Berwick-upon-Tweed keeping an eye on the border

Scottish independence referendum weighs on residents in northern English town

Berwick Rangers played their final pre-season friendly last Saturday week, a 2-1 defeat to Dunfermline Athletic, before a decent crowd.

Last season, Berwick missed out on a play-off place in League Two in Scotland when they finished fifth, behind Clyde, losing to league champions Peterhead in the final game of the season.

Like other clubs, Berwick Rangers have faced the threat of extinction a couple of times. However, the team are unusual because they are based in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a border town three miles inside England that swapped hands frequently during centuries of border wars.

The decision to play in Scottish leagues was made by necessity rather than choice a century ago, when clubs in northeast England refused to travel so far north on poor roads.


Berwick is used to being on the edge. Today, the town of 15,000 looks on with interest, perhaps even with a degree of concern, at the Scottish independence referendum debate, and the implications that a Yes vote could have for it.

Roderick Henriques, who runs Berrydin Books, is clear about his views. “I hope it never happens,” he says passionately.

Henriques, who came to Northumberland from London 30 years ago, believes “borders divide people, they create divisions”, even if the intentions of those who want them are more benign.

Once prosperous

In a street near the docks that once brought prosperity to Berwick when it exported salmon from the Tweed to the tables of the rich in London, Christine MacDonald stands behind the counter of her recently opened shop, Scottish Kelpie.

Scottish-born MacDonald, who came to live in Berwick six months ago to open her business selling jewellery, soaps and aromatherapies, knows how she would vote if she was back in Scotland.

“I know a lot of people here who would like Berwick to be part of Scotland, as it was so often in the past,” she says. “Years ago, I thought Scotland couldn’t do it, but I have changed my mind.”

The border town has come on to the radar of Westminster in the past year following the decision of long-serving Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith to stand down.

The Conservatives have ambitions to replace him, which explains the rush to visit by senior figures such as British home secretary Theresa May and justice secretary Chris Grayling in recent months. Last week, it was chancellor George Osborne's turn, though the primary purpose of his visit was to stand with Conservative candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan on the side of the A1 road.

The road – the main artery from Newcastle to Scotland – must be turned into a dual carriageway, Northumberland council has told Osborne, promising a £380 million (€480 million) payback if the work is done.

Since 1999, northeast England has looked on with growing concern at Scotland’s use of the limited economic levers it enjoys under devolution.

However, it was not, perhaps, until 2011 that concern changed to alarm. Partly on the back of Scottish grants, Amazon decided to establish a distribution hub in Dunfermline, employing 800 staff, along with 500 more in an operations centre in Edinburgh. Both operations have grown since.

Tyneside in northeast England had been in the running for the jobs. That defeat, coupled with the Conservatives’ decision to scrap regional development agencies, increased local fears that the northeast was losing out.

Delaying investment

Today, the North East Chamber of Commerce in Newcastle warns that one in eight firms based in the region are holding off on investment plans until the uncertainty created by the referendum is resolved, one way or the other.

Yet a demand for local “home rule” in the northeast is still slow to grow. Ten years ago, voters there overwhelmingly rejected a Labour plan for regional assemblies, believing they were being offered yet another talking shop.

The effects of Scottish home rule are already visible daily to Berwick, as illustrated by local newspaper editor Phil Johnson, who publishes the Berwick Advertiser for his readers in England and the Berwickshire News for those in Scotland.

Like many others working in Berwick, Johnson lives in Scotland, in Coldstream. Recently, he forgot to drop into a chemist near his home to pick up a prescription, where it would have cost him nothing because the Scottish NHS does not charge for them.

Instead, he went to a chemist near his office in Berwick during his lunch break. There, it cost £8.05 for each item, because the NHS in England does charge for them. “People in Berwick don’t resent Scots having free prescriptions,” he says, “but they are aware of it.”