Ossetia's connection to Scotland

Rusiko Amirejibi-Mullen r.amirejibi-mullen at qmul.ac.uk
Mon Nov 3 11:04:06 UTC 2008

BBC , November 2

Hundreds of years ago, Ossetians roamed all over Western Europe, from  
the Caucasus to Scotland. As Tim Whewell reveals, the folk memories of  
these wanderings have lingered down the centuries, so that it can be  
hard to tell where myth ends and history begins. When the nights draw  
in in the high Caucasus, when the flocks are gathered in the shadow of  
the ancient stone towers that dot the wooded hillsides, and there is  
no sound outside but the chattering of the fast streams that run down  
from Ossetia towards Georgia, there is nothing the people like better  
than to settle down on the settee to watch an old DVD of Braveheart.  
So much do Ossetians love that 13th Century Scots patriot, that one  
told me he had made a pilgrimage to Edinburgh, only to find Wallace's  
statue disappointingly small and unimpressive. It is not hard to see  
why they identify with a ruthless fighter, romantically cruel, who  
defended his small mountainous homeland against a more powerful  
southern neighbour. For King Edward I of England, think President  
Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia. He attempted back in August to regain  
control of the separatist-held territory of South Ossetia, but was  
beaten back by Russia, assisted by Ossetian volunteers who cast  
themselves as modern Bravehearts. But the Ossetians are not just like  
the medieval Scots. As far as they are concerned, they are the Scots.  
And the Scots are them. Name that place Centuries ago, possibly during  
the great migrations of the Dark Ages, some of their ancestors went  
down from the Caucasus and set sail through the Black Sea, the  
Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and arrived eventually in a landscape  
they recognised: Caledonia. And how do we know they reached Britain?  
Easy: place names. Sitting over a pile of flat, greasy Ossetian cheese  
pies in a smoky cafe in Vladikavkaz, capital of Russian-ruled North  
Ossetia, and again later, sampling a cup of young, home-made wine in a  
war-damaged house in Tskhinvali - the capital of the much-disputed  
south - I am asked where I am from. "London," I say. "And what does  
the name mean?" I am asked. Of course, I do not know. But my hosts do.  
In Ossetian, London means "standing water". Belfast, in Ossetian,  
could be "broken spade". Orleans in France is "stopping place",  
because the Ossetians stopped there. And England's greatest national  
hero, King Arthur, was Ossetian too, apparently. His name means "solar  
fire". Understanding our ancestry Toponymy, the study of place names,  
has never been an overriding passion of the English.
Indeed, the more you travel, the more you realise that one of the more  
unusual things about people in the British Isles is their comparative  
lack of interest in their national origins. Some children are taught  
about the arrival of the first Saxons, or Frisians, Hengist and Horsa.  
Very few know the story of our legendary Trojan ancestor Corinius and  
his battle on the cliffs of Cornwall with the giant Gogmagog. Ossetian  
children know all about their forefathers' wanderings around Europe  
and how eventually their territory diminished again to those two  
little pockets on either side of the great Caucasian watershed, the  
southern one of which we heard so much about, so briefly, in August.  
But the Ossetians, in their glory days of continental mastery, were  
not known by that name. They were sometimes Sarmatians, and sometimes  
Alans. Every third Ossetian you meet now seems to be called Alan, and  
the north Ossetian republic, within Russia, is officially "Alania", as  
satisfying, I suppose, for Alans as it would be for me to live in  
Timia. If you are living in Bristol, Hove, Crewe or another place  
whose name you cannot instantly explain, I should start worrying  
Meanwhile, the Alans in the south now live, supposedly, in an  
independent state, a miniscule country of 50,000 people, recognised  
only by Russia, Nicaragua and Somalia. The rest of the world insists  
it is still part of Georgia, though the people I met there said that  
since the war they could never again live in one country with  
Georgians. What some dream of is a greater Ossetia, uniting north and  
south, a place where their ancient Iranian-linked language and  
swashbuckling culture can flourish, free of Georgia or Russia. And if  
they achieve that, they may want to expand still further to their  
older, wider stamping grounds. Those of you living in Ox-ford,  
New-castle, Red-bridge and anywhere else with an obvious derivation  
can sleep easy in the knowledge that you have a right to be there. But  
if you are living in Bris-tol, Hove, Crewe or another place whose name  
you cannot instantly explain, I should start worrying. The Alans are  
very mobile, and they have long memories.

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