Sunday, 9 August 2015

Dover and the Albans

At the farthest end of Britain from Scotland are the white cliffs of Dover. There may seem to be no connection between Dover and Scotland, yet I can think of at least two. The first concerns the oldest known name of the island of Britain. In the north, it was Alba. In the south, Albion, effectively a variant of the same word. An argument has been made that this comes from an old Indo-European root word alb-, meaning white - the same root word that named the Alps and Albania. Why would Britain be described thus? Some say that the name came from people who sailed across the narrowest point of the Channel from proto-Gaul, saw the white cliffs of Dover, and like European explorers of the 18th century in the New World and Australia, named the entire island after the first thing they saw. Alba, then, used to describe the whole of Britain - today, in Gaelic and Welsh, it is used only for Scotland. Wouldn't it be ironic if Scotland was named after a geographical feature at the farther end of Britain?

White Cliffs of Dover:


This isn't the only argument of course - some historians argue that Alba came instead from the root word for dawn - and was therefore named not by Gauls but by the Irish, who saw it in the east. Britain, like Japan, may well be not 'white land' but 'land of the rising sun.'

The second connection concerns the movements of Scottish armies. It is a little known fact that in 1216, Alexander II invaded England as far south as Dover - the furthest south an army led by a Scottish monarch has penetrated. He did so to support Prince Louis of France as heir to the English throne in the aftermath of King John's dispute with his Barons' over 1215's Magna Carta. Louis had the support of most of the Barons, but was having trouble reducing Dover Castle, which was being stoutly defended by Hugh de Burgh.

Dover Castle:


This immensely impressive castle, the largest in England, is perched in a strong position on top of the white cliffs and a great prize for any who held it. Hugh refused to surrender 'the key to England' to a foreigner. But before the siege was resolved, John did England the favour of dying on 9 October 1216. His 9-year old son Henry III was persuaded to agree to Magna Carta and put under the guardianship of Hugh de Burgh, and the Barons saw Louis off, now that he was no longer needed to rescue them from a useless king.

France (the white horizon behind the ferry) from Dover:


Nowadays Dover is a run-down town, a poor advertisement for anyone arriving from the Continent. But the cliffs remain, providing a unique and beautiful walk along an historic coast. On the edge, wild flowers grow and Europe can be seen in clear weather. On seeing France the mind wanders unbidden to Napoleon's thwarted invasions or the desperate fights of the Battle of Britain in 1940. In such a mood, the Channel is nothing less than Dover Castle's 21-mile wide moat, sometimes all that has held invading hordes at bay. With illegal immigration the latest moral panic, the whole of today's UK seems to narrow to this one fretful point.

1 comment:

blueskyscotland said...

Very interesting post. Enjoyed it.