Nearly eight hundred years ago, the kings of England and Scotland decided to work out where their kingdoms began and ended. So they sent six knights from each nation on a “perambulation” from the North Sea to the Solway Firth to demarcate the Anglo-Scottish border. The knights couldn’t agree on where it ran. So the kings tried again by sending twenty-four knights (twelve each), and when they too quarreled, forty-eight knights. But the Scots kept protesting that the English idea of the border was a thieving landgrab and grew threatening. At this, King Henry III of England gave up and in 1246 declared his own border unilaterally.
That left several matters unsettled. One of them was a patch of land in the west, a place of hills, bogs, and fierce little rivers running down to the Solway Firth. For “time out of mind,” this patch had been accepted as a common space: a sliver of territory only thirteen miles long, exclusive to neither Scotland nor England but used by border people of both nations to pasture their herds.
This was “the Debatable Land,” a term that—according to Graham Robb—did not imply “contestable” but came from the old word “batable,” describing an ownerless area left fallow for fattening cattle. Over time, the patch developed its own informal laws. Its users came together on truce days to settle disputes at the Lochmaben Stone, a megalith that still stands in a muddy field near the Solway shore. “Maban” is held to refer to the Celtic god Maponus, honored by Roman soldiers stationed in northern Britain, but the stone is several thousand years older than the cult.
All a fond antiquarian mumble? Far from it! Britain, for the first time in many years, is now racked by squabbles about “open” borders. Does Brexit mean that the Irish border between the Republic and the six “British” counties of the north must become a full customs and immigration barrier, complete with chain-link fences and officers searching trucks and passengers—one of the European Union’s external frontiers, in fact? Must these almost unmarked crossings be walled off and gated, to the ruin of ordinary people living on either side? Or could there be a “debatable” border zone of compromise? Across the Irish Sea, Robb is flinching at the probability that, sooner or later, Scotland will choose independence and rejoin the EU. That could replace the invisible demarcation line between Scotland and England with another hard frontier, as the English government would build walls and fences to keep out illegal immigrants from Europe.
This is why, as British, Irish, and European policymakers frantically research “porous borders,” the Debatable Land surges back out of history. Of course all frontiers were porous once, before twentieth-century nation-states declared them immutable and sacred. And debatable lands—vacuoles in the tissue of power that nobody cared to close—were common enough. The “Akwizgran Discrepancy,” for example, a triangle of land between Prussia, Belgium, and the Netherlands, existed for over a century. It was not a surveying error, as some supposed. The diplomats at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, drawing the outlines of a new Europe after Napoleon’s defeat, had simply grown bored with arguments about whose territory a zinc mine stood on, and left a blank on their map. The enclave’s independence lasted until 1918, when it was absorbed by Belgium. San Marino, Andorra, and other “debatable” European statelets now survive as internationally recognized polities.
Debatable lands may respect their own laws. But all too often they are defined by their contempt for everyone else’s. The Akwizgran Discrepancy (also known as le Moresnet neutre) prospered by bootlegging liquor into abstemious Holland and welcomed all kinds of political and judicial fugitives from its neighbors. It was a high-spirited no-man’s-land with no customs barriers, no military service, no particular currency of its own. In the same way, but centuries earlier, the Anglo-Scottish Debatable Land had become a free-rustling zone, over which armed “reiver” (raider) bands rode to steal cattle and sheep or to settle clan vendettas with fire and the sword. The great reiver families—Armstrongs, Grahams, Johnstones, Maxwells, and Elliots, to name the most violent—paid little attention to English or Scottish jurisdictions; they lived and raided on both sides, married English or Scottish women as they pleased, and served either king as hired enforcers if the pay was right. Burning towers and the corpses of men, women, and children often marked the collapse of another of their ever-changing alliances.
Graham Robb’s book offers the story of the Debatable Land, but at the same time it’s the account of his own explorations and reflections there. He was born in England to a Scottish couple (their parents made fun of his and his sister’s English accents). In 2010 he and his wife moved from Oxford into an almost inaccessible house on the river Liddel, right on the Anglo-Scottish border but a few yards into England. From there, they set out on bicycles to penetrate every recess of this “country in miniature,” which he calls “the last part of Great Britain to be conquered and brought under the control of a state.”
These were tough journeys. Weather in the Cumbrian and Border hills is not tame, and Robb—a graceful and imaginative writer—describes vividly the frozen rivers, the flash floods, the cruel winds, and the general hardiness required of the traveler: “If the downpour comes gradually, introducing itself with sporadic drizzle before the incessant chatter of rain and hail, the mind and body can adjust to the inescapable companionship of the elements.”
For a time, it seems, the culture of reiving reached a sort of equilibrium. Cattle rustling was so constant that outsiders wondered why anyone bothered to keep stock in the Debatable Land at all. The answer was that reiving had developed its own rules. A victim could present a list of his losses to one of the March wardens on the next “day of truce” and hope either to get his beasts and valuables back or to be paid compensation for them.
Reiving, in fact, had become a kind of extreme sport, nicknamed a “hot trod.” An Armstrong or an Elliot would summon a hundred horsemen, kitted up with steel casques, spear-proof leather “jacks” (tunics), and swords, and trot eagerly off into the night, returning at dawn with the mud-spattered herd of a Scott or a Routledge. Bloodshed was avoided if possible, but often it was not possible. That in turn might generate a blood feud and a more lethal kind of raiding. (True sport was almost as dangerous. The final score in a six-per-side soccer game played in 1599 between Armstrongs and “men of Bewcastle” was two dead and thirty prisoners.)
But in the sixteenth century, as more landless families, “broken men” (rootless loners who had broken away from clan or landlord authority), and leaderless warriors ventured into this “bulge of unclaimed territory,” matters ran out of control. The old rule had banned the building of dwellings and the plowing of soil in the Debatable Land. Nobody now paid attention to this. Violent cattle theft was followed by punitive raids by the wardens. Thomas Dacre, warden of the English Marches, sent forces to burn and devastate every village they encountered, on the Scottish as well as the English side. In 1525 the archbishop of Glasgow excommunicated all reivers with a fearsome curse on “thair heid and all the haris of thair heid…thair face, thair ene [eyes], thair mouth, thair neise, thair toung, thair teith.” Five years later, King James V of Scotland invited the mighty reiver Johnnie Armstrong to a meeting. Armstrong and his men rode proudly up to the king, only to be arrested and hanged on the spot. (He was glorified in the great ballad of Johnnie Armstrong: “But Scotland’s heart was never sae wae/To see sae mony brave men die.”)
In 1551 a peace treaty between England and Scotland led to a final partition. As usual, both sides disagreed on where a border across the Debatable Land should be set, and the French ambassador was allegedly called in to draw the frontier line. An earthwork—the Scots Dyke—was thrown up to mark it, but finding it today is “a muddy, brambly, ankle-twisting exercise in futility.” Even at the time, the reiving lords paid no attention to it; robbery and massacre persisted back and forth across the new demarcation. “Kinmont Willie” Armstrong, one of the most fearsome warlords on the Scottish side, was kidnapped by the English in violation of a day of truce and held in Carlisle castle as a hostage. One rainy night in 1596, a squad of horsemen led by the Scottish warden rode into England and, under cover of the storm, sprang “Kinmont Willie” from the castle. Queen Elizabeth of England was outraged: “I will have satisfaction or els,” she wrote. In reprisal, the English attacked and burned Scottish villages, driving out the women and children and stripping them naked, “exposed to the injury of wind and weather, whereby nine or ten infants perished.”
As Robb remarks, women scarcely figure at all in the archives and memoirs of the Debatable Land. Here, for an instant, they do enter the male narrative of carnage and cavalry—but as anonymous victims. Women are victims in the Border ballads too, but there at least they have identities: the Lady of Rhodes, May Margaret, Barbara Allen, Mary Hamilton, or Helen of Kirkconnel. Helen’s story of love doomed by clan hatred, leading to her sacrificial death, as told by Andrew Greig in his novel Fair Helen (2013), is the most moving and shocking account of the blood feuds between Border families; Greig confronts the cruelty and the human misery—of the poor but above all of women—which were also realities of those “romantic” reiving times.
The beginning of the end came in 1603. James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England, and the “Union of Crowns” inaugurated a precariously combined “Great Britain” without frontiers. The “Mark Law” of the Debatable Land was replaced by the laws of England or Scotland. In practice, this meant a merciless purge of the old reivers; under “Jeddart justice,” nobody was denied a trial as long as it took place after the execution. The Grahams were deported as a clan to Ireland to starve and cause trouble. The Duke of Buccleuch, the dominant warlord on the Scottish side, turned on his own followers with mass hangings and torture. But peace was now slowly descending, a peace that replaced lawless equality with the power of great landowners and kings:
The sheer callous fun of reiving in its glory days, when humble farmers played practical jokes on the high and mighty, burned down their houses and mills, galloped over the mosses under a harvest moon and stole anything that moved….
All that was finally over.
Many of the small farmers and local people in the Debatable Land today belong to families who have been there for generations. But Robb was surprised to find that few of them knew their history. “Almost no-one living here today knows where the Debatable Land began and ended or even what it was.” Pragmatic folk, they are not as interested in their own past as city-dwelling heritage officials think they should be. Robb encountered a farmer whose plow had turned up a row of skeletons, probably from reiving times, and who simply “harrowed them under” rather than report the discovery.
But this indifference doesn’t extend to identity. Robb confesses that he had hoped to find a common identity on both sides of that invisible English-Scottish border, transcending national difference. The truth turned out to be more subtle and disconcerting. On the one hand, “local people” pay no attention to the border: they mingle, work, go shopping, and often marry without even noticing which nation they are in at the time. On the other hand, cultural distinction persists to a startling degree.
In the sixteenth century, it seemed to be blurring. An English official reported in 1583 on this “lawles people…they are a people that wilbe Scottishe when they will, and Englishe at theire pleasure.” But history has reversed that blending. Scots along the border today know they are Scots, although what they choose to do about it socially or politically is unpredictable. It’s bizarre to drive, as this reviewer sometimes does, the twelve miles from Newcastleton in Scotland to Longtown in England and register the instant difference in speech and social response.
In the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the Scots along the border voted No; they valued the Union with England. But in the 2016 British referendum on membership in the European Union, the Borderers split. Like the rest of Scotland, the Scottish regions next to England voted Remain, while the people of Cumbria on the English side voted Leave. Robb is disarmingly candid about his shock:
I was on the point of completing a book—this book—in which the cross-border community was said to have overridden national differences and administrative divisions. Yet here was proof of the contrary. On a matter of historic importance, the two sides faced in opposite directions.
It’s fascinating to compare Robb’s The Debatable Land with another recent book: Rory Stewart’s The Marches.* Stewart is an alluring and romantic figure who walked across Afghanistan, governed a vast Iraqi province during the Anglo-American occupation, and told both invaders unwelcome truths about their presence there. Now a junior minister in Britain’s beleaguered Tory government, he—like Robb—has Scottish roots but lives south of the border in Cumbria. Even more passionately than Robb, he rejects the idea of an independent Scotland. At his “Hands Across the Border” cairn, near Gretna Green, Scotland’s southernmost town, English and Scottish visitors are invited to add a stone in token of Britain’s “precious” unity.
Robb cycles; Stewart walks. He tramps, observes, thinks, and records: first on a hike with his ebullient old father along Hadrian’s Wall, then on a march of many days from his house in Cumbria to his father’s Scottish home in Perthshire. Like Robb, he fantasizes about a lost land of concord in which nationality was transcended. Robb’s is the Debatable Land; Stewart’s is a “Middleland” that he imagines to have existed before Hadrian’s Wall, and then the Norman kings of England, broke up the integrity of a single “Britannia.”
Like Robb, Stewart was disappointed by what he found on his long walk, and honest enough to admit it:
I had hoped…to show that there were no permanent differences between England and Scotland…that our histories and culture and soil were richly interwoven…. But I was more conscious now of fractures, absences and distortion.
When his father asked him, “Have you managed to prove that the English and Scottish Borderers are basically the same people…and that the border is an irrelevance?,” he had to reply, “Unfortunately not!”
Both Robb and Stewart have written luminously observant books about this region, introspective travelogues rich with anecdotes and scholarly reading. But when it comes to politics, they are less convincing. Both betray degrees of rancorous contempt for Scotland’s independence movement, and in particular for the Yes campaign in the 2014 referendum. Robb, perceptive as he is about London’s indifference to both Scotland and the English Borders, laments that
the future of the United Kingdom was about to be decided by one-twelfth of its population…. The “No” camp had come to be associated with reason and the “Yes” camp with passion. But passion itself had been redefined as loudness and intransigence.
As somebody who followed that campaign closely across Scotland, this reviewer doesn’t recognize that picture. The Yes movement that summer was more of a slow tidal wave of self-discovery, an empowerment in which the intolerance of “ethnic” nationalism—or Anglophobia—did not figure. One Yes person broke an egg on a No person’s back. That was the about the loudest thing that happened.
So it may be that the real name of the half-mythical lost country that these two writers are seeking is not the Debatable Land or the Middleland. Its name is Great Britain. It is the ancient multinational state that never fused into a single cultural nation, save for the small Anglicized governing class that once owned most of its land, commanded its army and navy, and ran its gigantic overseas empire. Each member of that gentlemanly Homo Britanicus elite felt that his or her Great British identity transcended tribal threads of attachment to Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness, or Irishness. Their hegemony dissolved a generation ago. But the glamour of that imperial “Britishness” still haunts the English imagination. It fosters the delusion of “English exceptionalism”; it helped to bring about the silly disaster of Brexit. It is a United Kingdom that seems, gently but irrevocably, to be falling to bits.
The final part of Graham Robb’s book is less accessible. Here The Debatable Land fits into the pattern of two of his previous books, The Discovery of France and The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, for which he rode his bicycle across European landscapes and looked for ancient symmetries and signs of prehistoric knowledge. His travels and his research convinced him that the “Celtic peoples” who inhabited (or at least dominated) Central and Western Europe in the later Iron Age had developed a highly sophisticated system of cartography, based on “druidic meridian lines.” A friendly but skeptical reviewer of The Discovery of Middle Earth in The New York Times reproached Robb with “going with whatever [evidence] works and ignoring what doesn’t…. Robb needs to learn not to let imagination ride roughshod over technicalities.”
Toward the end of The Debatable Land, Robb wheels off into ingenious but perilously high-wire historical speculations. He recalculates the British coordinates of Ptolemy’s second-century maps to argue, among other claims, that the Debatable Land must already have existed as an enclave in pre-Roman centuries, located precisely where the domains of the Selgovae, Damnonii, and Votadini tribes converged. He stops to remark that the Celts in Gaul and southern Britain planned their settlements with a ratio of 4:3, which produces a perfect Pythagorean triangle, which in turn had been used to map the Britannia province in Roman times.
A reader may be growing wary at this point, but Robb strides on to disclose his second “discovery”: a previously unrecognized “Great Caledonian Invasion” of Rome’s Britannia province in the 180s. According to Nennius, a ninth-century chronicler, King Arthur was supposed to have fought twelve named battles against the Saxons. Robb, through his own agile interpretation of place-names, claims that he can identify every battlefield and that the campaign took place centuries earlier: a Celtic onslaught against their Roman occupiers that swept over Hadrian’s Wall and may have reached Chester before turning back.
His enthusiasm and his delight in his own wide-reaching research are likable. But there’s something of Jeddart justice in his handling of historical evidence: hoist the conclusion first and then select any data that back it up. In the same way, his vision of the Debatable Land as a melting pot in which Scots and English could become a single people doesn’t reflect the gathering flow of nationality politics in both countries. I prefer a verse by the young Welshwoman Haf Davies, which imagines Scotland as Britain’s lover departing in anger—and it is wiser about borders:
…none of that “I don’t know where I end
and where you begin” nonsense:
I end here, and you start there.
If you stay, we can rebuild that boundary,
redefine our differences and mark where we meet.
I won’t overstep or undermine.
Please don’t leave, I’ll be better this time.