What might a land border between the United Kingdom and a separate Scotland look like?

England – Scotland border (from Map of UK)

The December 2019 general election result, and the SNP’s response to it, has brought the question of a future border between the UK and a separate Scotland back into focus. Three comments chosen almost at random make the point:

  • from Philip Sim, political reporter on the BBC website – ‘The [EU] accession criteria throw up a whole series of questions about things like currency, deficit levels and borders … The first minister also wants to avoid a hard border between Scotland and England’
  • from Andy Maciver on conservativehome – ‘the SNP’s position on rejoining the EU could easily become toxic when we start discussing a customs border at Gretna’
  • and from Professor Richard Rose of King’s College –  ‘a post-Brexit Scottish application to join the European Union faces a big problem. For consistency with the EU’s requirement of a border in the Irish Sea to protect its member states from trade competition from a non-member state, it should make a land border between Scotland and England a condition of Scotland becoming an EU member state’.

With a Conservative government in place presumably for five years and a prime minister confirming to Nicola Sturgeon that he will not agree another Scottish referendum in that period, the question of a UK/Scotland land border might seem hypothetical. But we now have two governments whose aspirations in relation to the EU are diametrically opposed. The UK will shortly leave both the customs (i.e. tariff) union and the single market, with its free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. A separate SNP Scotland would seek and presumably eventually achieve EU membership and therefore become part of both the single market and customs union.

These factors suggest strongly that the land border between the UK and a separate Scotland would be subject to some sort of controls for both people and goods.

What might those controls look like?

To dispose of one possibility straight away, the current proposals for Northern Ireland are unlikely to be a model for UK/Scotland. In many ways Ireland is a special case and it’s not yet entirely clear if or how those proposals could work in practice. And Northern Ireland has no land border with the rest of the UK.

Existing EU land border arrangements with non-EU states can provide a starting point for exploring the subject.

A while ago, the BBC looked at three examples of EU/non-EU borders – Sweden/Norway, Bulgaria/Turkey, and France/Switzerland.

Although each is different, they have in common that the EU has some arrangement with the countries concerned that are more thoroughgoing than the Brexit agreement:

  • Norway is not in the customs union, but is a part of the single market through its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA). That means it abides by the EU’s four freedoms, including the movement of labour
  • Turkey is not part of the single market but is in a customs union with the EU
  • Switzerland is not in the customs union but is in effect in the single market through a series of bilateral agreements.

To summarise:

EU external land borders

In other words, the three existing non-EU states all have a closer relationship with the EU in terms of markets and tariffs than the UK would have with Scotland after it became separate. In that circumstance, it seems unavoidable that a border between the UK and Scotland would have at least the level of demarcation and control of one of the existing examples (although probably more).

The rest of this post deals first with likely controls at border road crossings, second with rail links and thirdly with other issues, some unconsidered in public until now. It ends with some general conclusions.

Border road crossings

The border between Scotland and England is 96 miles long (Wikipedia). Working from the Ordnance Survey’s free large-scale online map (which however does not show the border) and Google maps/satellite imagery (which does), 25 public roads can be identified that cross the border. From West to East they are:

  • B7076 South of Gretna
  • A74M/M6 South of Gretna (trunk – strategic – road on both sides of the border)
  • unnamed road at Plump Bridge joining Gretna and Blackbank
  • unnamed road between Corries Mill and Sarkhall
  • unnamed road between Milltown and Sarkhall
  • A7 at Scotsdyke (trunk road on Scottish side of the border)
  • B6318 crossing Liddell Water
  • unnamed road between B6357 and Kersehopefoot
  • unnamed road over Kersehope Burn
  • a second unnamed road over Kershope Burn
  • unnamed road over River North Tyne North of Deadwater
  • A68 at Carter Bar (trunk road on Scottish side of the border)
  • unnamed road North East of Yetholm Mains
  • B6352 North of Venchen Toll House
  • unnamed road South of No Man’s Land Wood
  • unnamed road North of No Man’s Land Wood
  • B6396 – where the border runs along a short stretch of the road
  • unnamed road North of B6396
  • B6350 West of Carham
  • A697 over River Tweed
  • B6470 over River Tweed
  • unnamed road at Union Bridge over R Tweed
  • B6461 over Whiteadder Water
  • unnamed road running South – North along the border North of Whiteadder Water and crossing A6105
  • A1 (trunk road on both sides of the border).

These images give an idea of the range of current road crossings, from the largest to one of the smallest:

                       M6/A74M                                         Unnamed road over Kersehope Burn

(Different scale – obviously. Both views looking North into Scotland)

With the UK in neither the customs union nor the single market, both countries (and the EU itself) would surely require some physical inspection and control on the movement of both goods and people across the border.

This would probably be easier to achieve with the movement of goods. It seems unlikely that either side would want uncontrolled and unrecorded goods crossing the border on minor roads. A prohibition on the use of minor roads would have to be enforced either through closing or cutting the roads themselves (discussed later) and/or the institution of mobile border patrols to police their use, probably on a random or sample basis.

How many permitted and controlled crossings might the two states agree to allow for the movement of goods?

Current designations might give a clue. Five major ‘A’ roads cross the border at present. The English Highways Agency recognises two as trunk roads – the M6, which morphs into the A74M at the border, and the A1. Transport Scotland, using different criteria, also defines the A7 and A68 as trunk roads as far as the border. It measures the number of vehicles including HGVs (Heavy Goods Vehicles, in which most road-borne freight is carried) crossing the border. Their statistics are partial, but the following rough estimates can be made for 2017:

* – missing data: these figures are my estimates assuming 20% of daily flow

Source: Scottish Transport Statistics No 37 2018 Edition, Table 5.7(a)

Total number of vehicles and HGVs crossing the border, 2017

These are rough and ready calculations. Anyone knowing of better estimates is welcome to add their information as a comment to this post. They suggest that in total at least 10,000 HGVs cross the border on average every day of the year. Most will of course be from Scotland or England but others will come from other EU and even non-EU states. The  assumption henceforth here is that the UK and a separate Scotland would agree that commercial/HGV traffic should be channelled via four routes – M6/A74M, A7, A68, and A1. On average, that’s one crossing every 24 miles, which seems not unreasonable for an international border.

Let’s revert to the three examples of EU/non-EU borders mentioned above for guidance on how those crossing points might look for trade in goods. Discount the Bulgaria/Turkish border. Although the EU has a customs union with Turkey there are a number of issues between the two sides that contribute to long tailbacks at the main border crossing points. When the current Google satellite imagery was taken at the Kapikule crossing referenced by the BBC, there was a queue of waiting HGVs 20 km back on the Bulgarian side to beyond the town of Svilengrad. Notwithstanding any post-Scexit tetchiness, it is difficult to imagine a similar situation between the UK and Scotland.

Focus instead on the most-used crossing between Sweden/Norway, Svinesund. Here, the two states operate their controls amicably and controls are concentrated on the Norwegian side of the border. An estimated 1,300 HGVs cross the border every day, not that different from the totals for three of the four main UK/Scotland crossing points, and precisely the estimated volume of HGV traffic on the border at the A1. Assume, although it’s by no means certain, that the UK and a separate Scotland were able to operate harmonious joint customs and immigration controls on the A1. If they were similar to Svinesund and if they straddled the border, this is what their footprint might look like (images are to the same scale):

Svinesund                                                                            A1               

The A1 image does not allow for connecting roads to the main highway.

Svinesund looks like this as you approach it from the Swedish side:

Svinesund – car/bus inspection area (left), entrance to commercial vehicle park (right)

The BBC reports that the average waiting time for HGVs at Svinesund is 20 minutes. Add in immigration checks likely to be required between Scotland and England (discussed below) as well as the possibility that both states might prefer to have their own separate facilities, and the chances are that the total area of any A1 border facilities would be considerably larger than Svinesund. The A7 and A68 crossings might be more modest in scale, but the M6/A74M crossing, with 3½ times the volume of traffic, would require considerably more space.

Here is the BBC’s third example, the Swiss/French border at Bardonnex, to the same scale as the images of Svinesund and the A1 above:

Swiss/French border, Bardonnex

The BBC claim that the average waiting time for HGVs at Bardonnex is anywhere between 20 minutes and two hours. In 2015 about 25,000 vehicles of all sorts crossed the border every day on average (source: Reuters), considerably less than the traffic on the M6/A74M.

As far as movement of people is concerned, controlling immigration was a major plank of the Brexit campaign. A border between the UK and Scotland without some sort of checks on people is highly unlikely. Even if there were some special arrangement allowing free access in either direction for UK and Scottish citizens, the UK would still wish to identify those crossing the border from third countries.

Numbers are not available for people crossing the border by road at present. Some may cross only once a year, others every day. Here is a guess at the minimum numbers that might be involved, based on the table above for the four main crossing points, and making an estimate for the other 21:

Estimated number of people crossing the border by road on an average day

That would mean about 29 million crossings by people per year, divided in unknown proportions between those heading South and those heading North.

People travelling to the UK at present will know the standard arrangements operated by UK Border Control. Incoming passengers pass through passport control which may be more or less automated, with different queues according to nationality. They then collect or make available their baggage for customs inspection, although the vast majority walk through unhindered with nothing to declare. Not dissimilar arrangements might be expected at staffed UK land border points.

What controls a separate Scotland might prefer is unknown but as an EU member it would have to allow free movement of labour from the 31 other countries of the European Economic Area (the 27 other EU states plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein). So even if there were some special arrangement for UK citizens, it would also have at the very least to check incomers to identify and control those from other non-EU countries.

Just as neither side would want uncontrolled and unrecorded goods crossing the border on minor roads, neither, especially perhaps the UK, would want uncontrolled and unrecorded citizens of other countries entering their territory. This would add to the likelihood of limits on the use of those minor roads, enforced either by the roads themselves being closed and/or the institution of mobile border patrols.

Border rail crossings

Only two railway lines cross the border – the London-Glasgow West Coast main line South of Gretna Green, and the London-Edinburgh East Coast main line North of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Up to date figures are not available for rail freight, but in 2012-13 8.4 million tonnes of freight crossed the border (Scottish Transport Statistics No 37 2018 Edition, Table 7.12 – link above). This compares with 32.8 million tonnes carried by HGVs in 2017 (Scottish Transport Statistics No 37 2018 Edition, Table 3.1). The single market/customs union differences already noted will mean some controls will be necessary but these could take place where trains start or end and require no infrastructure at the border itself.

Between them, the two lines carried a total of nine million passengers across the border in 2016-17 (Scottish Transport Statistics No 37 2018 Edition, Table 7.2). As with road passengers, immigration and customs checks would be needed, possibly for all passengers entering either state, possibly only for those from third countries. The Eurostar operation with trains from London to a limited range of continental destinations might provide a model for how those checks might be carried out – at the relevant termini. Also possible, though perhaps less likely, might be checks carried out on cross-border trains while they are running or physical border controls with trains halted or passengers even decanted at the nearest station on one or both sides of the border.

Some other issues­

The land border would pose some other issues that might need resolution.

First, except at major crossings it is substantially unmarked. Both the UK and Scotland would presumably want it physically marked on the ground in a consistent way throughout its length. That’s not an inherent problem but it would need to be done.

Second, there are a number of private crossings difficult to control that might need to be removed or whose use might need to be forbidden, for example:

A footbridge over the Kershope Burn (OS grid ref. NY 55847 88170) A ford over the River Sark East of Gretna (OS grid ref. NY 33062 69058)

Third, there is the interesting case of a long distance footpath, the Pennine Way. It runs North-South, mostly in England, but its Northern end is at Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. It first crosses the border North of the village of Byrness on the A68 in Northumberland. It then wends its way roughly North North East, criss-crossing the border a number of times and in places running along it. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that post-Scexit it might be terminated in England: the last thing the UK might want is a waymarked footpath funnelling small groups of illegal immigrants into a remote area of countryside to be picked up by unmarked vans on forestry tracks.

Finally, touched on above, there is the possibility that some of the dozen or so cross-border minor roads, even some of the seven ‘B’ roads, might be closed. This might be because of specific security concerns of either the UK or Scotland or decreased use as fewer local people drive a relatively short distance to use facilities that would now be in a foreign country. Excluding internal EU boundaries, virtually every international border has or evolves towards a pattern of relatively few road and rail border crossings.


A second Scottish referendum is highly unlikely over the next five years. But the general election result has brought the nature of a possible future international land border between Scotland and the UK back into prominence.

If the UK were no longer in the single market or customs union while an SNP Scotland was, it seems inevitable that the border between the two would have to be managed in some way to monitor and control the flow of both people and goods across it. Other external borders the EU has with its friendly neighbours of Norway and Switzerland can provide examples that are relevant to the UK/Scotland situation. But their relationship with the EU is closer than the UK’s will be. So any control on the UK/Scotland border itself will surely be at least as thorough, and probably more so.

The first minister is quoted above as saying she ‘wants to avoid a hard border’. But talk of a hard or soft border by any politician is unhelpful and aimed more at particular audiences they might wish to influence than the reality of what might happen.

The fact of the matter is that the border between the UK and a separate Scotland would probably be little different from most international borders in the world between states that are not hostile to each other. Crossings by both road and rail would be controlled in some way, there would be infrastructure at the border or elsewhere to enable that control, people and goods would be liable to inspection, the number of crossing points would probably be limited, and border patrols would keep an eye on the rest of the border.

Anyone proposing a significantly different alternative (whether ‘harder’ or ‘softer’) needs to argue from first principles as this article has sought to do.

Footnote: for convenience,  the two states post-Scexit have simply been labelled as the ‘UK’ and ‘Scotland’.

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3 Responses to What might a land border between the United Kingdom and a separate Scotland look like?

  1. Graeme Gardner says:

    An excellent read. I’ve been saying since 1995 that our unity as the UK is our best protection against the encroachments of the EU. If we are broken up into our constituent countries we will be subsumed into that EU political union planned for the future. The SNP had better explain to the Scottish people why Scotland must become a province in a Franco German led state in the years to come


  2. SN says:

    I’d argue that the daily flow over the A74M/M6 actually at the border would be considerably higher than that quoted, as the place of measure does not take into account the traffic volume joining/leaving the A75 – and the A75 figure available from Scottish Transport is probably low as their point of measure misses out the large number of people who commute between Dumfries and Carlisle.

    Carlisle’s influence as an economic centre spreads deep into Dumfries & Galloway, and I have little doubt that, in the event of an iScotland, any friction in border crossing, or loss of ease with which it is possible to live and work on separate sides of the border, would range from disastrous to catastrophic for the D&G economy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Roger White says:

      Thanks for the comment. Your local knowledge is better than mine and helps demonstrate how a more accurate picture could be built up to refine my first attempt to look realistically at the subject.


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