An Unimagined Community: Vikings, power and knowledge

A nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. [Benedict Anderson]

Dumfries and Galloway is a region rather than a nation. It has a population of about 150 000 spread over 2400 square miles. Dundee has a similar population, but covers an area of 25 square miles. The citizens of Dundee do not require a leap of imagination to grasp their identity as Dundonians.

Scotland is a nation and its members have a whole range of imagined connections to the nation. The strength of the Scottish imagination was tested in the 2014 referendum and again in 2016. In 2014 the power of the imagination was not enough for another Scotland to become possible but in 2016 a clear distinction between the imagined community of Scotland and the imagined community of Britain (England and Wales) emerged. With a second referendum now to be held, the ability of Scots to imagine themselves as an independent nation will be tested again.

In 2014 only 33% of the voters in Dumfries and Galloway could imagine independence. In 2016, 53% voted to Remain in the EU, but this was well below the national average of 62%. The United Kingdom as imagined in Dumfries and Galloway exerts a strong counter-influence to the imagined community of Scotland.

But if the ability to imagine Scotland as national community is weak in Dumfries and Galloway, identification with the region is even weaker. Dumfries and Galloway is an unimagined community.

What is an unimagined community? The idea emerged while thinking about the Galloway Viking Hoard and how to broaden the reach of the campaign so became a region wide campaign, rather than one focused on Kirkcudbright and the Stewartry district of Dumfries and Galloway. I noticed that the Stranraer based Wigtownshire Free Press had not covered the launch of the Galloway Viking Hoard campaign.

The Newton Stewart based Galloway Gazette covers eastern Wigtownshire and the western Stewartry. There has been coverage of the campaign in the gazette. The Galloway News covers the Stewartry, although it is now based in Dumfries rather than castle Douglas. The Galloway Hoard has had front page coverage. The Dumfries and Galloway Standard is Dumfries based , sharing offices with the Galloway News. It has given limited coverage to the Hoard, re-using Galloway News stories, but a few pages in.

East of Nithsdale and Dumfries, the Annandale Observer has had one story on the launch of the Galloway Viking Hoard campaign as has its free sister paper the Dumfries Courier but not the Moffat News. The Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser which covers the far east of the region has not reported on the Galloway Hoard.

BBC Scotland has a base in Dumfries and provide six five minute local news reports broadcast on Radio Scotland across Dumfries and Galloway. The region is also covered by West Sound Radio based in Dumfries and by Border Television from Carlisle. All have covered the Galloway Viking Hoard campaign story. The Herald, Scotsman, National, Times and Daily Mail online have all had one report on the campaign.

On one hand then, there is a Dumfries and Galloway news story which has been, if only fleetingly, reported at national level. On the other, it has not registered at all in the far west nor the far east of the region.

The local newspapers which serve Dumfries and Galloway are based on and reflect communities where relations between community members are geographically intimate and connected by overlapping personal social networks. There is no need to imagine such communities, they are tangible and concrete.

The members of these communities- Stranraer and western Wigtownshire, eastern Wigtownshire, the Stewartry, Dumfries and Nithsdale, Annandale and Eskdale- are also part of two imagined communities, Scotland and Britain. What remains unimagined and unarticulated as a community is Dumfries and Galloway.

Does this matter?
Very practically yes. Dumfries and Galloway is one of the 32 local authority areas which are the political, social and economic building blocks from which present day Scotland is constructed. If/ when Scotland becomes an actually imagined national community, it will become one of the buildings blocks of that future state.

If Dumfries and Galloway remains an unimagined community, then that creates a structural problem, a structural instability. This leads to anomalies like the whole of Scotland being represented at UK government level by an MP elected by part of the region.

What can be done to help Dumfries and Galloway imagine itself as a community?

Thinking about how forge links between the Galloway Viking Hoard in Kirkcudbright can be connected with the whole of Dumfries and Galloway, an immediate exists in the shape of the Kilmorie Cross which can be seen at Kirkcolm, 6 miles from Stranraer.

It dates from the tenth century so is from the same period as the Hoard. It is of Viking origin and style, but the Norse symbols are matched by a Christian cross. The complex interaction of Norse and Christian symbolism has been described as revealing the ‘otherwise unsuspected presence of sophisticated theological thinking in tenth century Galloway’.

Moving across to Annandale, the Ruthwell Cross is a larger and even more complex sign of ‘sophisticated theological thinking’ in the region. Although it dates from the eighth century, it has runes carved on it. As the Centre for the Scots Leid explain

alang wi Latin text, but gauin doun the sides the’r a poyem carved in runes in the Auld Angles leid. Cryed the ‘Dream o the Rood’ (rood bein the auld word for cross) – this is noo the auldest text in Auld-Angles that we ken belangs Scotland. It is fae this self an same Auld-Angles tongue that the Scots spoken the day – in modren Scotland – is sprung.

Other connections exist. These include the early tenth century Nith Bridge Cross near Thornhill, which is overlooked by a Viking grave site, the Whithorn collection of sculptured stones which include the fifth century Latinus stone and where there was a Viking settlement and the Pictish inspired carvings on Trusty’s Hill near Gatehouse.

The picture which emerges from these sculptured stones is of a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Dumfries and Galloway. The land beneath which the Viking Hoard was buried contained people still speaking the P-Celtic Brittonic language, Old English/ ancestral Scots, Norse and Latin.

The first speakers of Gaelic, which was to survive in the region for another 600 years, were also present. The Gaelic speakers were closely linked to the Vikings through their contact with Gaelic speakers in Ireland and Argyll. The Dublin based Irish Vikings extended their control into Wigtownshire, bringing Gaelic speakers with them. The second group, the Gall-Ghàidheil or ‘Gaelic speaking Vikings’, gave their name to Galloway.

It is likely that the ‘sophisticated theological thinking’ represented by the Kilmorie Cross was influenced by the linguistic and cultural complexity of tenth century Dumfries and Galloway which a shared faith- Christianity- was adapted to reflect.

Through religion, the different communities of the region could imagine themselves as part of single faith community. Tenth century Dumfries and Galloway was not an unimagined community.

By the eleventh century, as part of a ‘greater Galloway’ which stretched from the Firth of Clyde to the Solway Firth, the region had acquired a common language- Gaelic. This represented a change from the linguistic diversity of the ninth and tenth centuries . However, what emerged, perhaps through Viking influence, was a society which resembled that of Iceland in the same period, with a very ‘flat’ political hierarchy.

The diverse communities of the region reflect, and were a product of, the complex geography of the region. Areas of good quality land suitable for arable farming, which could support more people, lie scattered along the coastal fringe and on the flood plains of the larger rivers which flow down from the poorer quality lands of the Southern Uplands which rise to nearly 3000 feet in places.

The westward expansion of the kingdom of Northumbria in the seventh century brought the region’s dispersed communities under their control. The Viking influx of the ninth century disrupted Northumbrian power and no central authority exercised power in the region again until the twelfth century, when David I, King of Scots, confirmed a grant of Annandale to Robert Bruce in 1124.

However, it was not until 1490 that a Scottish parliament finally abolished the traditional Norse-Gaelic laws of Galloway and Carrick (south Ayrshire). Scots law now prevailed and with it the Scots language. Within a generation or two, the Gaelic of Nithsdale, Galloway and Carrick had faded away. By 1560, when John Knox preached the Reformation in the region, he was able to do so in Scots and Bible English without needing to translate his message for the ‘common people’.

As the events of the seventeenth century were to show, the Reformation took a strong hold on the common people of south-west Scotland and their bonnet lairds (= small scale landowners).
The ‘flattened hierarchy’ of Presbyterianism resembled the historic Icelandic style political and social structure of the region while the Calvinist rigour of the new religion acted as a replacement for the cultural cohesion which the shared Gaelic heritage had formerly provided.

As Richard Oram explained in his book on the medieval Lordship of Galloway the distinctive history of south-west Scotland persisted and as a centre of covenanting radicalism in the seventeenth century, Galloway, Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire were ‘governed by the Edinburgh-based regime as a rebellious subject territory rather than a stable part of the kingdom.’ Galloway, Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire were still strongly Presbyterian and anti-Jacobite in the first half of the eighteenth century.

The cumulative effect of Dumfries and Galloway’s distinctive history makes it difficult to fit the region into an overarching national narrative.

From the eighth century origins of the Kingdom of Alba, which was to become the Kingdom of Scots, to the Union of 1707, Galloway and at times Dumfriesshire as well, were not a ‘stable part of the kingdom’. However, the need to develop a popular national narrative as a form of resistance to the assimilation of Scotland into an unequal union has required a glossing over of Dumfries and Galloway’s peculiar history. A history which is effectively unimagined within ‘Scotland’s Story’.

Benedict Anderson himself in ‘Imagined Communities’ criticises Tom Nairn for treating Scotland as ‘an unproblematic, primordial given’.To re-imagine Dumfries and Galloway is therefore also to re-imagine Scotland as a more complex and ‘problematic’ nation.

If a future independent Scotland is to become a modern rather than a primordial state, the complexities and contradictions of Scotland’s past must be understood, must become part of the nation’s historic self-consciousness.

If the Galloway Viking Hoard is absorbed in to the National Museum of Scotland’s collection of treasures, it will become just another glittering but depthless and contextless spectacle.

The very same objects placed in their deep context, placed in Dumfries and Galloway, will have the potential to reveal within Scotland’s past the existence of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society. The imagination of visitors to the region will be empowered, but so will the collective imagination of Dumfries and Galloway as a community.