John White: Attitudes cross borders as easily as migrating birds and viral infections

The sign greeting people into Scotland. Pic CC/Tamsin Slater

By John White

Last week, it was with some trepidation that when reaching the junction on the road in front of Portree High School, instead of turning left to pick up prescriptions for Skye Community Response, to continue round the north loop road to Staffin, we turned right.

For the first time in three months we left Trotternish, passed Sligachan, Broadford, crossed the bridge and departed Skye.

Destination: England…

My father passed away last year and the family home has had to be sold.

An offer was accepted, but lockdown prevented the continuation of surveys and the legal paperwork.

As England opened up things started moving again, but we hadn’t finished clearing the house.

A journey to our neighbouring country and my childhood home was essential, so we drove south in an empty van.

The border….

I have driven the roads between Scotland and England countless times.

Scotland has a large blue road sign by a parking place, perhaps to allow people to stop for pictures?

By way of contrast England is barely marked. A small sign, hidden by an overgrown hedge, covered in algae, easily missed.

I often smile mischievously.

The indicator for the county of Cumbia is more evident, and at least clean.

One late evening last year I was driving this road, and temporary electric signs warned of an imminent road closure due to re-surfacing works.

If I drove hastily, I might just make it through. Rounding a corner, although with some frustration I burst into laughter.

The road was indeed blocked. Red closure signs, and a man in a hi-viz jacket flagging drivers down to tell them to turn back.

He looked at me with some confusion when I asked if England had declared independence. I don’t think he realised the barriers were exactly on the border.

The border…

Troubled crossings

When I was in Israel all those years ago on my motorcycle, I had wanted to ride through the Lebanon, then still a war torn troubled country.

I was advised by their embassy not to visit, but I still rode up to the border so at least I could see a bit of the ’Jewel of the Middle East’.

The border was horrible, functional, with rolls of barbed wire and high electric fences to prevent any passage.

As I rode a dirt track along the fence, it was not dissimilar to the famous scene in the film ‘The Great Escape’, where Steve McQueen rides his stolen motorcycle along the border to Switzerland.

At least I wasn’t being chased by soldiers, and I didn’t try jumping.

The border between Turkey and Greece had a sunken trough full of water, like a shallow oversized sheep dip.

I never knew if this was for the practical washing of vehicles as they drove through, to prevent spread of disease like was attempted here in Foot and Mouth, or was it a purely symbolic washing?

My motorbke, with Egyptian plates

The border into Egypt was more bureaucratic.

We didn’t have international papers for our motorcycles so although we were allowed in with our appropriate visas, our bikes were impounded until re-registered as Egyptian.

This took two days of visits to several offices, payments, some probably bribes, lengthy waits and countless forms all obviously written in Arabic, mostly signed in triplicate.

At least we were given impressive green number plates to strap on, unfortunately taken from us when leaving the country.

They would have made fabulous souvenirs.

My bike was officially SUZ 2095.


The most unnerving border I have ridden a motorcycle across was actually into the Republic of Ireland.

‘The troubles’ were still on going and I was stopped, and asked by a British soldier for my passport and vehicle papers.

To his side was a sand bagged bunker, and during the whole procedure another soldier had his gun trained on me.

A border, by definition, is a boundary line which separates one country from another.

This isn’t as simple as it sounds as there is debate as to what constitutes a country.

There are states, nations, dependencies, principalities and a confusion as to how many countries actually exist in the world.

Our own Islands provide a perfect example of this confusion.

Are we one country or four and how does the Isle of Man fit, not to mention the Principality of Sealand, an offshore platform in the North Sea owned by the Bates family, who declared independence in 1975!

The boundary of the Great Britain might seem obvious, as a country it is surrounded by sea, but where does Britain stop and Denmark begin. This might have been academic till oil and gas was discovered beneath the North Sea.

Cod wars

And then of course there is the fishing….

During the 1960s and 70s Iceland and Britain had confrontations over fishing rights, known as the ‘Cod Wars’ or ‘Landhelgisstríðin’ (the strife for territorial waters).

No lives were lost, but Navy warships had to protect fishing vessels and Icelandic coastguard boats dragged wire cutters to sever trawls from the British boats so both equipment and catch would be lost, and they would be forced back to port.

Borders will often follow a natural boundary, like a river, or the crest of a hill, but often they are arbitrary lines drawn on a map.

The writer Alistair Mackintosh states in his book on land ownership ‘Soil and Soul’: “A straight line in the landscape is the mark of a lawyer’s pen.”

Borders were often created with no thought as to people living on the lands, lands carved up by colonialists, the repercussions still evident in tribal strife today.

Borders become more complicated when economies and livelihoods are affected and how political decisions are made.

Face masks

The day we travelled south from Skye, face coverings had become compulsory in shops in Scotland, as yet the message in England is still confusing.

Having been an advocate of wearing one, I masked up when visiting a store just over the border.

Very few other people thought it necessary.

The coronavirus respects no boundaries, and can migrate ignoring political barriers whether wired and physical, or just signified by a change in tarmac and an illegible sign.

Whatever one’s view on Scottish independence and the machinations of a changing devolved power through Brexit and therefore the affect borders may have, attitudes can also cross borders just as easily as migrating birds and viral infections.

One hopes that debate rather than dogma will prevail when decisions are made, especially when affecting the health and well-being of the people and the creating of borders.