The De­bat­able Land: The Lost World Be­tween Scot­land and Eng­land by Gra­ham Robb

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Neal Asch­er­son

The De­bat­able Land: The Lost World Be­tween Scot­land and Eng­land by Gra­ham Robb.

Nor­ton, 334 pp., $27.95

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 high­spir­ited 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 An­gloS­cot­tish 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 city­d­welling 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 EnglishS­cot­tish 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 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. *The Marches: A Border­land Jour­ney Be­tween Eng­land and Scot­land (Houghton-Mif­flin Har­court, 2016); see the re­view by An­drew Mo­tion in these pages, March 23, 2017. 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 onetwelfth 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 self­dis­cov­ery, 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.

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

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