The De­bat­able Land by Gra­ham Robb

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AL­LAN MASSIE The De­bat­able Land by Gra­ham Robb Pi­cador £20 Oldie price £17.60 inc p&p

The sub­ti­tle is The Lost World Be­tween

Scot­land and Eng­land, which is in­trigu­ing, even if that world, rather a small one, is not ‘lost’ to the peo­ple who live there. In­deed we col­lected half a dozen hens from Rowan­burn, a farm near Canon­bie, in what used to be the ‘De­bat­able Land’, only a few months ago.

Ac­tu­ally, as Gra­ham Robb re­marks early in this orig­i­nal and sur­pris­ing book, the term ‘De­bat­able Land’ is of­ten mis­tak­enly thought to cover the greater part of the west­ern An­glo-scot­tish Bor­der ei­ther side of the Sol­way Firth. In his­tor­i­cal fact, the ex­pres­sion had a dif­fer­ent mean­ing. ‘Its name was not a gen­eral term for the black­est parts of the Bor­ders: it re­ferred to a pre­cisely de­fined area in which no per­ma­nent build­ing might be al­lowed. An­i­mals could be pas­tured there but only be­tween sun­rise and sun­set.’

No cul­ti­va­tion was per­mit­ted, and the ad­jec­tive it­self came from ‘the ob­so­lete verb “bat­ten” ’. Bat­able land was land on which beasts could be fat­tened. It was ground that was nei­ther Scot­tish nor English, and for cen­turies its use was reg­u­lated lo­cally in an or­derly fash­ion that broke down only in the wildest reiv­ing years of the 16th cen­tury when Gra­hams and Arm­strongs be­gan to build their keeps there in de­fi­ance of the cus­tom­ary law.

In the au­tumn of 2010, Robb came with his wife to live in a house over­look­ing the Lid­del Wa­ter which runs along the bor­der. That bor­der is now a re­al­ity in ad­min­is­tra­tive terms, but means lit­tle oth­er­wise to peo­ple who live ei­ther side of it. It was no sur­prise that there was a hand­some ma­jor­ity in the Scot­tish Bor­ders and Dum­fries and Gal­loway for the Union in the Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum. It’s been a fron­tier with­out cus­toms posts for cen­turies. More­over, be­fore Scot­land was Scot­land or Eng­land Eng­land, tribal king­doms ex­tended north or south of what would be the An­glo-scot­tish bor­der.

Robb’s own his­tory is border­line: a Scot brought up and ed­u­cated in Eng­land. Sum­maris­ing his in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy of the De­bat­able Land is be­yond the com­pass of a short re­view. Suf­fice to say that he ranges with ad­mirable ease over

the cen­turies – from the misty mem­o­ries of Celtic king­doms and the Ro­man oc­cu­pa­tion, through the of­ten well­reg­u­lated, high me­di­ae­val cen­turies when ‘the law­less bor­der­lands had a fully de­vel­oped, in­dige­nous le­gal sys­tem’ , and then the wild crim­i­nal­ity of the reivers pre­served for us through the Rid­ing Bal­lads which make he­roes of them, much as mu­sic and movies did for the des­per­a­does of the Amer­i­can West.

This is a book to read slowly, care­fully, pen­sively. It wan­ders about, now slow as a stream in sum­mer drought, now rapid and tur­bu­lent as Robb’s Lid­del Wa­ter in spate. There isn’t a page that doesn’t in­vite re­flec­tion and fur­ther spec­u­la­tion. Robb has a keen eye for char­ac­ter as well as place. He tells of a farmer who, dis­cov­er­ing skele­tons on his land, said, ‘Y’know ’ow the po­lice can be aboot such things’, and just har­rowed them un­der, ex­plain­ing that they were prob­a­bly Arm­strongs come, cen­turies ago, to steal ‘our sheep’. As in his pre­vi­ous books on France, Robb dis­plays his sym­pa­thies for peo­ple long dead who con­trived to live free from the bu­reau­cratic state.

Robb doesn’t move far from his new home, yet this is a travel book, with a jour­ney in time as well as space. One warms to a man who writes, ‘It is one of the joys of study­ing his­tory that first im­pres­sions are al­ways wrong.’

In the last chap­ters, Robb goes fur­ther back in time, brood­ing on Ptolemy’s 2nd-cen­tury map of Bri­tain and, by ad­just­ing its co­or­di­nates in a man­ner that I failed to un­der­stand, find­ing it re­mark­ably ac­cu­rate and re­veal­ing, and then, fol­low­ing on the in­for­ma­tion gleaned from it, turn­ing ‘– as one must in this part of the world – to the prob­lem of Arthur, and propos­ing a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the “twelve great bat­tles” that Arthur – who­ever he was, if he was – fought ac­cord­ing to the His­to­ria Brit­tonum’.

And then we turn back to ref­er­en­dums – the Scot­tish one and the EU one – in the sec­ond of which Border­ers ei­ther side of the old fron­tier voted dif­fer­ently, Scots vot­ing to stay in the EU, Cum­bri­ans to leave. ‘Not,’ Robb writes, ‘since I lived in the United States had I felt so his­tor­i­cally, cul­tur­ally and per­son­ally Euro­pean.’

He told a French friend that, if in a sec­ond in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, Scot­land voted to break the Union, ‘ La riv­ière qui en­toure presque notre mai­son sera bi­en­tôt plus large que la Manche’ (‘The river which al­most sur­rounds our house would soon be wider than the Chan­nel’). Thus the twists and turns of imag­ined and reimag­ined his­tory brood over this richly won­der­ful book.

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