Born in England, Play in Scotland

Amongst the ever sparse crowds of season ticket holders, irregular fans, interested day trippers and visiting support there is a telling story.  It’s a symbolic statement that somehow sums up the history of the Northumbrian town of Berwick upon Tweed.

Amongst the home fans in the now rugged muddy bowl that is Shielfield Park sits a tired looking St Georges Cross flag draped across a rusty terrace barrier.  Further back is tied a larger Union Jack flag tied to a fence with string.  It dwarfs the English flag nearby and is resplendent in the Berwick Rangers home colours of yellow and black.

Not 50 yards away the 25 rain-soaked away fans from East Stirling start up chants of a ’Flower of Scotland’, the often criticised yet universally recognised Scottish national anthem. In front of them is a St. Andrews Cross – the national flag of Scotland with ‘Shire’ on the front in bold lettering.   Almost half hearted in rendition, the home fans look on with almost unified indifference to the words, there is no kneejerk reaction and barely a word is said in reply.

This is not your average Saturday in the SPFL Scottish Third Division.  This is East Stirlingshire FC a team from Falkirk, who have come to northern England to watch their team play Berwick Rangers.  Both are a nation apart yet they have so much in common namely that they are two of the seemingly perennial strugglers of the Scottish football league set up.

This is a Scotland versus England domestic football match up in a town famed for being at a historical junction post at the border of the two nations of England and Scotland.

Berwick upon Tweed’s imposing medieval walls stand all around the town.  Many of them were built purely as defence fortifications, created between 1558 and 1570 to protect Queen Elizabeth I’s protestant England from the Catholic Scots and then allies across the North Sea – the French.

Although part of the ‘United Kingdom’ since 1603, Berwick’s history is one of conflict and an uneasy truce between the two neighbouring nations.  Now a picturesque yet quiet town in Northumberland, it remains split by the river Tweed and is home to charming landscape parks and countless historic remains. 

Only 4km separate Berwick upon Tweed from the land border with Scotland to the north.   

Despite the wedge of the winding river that draws a line down the middle of this market town there is only peace and tranquillity amongst its town folk.  All this contrasts greatly with the noise and chaos of many earlier historic battles. An abundance of architectural facets dotted around tell a tale of a rich cross nationalistic and historical past. 

Berwick’s name means ‘barley farm’ and by the late 12th century it had grown to be the wealthiest town in Scotland as an important strategic port facing across the North Sea to many of Europe’s biggest trading ports.  Amongst its exports was grain from the ‘bread basket’ of the Tweed Valley, a region that cuts across farmlands belonging to both Scots and English farmers.

Some of the town’s more important roads were laid out by soldiers who had returned from the Napoleonic wars in the 19th century. The foundations of the imposing Royal Border Bridge meanwhile (designed by the son of George Stephenson) were driven into the deep river bed by migrant Irish workers between the years of 1847 and 1850 and whose ancestors are still said to inhabit the town today.

Until the 19th century roads had been poor and it meant that large quantities of bulky goods had to be transported by sea.  Huge quantities of foodstuffs from Berwick went to London via the Tweed, stopping off on route at the more southerly Tyne for centuries to restock with coal.

Berwick’s sea trade was more known for its grain, eggs, butter, wool and herring.  The vessels that carried the commodities south were known as the ‘Berwick Smack’, a 70 feet long ship that had one sailing mast and could carry up to 100 to 120 tons of cargo to London.  Above all, these ships revolutionised the transportation of Salmon from the Tweed to London.

It was not until the 1950’s that Berwick Rangers became a fully fledged Scottish league club.  In 1951, Berwick Rangers became a Scottish Football League club when they were admitted to the Scottish League Division C (North & East).  This third tier of the game then was made up largely of reserve football sides.

Before than the club had played in the Scottish border league and the East of Scotland League after several attempts to join the North Northumberland league to the south were rebuffed.

By the 1950’s Berwick upon Tweed had become LS Lowry’s favourite holiday destination.  The town clock is instantly recognisable from his paintings made near the town walls where he would sit with brushes, colours and charcoal watching on as locals went about the daily grind.

Around this time Shielfield Park became the official home of Berwick Rangers. Prior to this the club had played against other borders clubs such as Selkirk, Hawick and Peebles Rovers near the seafront on a meadow in Tweedmouth, then on a pitch in Union Park.

By the 1930’s games began to be played at the Old Shielfield Park which stood adjacent to the current ground.

The new ground, opened in 1954, tells a story in the best Berwick traditions of ‘commodity, trade and transit’.  The original main stand was purchased from Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground, dismantled in Yorkshire and driven north to be reassembled by club officials and local fans.   The ground itself was opened with a game against Aston Villa.

Berwick Rangers modern history is almost as traumatic as that of the town itself back in medieval times.  Almost bankrupt on more than one occasion and contemplating a movement out of Shielfield Park, promotion winning years have almost always been met with subsequent relegations from a higher league not long after.  It has been a seemingly endless tale of triumph and disaster but like the town itself now stable.

Yet Shielfield Park remains one of the most distinctive traditional grounds in both Scottish and European football. The new main stand is roofed and sits opposite to the small ‘Ducket’ roofed terracing where fans from both sides of the national divide often stand on match day.  Both ends of the ground remain banked grassy turfed areas but these are largely unused except from when either Celtic or Rangers come to play.  The ground itself is more distinct for its dirty speedway track being the home of Berwick Bandits speedway team.

It can be lonely in Shielfield Park on matchday with the terraces bare and seldom busy.  On a windy day only the cold keeps you company.

Berwick Rangers meanwhile, like FC Vaduz in Switzerland or Derry City in the Irish League, remain one of only a handful of football teams to play in a national football league other than their own country’s.  Were the club ever to contemplate joining the English league set up in any one of the leagues below the regionalised Conference North, its likely players would be forced to travel hundreds of miles weekly to play games.

In Berwick many fans are adamant that they are English and their loyalty lies with Northumberland.   Audibly the local accent is more dominant in Geordie than it is in lowland Scots.  Moreover, it’s more often than not the black and white of Newcastle United rather than black and yellow of Berwick that can be seen around town every other Saturday.  Other locals do though feel an affinity to Scotland as they gaze often enviously over the border wishing they had free prescriptions, lower university fees and a fairer healthcare system.

Just a few miles from Shielfield Park, visiting fans returning home to Scotland go past a huge sign on the motorway that states ‘Welcome to Scotland’.  The sign is tellingly marked these days with hundreds of football fan stickers from numerous clubs from ‘Ayr United Fans on Tour’, ‘Clyde FC – Pride of Glasgow to ‘Rangers Ultras’.

On the English side there is no road sign, instead a trio of national flags – the St Georges Cross, the St Andrews saltire and the Union Jack – fly and flap in the wind. Each and every one all too similar to those flag that can be found on a match-day inside Shielfield Park.