British And Foreign by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

Strictly speaking, there is nothing really and truly British; everybody and everything is a naturalised alien. Viewed as Britons, we all of us, human and animal, differ from one another simply in the length of time we and our ancestors have continuously inhabited this favoured and foggy isle of Britain. Look, for example, at the men and women of us. Some of us, no doubt, are more or less remotely of Norman blood, and came over, like that noble family the Slys, with Richard Conqueror. Others of us, perhaps, are in the main Scandinavian, and date back a couple of generations earlier, to the bare-legged followers of Canute and Guthrum. Yet others, once more, are true Saxon Englishmen, descendants of Hengest, if there ever was a Hengest, or of Horsa, if a genuine Horsa ever actually existed. None of these, it is quite clear, have any just right or title to be considered in the last resort as true-born Britons; they are all of them just as much foreigners at bottom as the Spitalfields Huguenots or the Pembrokeshire Flemings, the Italian organ-boy and the Hindoo prince disguised as a crossing-sweeper. But surely the Welshman and the Highland Scot at least are undeniable Britishers, sprung from the soil and to the manner born! Not a bit of it; inexorable modern science, diving back remorselessly into the remoter past, traces the Cymry across the face of Germany, and fixes in shadowy hypothetical numbers the exact date, to a few centuries, of the first prehistoric Gaelic invasion. Even the still earlier brown Euskarians and yellow Mongolians, who held the land before the advent of the ancient Britons, were themselves immigrants; the very Autochthones in person turn out, on close inspection, to be vagabonds and wanderers and foreign colonists. In short, man as a whole is not an indigenous animal at all in the British Isles. Be he who he may, when we push his pedigree back to its prime original, we find him always arriving in the end by the Dover steamer or the Harwich packet. Five years, in fact, are quite sufficient to give him a legal title to letters of naturalisation, unless indeed he be a German grand-duke, in which case he can always become an Englishman off-hand by Act of Parliament.

It is just the same with all the other animals and plants that now inhabit these isles of Britain. If there be anything at all with a claim to be considered really indigenous, it is the Scotch ptarmigan and the Alpine hare, the northern holygrass and the mountain flowers of the Highland summits. All the rest are sojourners and wayfarers, brought across as casuals, like the gipsies and the Oriental plane, at various times to the United Kingdom, some of them recently, some of them long ago, but not one of them (it seems), except the oyster, a true native. The common brown rat, for instance, as everybody knows, came over, not, it is true, with William the Conqueror, but with the Hanoverian dynasty and King George I. of blessed memory. The familiar cockroach, or ‘black beetle,’ of our lower regions, is an Oriental importation of the last century. The hum of the mosquito is now just beginning to be heard in the land, especially in some big London hotels. The Colorado beetle is hourly expected by Cunard steamer. The Canadian roadside erigeron is well established already in the remoter suburbs; the phylloxera battens on our hothouse vines; the American river-weed stops the navigation on our principal canals. The Ganges and the Mississippi have long since flooded the tawny Thames, as Juvenal’s cynical friend declared the Syrian Orontes had flooded the Tiber. And what has thus been going on slowly within the memory of the last few generations has been going on constantly from time immemorial, and peopling Britain in all its parts with its now existing fauna and flora.

But if all the plants and animals in our islands are thus ultimately imported, the question naturally arises, What was there in Great Britain and Ireland before any of their present inhabitants came to inherit them? The answer is, succinctly, Nothing. Or if this be a little too extreme, then let us imitate the modesty of Mr. Gilbert’s hero and modify the statement into Hardly anything. In England, as in Northern Europe generally, modern history begins, not with the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but with the passing away of the Glacial Epoch. During that great age of universal ice our Britain, from end to end, was covered at various times by sea and by glaciers; it resembled on the whole the cheerful aspect of Spitzbergen or Nova Zembla at the present day. A few reindeer wandered now and then over its frozen shores; a scanty vegetation of the correlative reindeer-moss grew with difficulty under the sheets and drifts of endless snow; a stray walrus or an occasional seal basked in the chilly sunshine on the ice-bound coast. But during the greatest extension of the North-European ice-sheet it is probable that life in London was completely extinct; the metropolitan area did not even vegetate. Snow and snow and snow and snow was then the short sum-total of British scenery. Murray’s Guides were rendered quite unnecessary, and penny ices were a drug in the market. England was given up to one unchanging universal winter.

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Slowly, however, times altered, as they are much given to doing; and a new era dawned upon Britain. The thermometer rose rapidly, or at least it would have risen, with effusion, if it had yet been invented. The land emerged from the sea, and southern plants and animals began to invade the area that was afterwards to be England, across the broad belt which then connected us with the Continental system. But in those days communications were slow and land transit difficult. You had to foot it. The European fauna and flora moved but gradually and tentatively north-westward, and before any large part of it could settle in England our island was finally cut off from the mainland by the long and gradual wearing away of the cliffs at Dover and Calais. That accounts for the comparative poverty of animal and vegetable life in England, and still more for its extreme paucity and meagreness in Ireland and the Highlands. It has been erroneously asserted, for example, that St. Patrick expelled snakes and lizards, frogs and toads, from the soil of Erin. This detail, as the French newspapers politely phrase it, is inexact. St. Patrick did not expel the reptiles, because there were never any reptiles in Ireland (except dynamiters) for him to expel. The creatures never got so far on their long and toilsome north-westward march before St. George’s Channel intervened to prevent their passage across to Dublin. It is really, therefore, to St. George, rather than to St. Patrick, that the absence of toads and snakes from the soil of Ireland is ultimately due. The doubtful Cappadocian prelate is well known to have been always death on dragons and serpents.

As long ago as the sixteenth century, indeed, Verstegan the antiquary clearly saw that the existence of badgers and foxes in England implied the former presence of a belt of land joining the British Islands to the Continent of Europe; for, as he acutely observed, nobody (before fox-hunting, at least) would ever have taken the trouble to bring them over. Still more does the presence in our islands of the red deer, and formerly of the wild white cattle, the wolf, the bear, and the wild boar, to say nothing of the beaver, the otter, the squirrel, and the weasel, prove that England was once conterminous with France or Belgium. At the very best of times, however, before Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel had killed positively the last ‘last wolf’ in Britain (several other ‘last wolves’ having previously been despatched by various earlier intrepid exterminators), our English fauna was far from a rich one, especially as regards the larger quadrupeds. In bats, birds, and insects we have always done better, because to such creatures a belt of sea is not by any means an insuperable barrier; whereas in reptiles and amphibians, on the contrary, we have always been weak, seeing that most reptiles are bad swimmers, and very few can rival the late lamented Captain Webb in his feat of crossing the Channel, as Leander and Lord Byron did the Hellespont.

Only one good-sized animal, so far as known, is now peculiar to the British Isles, and that is our familiar friend the red grouse of the Scotch moors. I doubt, however, whether even he is really indigenous in the strictest sense of the word: that is to say, whether he was evolved in and for these islands exclusively, as the moa and the apteryx were evolved for New Zealand, and the extinct dodo for Mauritius alone. It is far more probable that the red grouse is the original variety of the willow grouse of Scandinavia, which has retained throughout the year its old plumage, while its more northern cousins among the fiords and fjelds have taken, under stress of weather, to donning a complete white dress in winter, and a grey or speckled tourist suit for the summer season.

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Even since the insulation of Britain a great many new plants and animals have been added to our population, both by human design and in several other casual fashions. The fallow deer is said to have been introduced by the Romans, and domesticated ever since in the successive parks of Celt and Saxon, Dane and Norman. The edible snail, still scattered thinly over our southern downs, and abundant at Box Hill and a few other spots in Surrey or Sussex, was brought over, they tell us, by the same luxurious Italian epicures, and is even now confined, imaginative naturalists declare, to the immediate neighbourhood of Roman stations. The mediaeval monks, in like manner, introduced the carp for their Friday dinners. One of our commonest river mussels at the present day did not exist in England at all a century ago, but was ferried hither from the Volga, clinging to the bottoms of vessels from the Black Sea, and has now spread itself through all our brooks and streams to the very heart and centre of England. Thus, from day to day, as in society at large, new introductions constantly take place, and old friends die out for ever. The brown rat replaces the old English black rat; strange weeds kill off the weeds of ancient days; fresh flies and grubs and beetles crop up, and disturb the primitive entomological balance. The bustard is gone from Salisbury Plain; the fenland butterflies have disappeared with the drainage of the fens. In their place the red-legged partridge invades Norfolk; the American black bass is making himself quite at home, with Yankee assurance, in our sluggish rivers; and the spoonbill is nesting of its own accord among the warmer corners of the Sussex downs.

In the plant world, substitution often takes place far more rapidly. I doubt whether the stinging nettle, which renders picnicking a nuisance in England, is truly indigenous; certainly the two worst kinds, the smaller nettle and the Roman nettle, are quite recent denizens, never straying, even at the present day, far from the precincts of farmyards and villages. The shepherd’s-purse and many other common garden weeds of cultivation are of Eastern origin, and came to us at first with the seed-corn and the peas from the Mediterranean region. Corn-cockles and corn-flowers are equally foreign and equally artificial; even the scarlet poppy, seldom found except in wheat-fields or around waste places in villages, has probably followed the course of tillage from some remote and ancient Eastern origin. There is a pretty blue veronica which was unknown in England some thirty years since, but which then began to spread in gardens, and is now one of the commonest and most troublesome weeds throughout the whole country. Other familiar wild plants have first been brought over as garden flowers. There is the wall-flower, for instance, now escaped from cultivation in every part of Britain, and mantling with its yellow bunches both old churches and houses and also the crannies of the limestone cliffs around half the shores of England. The common stock has similarly overrun the sea-front of the Isle of Wight; the monkey-plant, originally a Chilian flower, has run wild in many boggy spots in England and Wales; and a North American balsam, seldom cultivated even in cottage gardens, has managed to establish itself in profuse abundance along the banks of the Wey about Guildford and Godalming. One little garden linaria, at first employed as an ornament for hanging-baskets, has become so common on old walls and banks as to be now considered a mere weed, and exterminated accordingly by fashionable gardeners. Such are the unaccountable reverses of fortune, that one age will pay fifty guineas a bulb for a plant which the next age grubs up unanimously as a vulgar intruder. White of Selborne noticed with delight in his own kitchen that rare insect, the Oriental cockroach, lately imported; and Mr. Brewer observed with joy in his garden at Reigate the blue Buxbaum speedwell, which is now the acknowledged and hated pest of the Surrey agriculturist.

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The history of some of these waifs and strays which go to make up the wider population of Britain is indeed sufficiently remarkable. Like all islands, England has a fragmentary fauna and flora, whose members have often drifted towards it in the most wonderful and varied manner. Sometimes they bear witness to ancient land connections, as in the case of the spotted Portuguese slug which Professor Allman found calmly disporting itself on the basking cliffs in the Killarney district. In former days, when Spain and Ireland joined hands in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, the ancestors of this placid Lusitanian mollusk must have ranged (good word to apply to slugs) from the groves of Cintra to the Cove of Cork. But, as time rolled on, the cruel crawling sea rolled on also, and cut away all the western world from the foot of the Asturias to Macgillicuddy’s Reeks. So the spotted slug continued to survive in two distinct and divided bodies, a large one in South-western Europe, and a small isolated colony, all alone by itself, around the Kerry mountains and the Lakes of Killarney. At other times pure accident accounts for the presence of a particular species in the mainlands of Britain. For example, the Bermuda grass-lily, a common American plant, is known in a wild state nowhere in Europe save at a place called Woodford, in county Galway. Nobody ever planted it there; it has simply sprung up from some single seed, carried over, perhaps, on the feet of a bird, or cast ashore by the Gulf Stream on the hospitable coast of Western Ireland. Yet there it has flourished and thriven ever since, a naturalised British subject of undoubted origin, without ever spreading to north or south above a few miles from its adopted habitat.

There are several of these unconscious American importations in various parts of Britain, some of them, no doubt, brought over with seed-corn or among the straw of packing-cases, but others unconnected in any way with human agency, and owing their presence here to natural causes. That pretty little Yankee weed, the claytonia, now common in parts of Lancashire and Oxfordshire, first made its appearance amongst us, I believe, by its seeds being accidentally included with the sawdust in which Wenham Lake ice is packed for transport. The Canadian river-weed is known first to have escaped from the botanical gardens at Cambridge, whence it spread rapidly through the congenial dykes and sluices of the fen country, and so into the entire navigable network of the Midland counties. But there are other aliens of older settlement amongst us, aliens of American origin which nevertheless arrived in Britain, in all probability, long before Columbus ever set foot on the low basking sandbank of Cat Island. Such is the jointed pond-sedge of the Hebrides, a water-weed found abundantly in the lakes and tarns of the Isle of Skye, Mull and Coll, and the west coast of Ireland, but occurring nowhere else throughout the whole expanse of Europe or Asia. How did it get there? Clearly its seeds were either washed by the waves or carried by birds, and thus deposited on the nearest European shores to America. But if Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace had been alive in pre-Columban days (which, as Euclid remarks, is absurd), he would readily have inferred, from the frequent occurrence of such unknown plants along the western verge of Britain, that a great continent lay unexplored to the westward, and would promptly have proceeded to discover and annex it. As Mr. Wallace was not yet born, however, Columbus took a mean advantage over him, and discovered it first by mere right of primogeniture.

In other cases, the circumstances under which a particular plant appears in England are often very suspicious. Take the instance of the belladonna, or deadly nightshade, an extremely rare British species, found only in the immediate neighbourhood of old castles and monastic buildings. Belladonna, of course, is a deadly poison, and was much used in the half-magical, half-criminal sorceries of the Middle Ages. Did you wish to remove a troublesome rival or an elder brother, you treated him to a dose of deadly nightshade. Yet why should it, in company with many other poisonous exotics, be found so frequently around the ruins of monasteries? Did the holy fathers–but no, the thought is too irreverent. Let us keep our illusions, and forget the friar and the apothecary in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’

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Belladonna has never fairly taken root in English soil. It remains, like the Roman snail and the Portuguese slug, a mere casual straggler about its ancient haunts. But there are other plants which have fairly established their claim to be considered as native-born Britons, though they came to us at first as aliens and colonists from foreign parts. Such, to take a single case, is the history of the common alexanders, now a familiar weed around villages and farmyards, but only introduced into England as a pot-herb about the eighth or ninth century. It was long grown in cottage gardens for table purposes, but has for ages been superseded in that way by celery. Nevertheless, it continues to grow all about our lanes and hedges, side by side with another quaintly-named plant, bishop-weed or gout-weed, whose very titles in themselves bear curious witness to its original uses in this isle of Britain. I don’t know why, but it is an historical fact that the early prelates of the English Church, saintly or otherwise, were peculiarly liable to that very episcopal disease, the gout. Whether their frequent fasting produced this effect; whether, as they themselves piously alleged, it was due to constant kneeling on the cold stones of churches; or whether, as their enemies rather insinuated, it was due in greater measure to the excellent wines presented to them by their Italian confreres, is a minute question to be decided by Mr. Freeman, not by the present humble inquirer. But the fact remains that bishops and gout got indelibly associated in the public mind; that the episcopal toes were looked upon as especially subject to that insidious disease up to the very end of the last century; and that they do say the bishops even now–but I refrain from the commission of scandalum magnatum. Anyhow, this particular weed was held to be a specific for the bishop’s evil; and, being introduced and cultivated for the purpose, it came to be known indifferently to herbalists as bishop-weed and gout-weed. It has now long since ceased to be a recognised member of the British Pharmacopoeia, but, having overrun our lanes and thickets in its flush period, it remains to this day a visible botanical and etymological memento of the past twinges of episcopal remorse.

Taken as a whole, one may fairly say that the total population of the British Isles consists mainly of three great elements. The first and oldest–the only one with any real claim to be considered as truly native–is the cold Northern, Alpine and Arctic element, comprising such animals as the white hare of Scotland, the ptarmigan, the pine marten, and the capercailzie–the last once extinct, and now reintroduced into the Highlands as a game bird. This very ancient fauna and flora, left behind soon after the Glacial Epoch, and perhaps in part a relic of the type which still struggled on in favoured spots during that terrible period of universal ice and snow, now survives for the most part only in the extreme north and on the highest and chilliest mountain-tops, where it has gradually been driven, like tourists in August, by the increasing warmth and sultriness of the southern lowlands. The summits of the principal Scotch hills are occupied by many Arctic plants, now slowly dying out, but lingering yet as last relics of that old native British flora. The Alpine milk vetch thus loiters among the rocks of Braemar and Clova; the Arctic brook-saxifrage flowers but sparingly near the summit of Ben Lawers, Ben Nevis, and Lochnagar; its still more northern ally, the drooping saxifrage, is now extinct in all Britain, save on a single snowy Scotch height, where it now rarely blossoms, and will soon become altogether obsolete. There are other northern plants of this first and oldest British type, like the Ural oxytrope, the cloudberry, and the white dryas, which remain as yet even in the moors of Yorkshire, or over considerable tracts in the Scotch Highlands; there are others restricted to a single spot among the Welsh hills, an isolated skerry among the outer Hebrides, or a solitary summit in the Lake District. But wherever they linger, these true-born Britons of the old rock are now but strangers and outcasts in the land; the intrusive foreigner has driven them to die on the cold mountain-tops, as the Celt drove the Mongolian to the hills, and the Saxon, in turn, has driven the Celt to the Highlands and the islands. Yet as late as the twelfth century itself, even the true reindeer, the Arctic monarch of the Glacial Epoch, was still hunted by Norwegian jarls of Orkney on the mainland of Caithness and Sutherlandshire.

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Second in age is the warm western and south-western type, the type represented by the Portuguese slug, the arbutus trees and Mediterranean heaths of the Killarney district, the flora of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, and the peculiar wild flowers of South Wales, Devonshire, and the west country generally. This class belongs by origin to the submerged land of Lyonesse, the warm champaign country that once spread westward over the Bay of Biscay, and derived from the Gulf Stream the genial climate still preserved by its last remnants at Tresco and St. Mary’s. The animals belonging to this secondary stratum of our British population are few and rare, but of its plants there are not a few, some of them extending over the whole western shores of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, wherever they are washed by the Gulf Stream, and others now confined to particular spots, often with the oddest apparent capriciousness. Thus, two or three southern types of clover are peculiar to the Lizard Point, in Cornwall; a little Spanish and Italian restharrow has got stranded in the Channel Islands and on the Mull of Galloway; the spotted rock-rose of the Mediterranean grows only in Kerry, Galway, and Anglesea; while other plants of the same warm habit are confined to such spots as Torquay, Babbicombe, Dawlish, Cork, Swansea, Axminster, and the Scilly Isles. Of course, all peninsulas and islands are warmer in temperature than inland places, and so these relics of the lost Lyonesse have survived here and there in Cornwall, Carnarvonshire, Kerry, and other very projecting headlands long after they have died out altogether from the main central mass of Britain. South-western Ireland in particular is almost Portuguese in the general aspect of its fauna and flora.

Third and latest of all in time, though almost contemporary with the southern type, is the central European or Germanic element in our population. Sad as it is to confess it, the truth must nevertheless be told, that our beasts and birds, our plants and flowers, are for the most part of purely Teutonic origin. Even as the rude and hard-headed Anglo-Saxon has driven the gentle, poetical, and imaginative Celt ever westward before him into the hills and the sea, so the rude and vigorous Germanic beasts and weeds have driven the gentler and softer southern types into Wales and Cornwall, Galloway and Connemara. It is to the central European population that we owe or owed the red deer, the wild boar, the bear, the wolf, the beaver, the fox, the badger, the otter, and the squirrel. It is to the central European flora that we owe the larger part of the most familiar plants in all eastern and southeastern England. They crossed in bands over the old land belt before Britain was finally insulated, and they have gone on steadily ever since, with true Teutonic persistence, overrunning the land and pushing slowly westward, like all other German bands before or since, to the detriment and discomfort of the previous inhabitants. Let us humbly remember that we are all of us at bottom foreigners alike, but that it is the Teutonic English, the people from the old Low Dutch fatherland by the Elbe, who have finally given to this isle its name of England, and to every one of us, Celt or Teuton, their own Teutonic name of Englishmen. We are at best, as an irate Teuton once remarked, ‘nozzing but segond-hand Chermans.’ In the words of a distinguished modern philologist of our own blood, ‘English is Dutch, spoken with a Welsh accent.’

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