Britain. What Is They? Who Are It?

640px-Nations_of_the_UK

The final result of the Scottish Independence Referendum is still some hours off, so I will avail of this last chance to speculate. What will happen to Great Britain if Scotland really does leave?

Well nothing. Great Britain is the name of an island, not a country. Not even the proper name for it in fact – the more historical one is simply Britain.

So where did the “Great” come out of? I get the impression that a lot of British people vaguely think of it as a title their country was awarded somehow. At a country show, presumably. I have even heard people who should know better espouse the folk etymology that Britain refers to the combination of England and Wales, which became Great Britain with the addition of Scotland. That is of course completely made up.

Great Britain is simply the English for the French name for Britain – Grande Bretagne – and might be more accurately if prosaically rendered “Big Britain”.

Little Britain in this instance being Bretagne – or as we call it, Brittany – a province of France that was settled by people from Britain and where a language closely related to Welsh is still spoken today, now and again. Somewhat ironically perhaps, these British colonists were actually refugees, fleeing from the foreign invader we now know as the English.

Well partly, them – to be honest they were being invaded from Ireland too. After the Romans withdrew from Britain it was basically a warrior’s free-for-all.

So Britain was called Great Britain merely to avoid confusion with the French name for a Welsh colony. It’s like an irony layer cake. But French was the dominant language of much of Europe – and indeed, of Britain – for many centuries, so the “Great” stuck.

And still sticks today, and becomes ever more sticky. It is now kind of embarrassing, used when they can’t think of an idea for a cooking programme, or for politicians to clutch when they have reached the absolute nadir of rhetorical inspiration. It is high time a way was found to retire the term. And if Scotland does ever leave, that would be the moment. To refer to what remained as Great Britain after that would sound like sarcasm.

But what else could the remaining country be called? Well the answer is obvious, and I’m surprised it didn’t come up more in the debate. It would of course be the United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland.

I think it has a ring to it, no?

Shitehawk

English: Red Kite flying over Berkshire in Aug...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to think this was a peculiarly Irish term of abuse – “Ya shitehawk ya” – with origins obscure and possibly whimsical. Some say it originally meant a manure pedlar. But it seems not; for the shitehawk is a real bird.

And not just any old bird either, but one of the most attractive and impressive of the smaller raptors – the red kite. This is a beautiful creature with ruddy feathers and a swift-like forked tail. It also happens to be a hawk for shite.

Or to put it in more scientific terms, as well as being a bird of prey it’s a carrion feeder, eating the bodies of animals it didn’t kill itself and other handy leftovers. A lot of the raptors double-job like this; after all if you’re built to chase down and murder living food you’re probably pretty high up the queue for the dead stuff too. Indeed debate still rages over whether their cousin¹ the Tyrannosaurus was mainly predator or scavenger. So the red kite is attracted to human settlements, because we pretty much live knee-deep in delicious detritus. It hovers – literally – about our dumps and middens.

It’s as a predator though, taking things people wanted to keep like rabbits and young chickens, that it became persecuted as vermin and was once in danger of extinction. Though not before British soldiers had a chance to apply the same vivid name to the carrion birds they met abroad. In India therefore the shitehawk was a vulture. And apparently the word persists in this role in parts of England, except applied to that new ubiquitous flying rat: the seagull.

I like that – I think I’ll refer to gulls as shitehawks from now on. The name suits those raucous opportunists (video) far better than it does the rare and pretty red kite.

  1. It’s true. Birds are basically just the dinosaurs that didn’t die out.

Antiquations

Nice range, eh? My father got it out of an old house in Shantallagh about thirty years ago, when it was being replaced with a (then) modern heating system. We know it was made in Scotland and imported by Hynes of Galway just before the war. The First World War. By its design though it could easily be even older. It’s Victorian through and through, both in aspect and in its cast-iron ingenuity.

It’s brown now with rust, but when scrubbed and polished with black lead (graphite) it’ll be like an undertaker’s silk top hat. Dad intended it to be the centrepiece of our house, but first he had to build that. So it lay about in pieces for maybe twenty years. He was in the process of getting it reassembled and installed when he died, so some time after, to find how much remained to be done, I tried lighting it. The room filled immediately with smoke, pouring out of every joint and crack. I sighed at the thought of having to somehow finish this one day.

But at the moment my mother has a couple of lads in to do work on another room, and we got to talking about the range and what it would take to fix it. Could it be the chimney that was at fault? I hadn’t thought so, because it was new, wide, and had never been used. But we investigated anyway.

And extracted not one, nor even two, but three very dead crows. Don’t ask me how they got down there, but once they were out we lit the fire immediately.

It still smoked. There’s no avoiding that it has a vast number of unsealed joints. But at least now it could be controlled. The thing is incredibly adjustable. Even the grate can be raised and lowered with a strange ratcheted mechanism, and by starting high and dropping it as the fire grew you could keep the flow of gases just right. Also adjusting that hood device above the firebox – it folds open and closed like a bizarre iron tent – seemed to help.

The fire was soon (almost) smokeless and roaring and, once the right valves had been turned in Dad’s baroque plumbing system, sent scalding water thrumming through the pipes. It struck me then: This is Victorian steam technology. With its dampers and levers, all it needs more is a chain for the whistle. And rails.

Independence Is Overrated Anyway

It would also be a unique opportunity to design the busiest flag in world history

Today the USA celebrates the anniversary of independence from Britain. Though I wonder would they have bothered if they’d known that, 235 years later, Britain would be pretty much dependent on them. It’s funny to watch that pair, singing together at the UN, fighting their wars hand-in-hand. You know I think those two should make up. They’re obviously right for each other.

Just one or two tricky details to sort out. The UK couldn’t just become the 51st state. It may be small in area, but at 62 million it would make up one sixth of the combined population. As the House of Representatives allocates seats proportionally it would inevitably form a huge voting bloc there, while at the same time being ludicrously under-represented in the Senate.

It would be far better for the constituent countries of the UK to join individually, with England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland becoming the 51st, 52nd, 53rd and 54th states of the USA respectively. This still leaves England as the largest state by far though – 52 million people as opposed to California’s 37 – so perhaps it could be further divided. North and South England maybe, like the Dakotas and Carolinas. Or separate it into Greater London, and Little England.

But then there’s another issue – the United States is a republic, whereas the United Kingdom is anything but. This is a rather fundamental constitutional difference; it’s not a Union unless the whole thing is governed by a single Head of State. Let’s begin though by ruling out the option of Americans voting to become a monarchy. Not because they wouldn’t consider it, but because I’m worried they might. For the UK to finally be converted into a full democracy, its royal family will need to be deposed. That doesn’t mean they have to be rounded up and executed of course. Though it does seem like the ideal opportunity.