The Debatable Land by Graham Robb
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.