When I was a school boy in the Scottish Border town of Galashiels, the block of flats next door to us was reserved for members of the local police force. There were six flats in total, a generous allotment for a smallish town with a low crime rate. I could almost count the minutes before an officer appeared to warn me about hitting golf balls across Victoria Park in defiance of a sign that expressly prohibited the practice.
In retrospect, the routine nature of the Gala beat may explain why some of our neighbours had interesting extra-constabulary duties. An occupant of the ‘police flats’, for instance, used his spare time to keep a watching brief over the land south of his home town of Newcastleton. On one occasion, his son and I joined him on his perambulation. We eventually came to a fence traversed by a stile and he told us that if we stood on either side of it we would have one foot in Scotland and the other in England.
In 2010, historian Graham Robb could have done something similar about ten miles from Newcastleton when he moved into a house ‘on the very edge of England’, though it would have required a paddle in the Liddel Water. The Liddel eventually marks the southern edge of the Debatable Land, once an independent territory between Scotland and England and controlled for three centuries by local clans like the Armstrongs, Grahams, Elliots and Nixons. From the fourteenth century, these ‘Border reivers’ were policed, if that’s the word, by the wardens of what became the Border shires of West, Middle and East March.
The house that Robb acquired previously belonged to Nicholas Ridley or Baron Ridley of Liddesdale, the cabinet minister responsible for the introduction of the poll tax. Ridley was not the only person to torment the Scots from a house at the country’s edge. On the other side of the border, Hugh Trevor-Roper bought Chiefswood near Melrose which, perhaps not coincidentally, was built by Sir Walter Scott. From there Lord Dacre concluded that ‘Scotland’ could be reduced to a series of overlapping myths and that the kilt was not an ancient garb but a modern English invention. Ridley, as we know, unleashed a maelstrom while ‘invention’ in all its profound simplicity was gleefully embraced by the Telegraph and the Spectator. Robb also has an agenda that might irritate some Scots though it is not immediately obvious. We’ll return to that.
In the meantime, Robb’s primary quest gets underway in Carlisle where he casts an eye over the locals and visits an exhibition on the Border reivers. Initially he seems in danger of treating the inlanders of Carlisle in the same way that Paul Theroux did England’s coastal inhabitants. In The Kingdom by the Sea, Theroux denied ‘breezy condescension’ while indulging it to the full and, like him, Robb views the locals as a species that he hadn’t previously encountered. He is surprised, for instance, that they speak to strangers in the street, wear t-shirts in the winter and apply spray tans with such alacrity. He interprets local drunken brawling as the playing-out of ancient rivalries rather than adopting the more obvious explanation: that it’s common to just about any British town centre beyond the London/Oxford vacuum that he had previously inhabited.
This is all a bit of a worry but the main reason he is in Carlisle is to view an exhibition on the Border reivers. There he picks up a worksheet for children called ‘Nasty Nixon’s Reivers Trail’. It lists murder, kidnap, theft of cattle and possessions, and blackmail as Nasty’s predilections. It could, perhaps, have added ‘dirty tricks’ in memory of a famous descendent. This vision of the reivers worked in tandem with a film that portrayed the Debatable Land as ‘the blackest, goriest, region of the Borders’.
As in previous books, including his Ondaatje prize-winning The Discovery of France, these stereotypes inspire Robb to get on his bike to uncover the truth about the reivers and the land that they occupied. Initially, his cycling tour of the Debatable Land and the area abutting it allows him to meet some rural eccentrics, in whose company he seems more comfortable than the urbanites of Carlisle. Pedalling to Newcastleton, for instance, he runs in to Wattie Blakey ‘the master mole catcher with more than seventy years experience of ridding farmers’ fields of the inexorable “mouldywarp” or “mouldy” … The fruits and proof of his labour can be seen hooked by the snout onto barbed-wire fences, like sacrifices to a local god.’ He had previously spotted Wattie on the meandering 127 bus, the longest-lasting bus-replacement service in history. It was established when the Waverley Line closed in 1969 and runs on the route of the old North British railway. Wattie doesn’t drive but covers a large area by using the bus and seven old bicycles which he planks in various places. The mole man is held up as evidence to support Robb’s previously expressed view that Borderers judge each other more by social function than by class which, at the very least, is debatable.
He establishes a more solid principle when cycling near the boundary of the Debatable Land in search of an Armstrong peel tower. It is reputed to have a stone slab at its entrance covering the tomb of several clan members. Instead he finds a farmer who had attempted to put a new farmhouse door against the remaining stone footing of the tower. The farmer also found human remains and, promptly ‘harrowed them under’. Human carelessness with evidence of the past and the power of nature to sweep it away are recurring themes in Robb’s narrative though they are somewhat offset by ‘the great treasure of border history in the archives of the Scottish and English border officers’ which help him populate the empty landscapes with ‘identifiable individuals’.
Armed with his bicycle, some archival study and a first-person narrative, Robb sets out to recover the Debatable Land. He has few historical sites to work with and several myths and misapprehensions that need to be overcome. The first of these is the term Debatable Land itself which, he argues, is not necessarily associated with dispute but derives from ‘batable’ meaning ‘rich, fertile land on which livestock could be pastured and fattened up (or ‘battened’)’. Before its occupation by the reivers, the land was protected by a law stating that no building be erected within its boundaries and no animals pastured between sunrise and sunset. Using a 1552 map, Robb discovers that the term Debatable Land ‘is routinely misapplied to all of Liddesdale and the West Marches and even to any area in which the reivers were active’. As is his habit, he perambulates the ‘precise geographical location’ on roads and paths beside the rivers Liddel, Esk and Sark.
The reivers too have been the subject of considerable misunderstanding and are sometimes portrayed in the opposite way to the exhibition at Carlisle. They were the subject of border ballads, many written or adapted by Sir Walter Scott, which eulogised them or had them operating as Robin Hoods. Robb cuts through all this to pose some interesting questions about how the reivers went about their work. Why, for instance, did the population of the area actually increase despite their predations and how does one explain the absence of a catastrophic decline in the domestic animal population?
The power of the wardens was never enough to keep the reivers at bay. Eventually, it was the state that overcame them. James V of Scotland was a particularly formidable opponent and hanged a good number of Armstrongs pour encourager les autres. Robb is particularly interesting on the fate of the Grahams who were deported to the Netherlands and to Ireland. In Ireland they proved to be a hapless lot even though at home they maintained their half of the Debatable Land as productive pasture and reclaimed wasteland. The state killed or removed the reivers but it also absorbed them. Former sheep-stealer Archibald Armstrong became a jester in James’s court and later a land-owner and money lender. He felt confident enough to torment the Archbishop of Canterbury in verse: ‘Changes of Times surely cannot be small, / When Jesters rise and Archbishops fall’.
Robb eventually delves further into the past. He ingeniously stretches the grid on the British section of Ptolemy’s map of the world and subjects it to the resize function on Microsoft’s ‘Paint’ programme. From that he discovers that a ‘proto-Debatable Land’ lay near the intersection of the kingdoms of the Selgovae, Damnonii and Votadini and may have acted as a buffer zone in the manner of that between the Greeks and the Turks in Cypress. Later he investigates and reorientates the Arthur myth and concludes that there was a banding together of the kings of Britain to re-conquer the lands they had lost to the Romans.
Here his secondary agenda becomes apparent. There were hints of it in the early chapters with the seemingly unnecessary but repeated observation that Scots and English get along well. They are ‘indifferent to nationality’ whether travelling together on the 127 bus or working together in the First World War cordite factory that stretched from Longtown in England to Eastrigggs in Scotland. Despite his Scottish antecedents and a house that’s a literal stone throw from Scotland, Robb is not enfranchised in the Scottish independence referendum and when he considers the poll everything that made this a great book – innovative methodology, rejection of mythology, precise expression and so on – falls away and leaves something like the opposite. Robb outlines the referendum in the most simplistic terms. Yes is for passion ‘redefined as loudness and intransigence’; Nationalism doesn’t come in varieties but is a thing of base urges. There’s no consideration of those who voted yes to bring power closer to home and put it at the service of social justice. Nor of those who did so while denying being nationalists by any definition. There is no examination of Border demographics in 2014 or, indeed, any serious investigation as to why the Scottish Borders voted No. Instead, Robb places his nuanced historiography at the service of one side of a binary question and is reduced to this:
‘The future of the United Kingdom was about to be decided by one-twelfth of its population and the Debatable Land might be partitioned once again. No one knew exactly what the consequences would be and although mass deportations were unlikely, the people of the Anglo-Scottish borders, like their sixteenth century ancestors, felt the state’s impending weight, its enormous powers of interference.’
It’s sad that such a wonderful book ends with dangerous havers about partition and deportation and some arrant nonsense about the influence of an ancestry shared by relatively few contemporary Borderers. One kenspeckle Scottish historian has a habit of saying ‘the future is not my period’. If Robb had taken a similar attitude to the present, this would have been an early contender for book of the year. It would also, incidentally, have saved him scrambling at the last minute to explain the different Brexit vote on the English and Scottish sides of the border which left Borderers facing ‘in opposite directions’. The best he can offer is that ‘Scottish voters had been sensitized to the benefits of European membership by the campaign for Scottish independence’. Perhaps so, but I suspect there was a lot more to it than that.