In Search of Britannia

British Library/Bridgeman Images
Scottish knights laying siege to an English castle in the border country; from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles of France and England, fourteenth century

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,…

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