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'The Debatable Land' probes the history of a chink in the Scottish-English border

British historian Graham Robb explores the land that once supported the descendents of the first king of Scotland.

The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland & England By Graham Robb Norton 336 pp.
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Master historian and biographer Graham Robb had just moved house. Leaving the Oxford spires behind, he set up shop on the southern border of an ancient piece of ground know as the Debatable Land. Sounds like a dark place, like a DMZ, which is always anything but. And true to its name, once upon a time “all Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, sly, murder and destroy, all and every such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock ... without any redress to be made for same.” Come now, don’t pussyfoot, tell us how you really feel about the Debatables.

Like the fine historian he his, Robb is most intrigued by the history he doesn’t know.  What was debatable about this fifty-square miles? “The border was boundary line of half our property and I felt it was important to find out exactly what it represented and how it had come to be.” (The book is lushly noted and sourced.) Why did it become open season on its citizens in the mid-1600s? That is what he is here to explain, or at least conjecture, in "The Debatable Land," an amiably learned, leisurely tour of the land’s history, chinked with anecdotes. Here is one of the first: Debatable doesn’t mean subject to debate, but rather comes from batable, which “comes from the obsolete verb ‘batten.’ Batable land was rich, fertile land on which livestock could be pastured and fattened up (or ‘battened’).”  So much for the dark romance of place names.

The Debatable Land was a split in the border between Scotland and England on the far western end at the Solway Firth. Its origins are lost in the mists, but Robb suggests it is the oldest detectable territorial division in Great Britain, bordered by three rivers and the firth. The descendents of Kenneth MacAlpin, the Pictish King who claimed land for Scotland are far south as the River Tweed in the mid-ninth century – he is popularly considered the first king of Scotland – were not averse to pushing a little south here and a little south there, capturing Carlisle time and losing it again to the English. This to-and-fro’ing might have led to a common ground for grazing, with laws of its own, and certainly open to reivers: mayhem-makers whose specialty was cattle rustling and quicksilver raids on farmsteads and whole towns.

Robb gets about his new patch by foot, bus, and bike, thus gets a close look at the lay of the land, for which he has a keen sense of mood. This is a shadowy, rain-soaked land, just right for the horrible acts that did take place on what by all means should have been a peaceable ground, that is until it was decided to set the bounds formally and that usually is the cause of strife. But it is also a handsome place, full of unexpected beauty that Robb exploits neatly. Of the Debatable Land’s bounds: “Here, the line became a zone and the border acquired a third dimension”; or on a more sensuous note, “One evening, a fire rose up behind the forest. I grabbed a torch and scrambled up along the side of a gully to the top of the ridge: a huge red moon was darting its flames between the branches.”

The reivers, because of their dash and danger, get good coverage. They were clans of Armstrongs and Foresters, Routledges, Nixons (yes, forebears of that Nixon), Grahams, Storeys, Nobles, Elliots. The first wardens trying to bring order to this land of cattle grazing, murder, kidnapping, and blackmail came in the 14th century (indeed, to the reivers “we owe the words ‘blackmail’ and ‘bereaved.’”) In addition, there were time-honored border laws, codes of conduct that all sides seemed to obey. But the reivers existed thanks to weak national governments, these “creeping fungus which thrived on the blood-sodden moors of Anglo-Scottish strife.” With the Union of the Crowns under James VI, things got better, but marginally.

The land is still there, though the Debatable is long gone. Still, Robb coaxes it back into being for us to marvel. It would be pretty to think that this ancient crosspollination of tribe and clan, the intermingling of “Englishmen and Scottishmen” would have developed a gentle slide one side to the other of the borderline today, but it appears not. There are periodic referendums over Scottish nationhood, and they can’t agree to stay or leave the European Union. Something there is that doesn’t love a border, or loves it too much.

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