Thursday, April 9, 2009


For several years—incredible as it may seem—a tiny, somewhat Pooterish, but nevertheless intriguing question has been rattling around in my head for which I could find no answer, until now.

It never seemed important enough to justify expending any serious amount of time and energy on fiddly research, but since I have regularly asked colleagues (as casually as possible, because, let’s face it, you don’t want to seem too bonkers) and have consistently drawn a blank, I have become more and more determined to get to the bottom of the matter.

In a brief article for that superlative organ the La Trobe Journal (editor: John Arnold of Monash, a brick), I have edited and put in its context a remarkable letter of introduction that has since 1854 slumbered peacefully in the Public Record Office of Victoria. It was written in favor of Andrew and Georgiana McCrae by the Dowager Duchess of Gordon to Lord Hotham (the cousin of the Governor Sir Charles Hotham).

At the head of the Duchess’s monogrammed notepaper Her Grace scribbled the address and date: “Huntly Lodge [in Aberdeenshire, above] / N.B. / April 14. 1854”.


No, not “Northampton and Bath,” nor (of course) “New Brunswick,” nor “nota bene,” nor indeed “Naphthyl Butyrate,” nor (God help us) “narrowband” (a hilarious suggestion from one of our young Yale graduate students who, but for this extraordinary lapse—after all, he or she knew that I was talking about an item of handwritten correspondence dated 1854—seems fairly bright in every other respect).

Finally, yesterday, with the effortlessness of the deeply learned, my distinguished senior colleague Emeritus Professor David Bindman of University College London and Harvard instantly came up with the answer: “North Britain.”

The old terms “North Briton” and “North Britain,” meaning “Scot” and “Scotland” respectively, came into vogue after the Act of Union (1707) but were thoroughly revived in the Regency period thanks to Sir Walter Scott, notwithstanding all that tartan, caber-tossing, and gloomy Scottish scenery in the Waverley novels—the bloodthirsty clashes of warring clans.

The use of “N.B.” in personal correspondence up to the mid-nineteenth century was largely confined to Scots of the Duchess of Gordon’s class and generation who were inclined to see Scottish national identity as bound harmoniously to the concept of a greater Britain, and not fiercely autonomous, nor indeed proudly anti-English.

It was especially useful when addressing northern English gentlemen such as Lord Hotham whose traditional tendency was to be deeply suspicious of anything and anybody north of the border. The closer to Scotland they lived, the more suspicious they often were, and, though not a borderer, Lord Hotham certainly was a Yorkshireman.

This quaint usage seems to have died out soon after Sir Rowland Hill’s Post Office tactfully pointed out that “N.B.” was too easily confused with “[London] N8.”

However, the story does not end there.

In an astonishing convergence of separate articles of correspondence, as different as it is possible for any two letters to be, I now find that as recently as 1926, our great-grandfather, J. W. Trumble, that well-respected Australian country solicitor and senior statesman of test cricket, wrote a somewhat leaden (and, it must be admitted, tedious) critique of the then parlous state of test wickets on both sides of the globe. He was just then on a golfing holiday in Scotland, and his letter to the editor of The Times newspaper, which was published on July 30 (p. 15), gives the following address: “Ugadale Arms Hotel, Machrihanish, Campbeltown, N.B.”

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