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25 February 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:20pm

Two books about the Scottish-English border remind us of our impermanence

Graham Robb’s The Debatable Land and Rory Stewart’s The Marches dig into the history and culture of the borderlands.

By Alasdair McKillop

What a mess borders and unions have made of the British Isles. Like an old man after a tumble on the way to the shops, the country stands before Europe making sure the external features are happily as they should be while ignoring the internal damage. But it would be a mistake to think this discomfort is anything other than authentically British. Overlap, annexation, conquest, retreat, revision, compromise – these are the bones of our history.

In The Debatable Land, Graham Robb, whose previous work includes biographies of Balzac and Victor Hugo, provides a detailed account of a small area that long existed on either side of the current Anglo-Scottish border at the Solway end in Cumbria. The Debatable Land was once “a country independent of the two kingdoms… dating from a time when neither England nor Scotland nor the idea of them existed”. It was uninhabited from the end of the Bronze Age until the early 16th century when it became part of a wider campaign of border skirmishing and retaliation.

The territory became associated with raiding parties known as reivers. Licensed anarchy was permitted by the English and Scottish authorities, with reivers sometimes serving as unreliable mercenaries. After the Union of the Crowns, the borderlands were commanded to be peaceful and properly administered, requiring a brutal system of arbitrary justice, land division and banishment. This programme amounted to “one of the worst purges in British history” and there were no substantial references to the ancient Debatable Land after 1629.

The first part of the book takes the form of a travelogue as Robb explores the area around his new home to the south of the lost region. The middle section steadies into a clip-clopping, well-researched narrative, then suddenly Robb is explaining how he used Microsoft Paint to adjust ratios and co-ordinates from Ptolemy’s 2nd-century map of Britain and discovered an important new interpretation of the map, but the significance will be lost on the general reader. Rather than this show-your-working stuff, Robb is at his lovely best when describing landscape features such as the river “flowing against itself, as if each of its tributaries had retained its own characteristics in the common stream”.

The line of the contemporary border between England and Scotland might not be debatable but nor is it particularly notable. As Robb notes, after the Old Toll Bar tearoom at Gretna (“First House in Scotland/Last House in Scotland”) and the “Hands Across the Border” cairn – formed of stones brought by people from across the UK and  inaugurated by Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, as a pro-Union gesture before the Scottish independence referendum – “nothing indicates the existence of a major frontier”.

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Stewart has also been exploring the border country and The Marches combines a search for sunken history with forays into his family’s past. His father and walking companion Brian Stewart, who died in 2015, lived the sort of disciplined and upstanding life – army, foreign office, intelligence services – that makes you want to polish your shoes. He was Scottish, almost to the point of haggis-and-tartan caricature, but Britain “remained the purpose and meaning” of his world. He worried that independence would mean no longer being able to “love the Highlands and London as aspects of a single country”, a nice encapsulation of a common sentiment that exists beyond the reach of nationalist argument.

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The book’s subtitle suggests a shared exploration, but the father is largely carried in the mind of the son because he was too old to walk any distance. Brian is a teasing and clarifying presence, but he disappears, physically and imaginatively, after the first section set around Hadrian’s Wall, only reappearing towards the end. When he features, there is a certain pleasure to be had from his vague, non-committal responses to questions about how this or that aspect of Roman life might be like the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan. The imperial present is a feature of much contemporary writing but here it is halted quite pleasantly by genial absent-mindedness.

The Marches relies on conversation, The Debatable Land on the library, but there are similarities at the level of attitude. Both Robb and Stewart are historically minded, politically anxious and boyishly excited about being outdoors. It is easy to believe Robb when he tells of reciting poems by Walter Scott on the local bus because, like Stewart, he is passionate and insistent. Both books are rich with the language of the natural world but  Stewart’s is the more poignant of the two because of the effect created by combining historical investigation with an account of his father in the final years of his life. There is the sense of history expanding while the future contracts, like a tree shedding its leaves while its roots continue to grow under the ground.

These books are really about the layering of time in and around people until it is thick with collected meaning – assuming you care to examine it. “On the unmarked boundaries of the Debatable Land,” writes Robb, “it is easy to forget not only in which country one is travelling but also in which time.” Yet the gathering of all this time doesn’t necessarily mean either book is a reliable guide to the future. Stewart expected blood and soil issues to feature prominently in the nationalist campaign before the Scottish referendum, but they barely did. “Scotland and England were treated as though they were simple, straightforward and unchanging entities,” he grumbles.

Robb and Stewart want to undermine the idea of an Anglo-Scottish border by stressing the shared culture and heritage of the surrounding areas. This is history as insurance against future misfortune, because what they are really concerned about is an administrative border as opposed to the current arrangements, which exist most profoundly in the imagination.

Robb states plainly: “I liked the idea of a ‘debatable land’ in the middle of Britain which was once neither Scottish nor English”. As a child he once posed for a photograph astride the border. He remembered the rain falling and the vegetation sprouting equally on both sides. This looks like a profound point but its significance recedes like a dream figure if you try to grab it. England and Scotland are historical realities, political realities, and these realities must find their edges somewhere.

It’s unclear how the two authors see their work influencing current debates when perceptions of history are so limited. No Roman legion or band of reivers would stand a chance against a group of Scottish nurses wielding grave warnings about the privatisation of the NHS. The most obvious conclusion to draw is that change is the natural condition where borders exist. Man-made borders seem even more fragile when set against a river changing its course or an erupting bog scalping swathes of territory. If the land itself can change dramatically then what right do we have to ascribe permanence to anything we might choose to put on top of it?

Alasdair McKillop writes for the Herald, the Scottish Review and the Scottish Review of Books

The Debatable Land: the Lost World Between England and Scotland
Graham Rob
Picador, 352pp, £20

The Marches: Border Walks with my Father
Rory Stewart
Vintage, 368pp, £9.99

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia