like I say, you are in-betweenies. Like the language is like half Scottish, half Geordie, so you are more in-between.
Interviewer: But if pushed?
Respondent: Me personally, I'd sway to England. More for sporting reasons and what have you.
Interviewer: Do you think that would be the most common view that if pushed people would say English?
Respondent: They would just say, I'm a Berwicker.

The preference of Berwickers for local over national identity was also regularly remarked upon by people who had come to live in the town from elsewhere.

They're Berwickers, they're nothing else but Berwickers, they don't associate themselves either with England or Scotland.
I've heard that said at work, on quite a few occasions people have said, 'oh I'm not English or Scottish, I'm from Berwick'.

Moreover, some incomers argued that locals from Berwick-upon-Tweed used this strategy of localism to try and avoid or to overcome the problems of 'being national' in this unusual identity context.

There is still quite a strong tendency not to get caught up in the nationalist thing, It's probably outsiders coming in that tend to try and put them in one camp or the other. And I think they do regard themselves as being Berwickers and they are neither Scottish nor English. They are slap bang on the border and I suppose they can't afford to be either really.

To develop this issue further, let us look at how Berwickers' claims are received by a wider audience. If we consider the receipt of such claims and attributions by people in the town itself, then we came across a number of examples where the prioritising of Berwick local identity was seen as being a valid identity strategy to side-step the nationality issue.

Most of the people who are real genuine Berwickers, they are different. I can see that now, they're not Scots or English and I like that really 'cos I was always confused over this. I think that they don't give a fiddle for anyone really, they're Berwickers and Berwick is their home and they don't think much of that lot and they don't think much of that lot. But Berwickers are alright.

One Berwicker stressed localism as a way of side- stepping the problem of being national, but found in the context of working with people from Scotland, in a Scottish town close to Berwick-upon-Tweed, that such a claim was rejected.

When you work with a lot of people from Scotland and you say you're Berwickers they say, don't talk silly, you're English. They won't have it like.

The strategy, therefore, of claiming to be Berwickers in response to challenges of nationality is more favourably viewed in some contexts than others. Such a claim may work better in Berwick-upon-Tweed, where people are generally more aware of the identity agenda in the town whilst elsewhere these claims may contravene the prevailing identity rules and be rejected, as in the case above.

Moreover, if we consider the views of respondents from Eyemouth and Alnwick on their own national identity, then we can understand why this strategy is often met with scepticism. People from Eyemouth for example, claimed unproblematically to be Scottish based on birth, residence, ancestry and upbringing. The issue of confusing or contradictory markers of identity did not impact on their national identity constructions as it did in Berwick-upon- Tweed. The same was true of Alnwick where respondents claimed to be unequivocally English. People in these towns would find it bizarre to answer the question of national identity in terms of local identity because their strong sense of localism has little to do with their sense of nationality.

What was particularly interesting, however, about people in Eyemouth and Alnwick was how they viewed Berwickers in national terms. They were quite prepared to attribute national identity to Berwickers, but did so in contrasting ways. Put simply, people from Eyemouth saw Berwickers as 'English' by birth, while people from Alnwick saw them as 'Scots', mainly on the basis of accent. Of course such behaviour simply reinforces the Berwickers' wish to side step the issue, as no choice of national identity will satisfy both those south and north of the border.


We have a sound understanding of the processes of identity claim, attribution and receipt in contexts where the vast majority of people do claim a national identity. The content of these claims varies widely from the almost self-evident to the unexpected. Previously, our research has been conducted in contexts where there was usually a willingness to claim a national identity. Indeed, we are inclined firmly to the view that this is generally the case. These identity claims and attributions and their receipt are usually based on various combinations of the basic markers of birth, ancestry, residence, upbringing and commitment, backed up by other markers. The process, which appears to be governed by certain rules, varies according to the visibility of markers, and what is known to the interacting parties. However, this paper addresses the relatively unusual circumstances under which people do not make national identity claims and how they then approach the issue of identity.

Berwick-Upon-Tweed enabled us to 'test' the premise that context is all-important. At the same time, data from neighbouring towns allowed us to explore how Berwickers' unusual 'national' identity strategy, localism, was received and in fact rejected. We were then able to consider how more conventional forms of national identity were in turn attributed, albeit in fascinatingly contrasting ways and on the basis of different identity markers. Two of the aims of our work are to demonstrate the fluid nature of national identity processes and the crucial importance of context to these. Our work in Berwick-Upon-Tweed has done much to meet and further these aims.


1Including an ESRC funded project, 'Ethnicity, Identity and Locality: Landed and Arts Elites in Scotland'. Papers from this project provide the background to our conceptual approach.

2We began a major programme of research in late-1999 until 2004, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, entitled 'Constitutional change and identity'. Essential elements of this include an examination of how English people in Scotland and Scots in England negotiate identities in the new national communities.

3Examples of these include : 'Berwick people not English' Scotsman 17/5/1967 and 'A town on the border between war and peace' Herald 30/3/96

4 In interviews with a number Scots living in nearby Eyemouth, a Scottish town located 6 miles north of the border many did indeed claim that living close to the border gave them a heightened sense of national identity.

5We discuss identity markers and rules in Bechhofer, et al, 1999, 'Constructing national identity: arts and landed elites in Scotland' Sociology, Volume 33 No.3.

6We carried out a number of interviews in the town of Alnwick (25) and the villages of Norham (5) and Horncliffe (5).

7Berwicker was a term commonly used in the town and surrounding communities to describe people who considered themselves, or were considered to be, locals of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. In the course of our interviews in the town, we asked respondents using our identity measures, 'What makes someone a Berwicker'? Respondents had no difficulty in understanding this question and 84% saw being born in Berwick as 'Extremely or very important' in making someone a Berwicker, 67% saw having parents born in Berwick as 'Extremely or very important' and 58% saw parents being resident in Berwick as 'Extremely or very important'. These views did appear to translate into identity claims. Of our 116 respondents in Berwick-upon-Tweed, 52 (45%) had been born there, whilst slightly more people in our sample 54 (47%) claimed to be Berwickers. 40 (77%) of those born in the town claimed to be Berwickers. The remaining were in the main people with lengthy residence in the town, a good number with ancestral/family links to it. When it came to local identity at least, it appeared that Berwickers were prepared to play by the prevailing identity rules.

8We would like to acknowledge the help of the staff of the University of Edinburgh Data Library, in particular, Donald Morse, Alistair Towers, Robin Rice and Joan Fairgrieve.

9A referee raised the possibility that within interviews such as these an interviewer effect might operate, and this is an important methodological issue. Because the same person, a Scot, did all the interviews we have no empirical control and the possibility of an interviewer effect exists. We do not wish to deny that in studies in some areas, and under some circumstances it is likely that class and (especially) gender effects do operate. It is then a matter of judgement whether there was a 'nationality effect' of any significance and we are inclined to think not. The interviewer, coming as he does from the Scottish western Borders does not have a strong Scottish accent and no respondent made any reference, favourable or otherwise to it. He has a several years of experience of conducting interviews on national identity. He is skilled at avoiding any kind of behaviour which might be interpreted as threatening, and crucially was very careful to be nationally neutral in the way questions were phrased and comments by respondents were received. It does seem a priori unlikely that people would have responded so consistently if an interviewer effect was operating as one would anticipate that people would respond differently to the interviewer's Scottish nationality. Until some other researchers (perhaps with different accents) replicate our work in a very similar context, we cannot with any certainty go further.

10A computer package designed to aid analysis of qualitative data by an Edinburgh colleague, Ian Dey.

11Many respondents in Berwick-upon-Tweed were able to provide unambiguous accounts of their national identity as either English or Scottish. A considerable proportion of these were 'incomers' to the town from different parts of England and Scotland, but for some Berwickers holding an English national identity was less problematic. They mobilised place of birth, residence, upbringing, and ancestry in ways familiar to us from our earlier studies. In this paper however, we foreground those inhabitants of the town who chose to mobilise other identity markers and different identity rules as a result of the identity context Berwick-upon-Tweed provided.

12Here the emphasis is upon that part of Berwick-upon-Tweed north of the river Tweed ('Berwick'), as opposed to Tweedmouth or Spittal south of the river.

13The identities offered in this identity measure were Berwicker, Northumbrian, Borderer, English, Scottish, British and European.


This paper like all those arising from this project is the product of a collegiate form of working in which the fieldwork, the analysis and the drafts of the paper have been discussed by the entire research team throughout. The first named author has been responsible for initially drafting the paper and seeing it into print; the names of the other authors are in random order. The project was conceived and designed by the principal investigators Frank Bechhofer, David McCrone and Richard Kiely and funded by a grant (F158/AV) from The Leverhulme Trust. The interviews were transcribed by the project Secretary, Barbara Silander, who in this and many other ways contributed greatly to the research.


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