I bought a copy of The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England, by Graham Robb, without reading the cover notes and thinking it concerned most of the borderlands. It doesn’t, though many parts of the borders are mentioned in passing at one point or another, but this did not detract from my enjoyment of reading this book.
In 2010, Robb went to live in a house occupied in the late nineteen-eighties by Nicholas Ridley (who became Baron Ridley of Liddesdale). Anyone remember him? At the time, he was one of the most unpopular politicians in Britain.
The house is situated in the far north-west of England, on the edge of a relatively small region that was once known as the Debatable Land, (also called the Batable Land. This was wild country in times gone past, where reivers (raiders) operated, and the laws of the land were not enforced. Robb discusses the history of the area, and embarks on several bike and bus rides to its boundaries. He is also an etymologist, and in his hands we learn all sorts of interesting things, such as the origin of the words ‘blackmail’ and ‘bereaved’ which both derive from reiver terms. He can also be humorous in a dry way as well, as in: “The name of the great struggle which opposed pagan and Christian armies is the Battle of Arfderydd. ‘Arfderydd’ is plausibly identified with Arthuret, the parish to which Longtown and Carwinley belong. ‘Arthuret’ in turn is identified less plausibly with King Arthur. As a result, Arthurian pilgrims are occasionally seen in Longtown. Perched on a cliff below two wooded knolls within sight of a Roman road, the church of Arthuret does seem to occupy a typical Iron Age or Dark Age site, but its name, pronounced ‘Arthrut‘, probably has no etymological connection with ‘Arthur’, whatever the nearby Camelot Caravan Park might suggest. For historians who find the wilful credulity of Arthurmaniacs exasperating, it must be an irritating coincidence that the early medieval sources identify the bard of King Gwenddoleu, who went mad and fled from the Battle of Arfderydd, as Myrddin, the prototype of the Arthurian Merlin.”
By and by, Robb debunks the way Scottish Nationalists ascribe nationalist tendencies to various reivers of the past, using poems written much later as their mistaken ‘evidence’. He also notes that, by a very large majority, the Scottish borders voted No in the 2014 Referendum, and suggests that the last thing most of the people there wanted to see was the imposition of a real border between Scotland and England. Another realisation is that the three and a half mile construction near the March Bank Hotel known as the Scots’ Dike was a work of collaboration, rather than strife.
The final few chapters of The Debatable Land contain remarkable original scholarship. You know Ptolemy’s 2nd-century map of Albion and Hibernia? Have a look at that link to remind yourself. You can see that the bits that are now Scotland are twisted almost 90 degrees to the east. Robb explains that this is all to do with the coordinates of latitude and longitude being plotted on a grid, or ‘graticule’, and suggests that Ptolemy used the wrong graticule when transcribing the collection of maps he had been given. Well, it’s not as simple as that, (in his review of Robb’s book, Allan Massie says that he didn’t understand it either) and you’ll have to read the book for a better explanation. Anyway, using a different graticule, Robb discovers that the map is much more accurate, with most towns in their proper locations. This is wonderful stuff! Also, using the re-formed map and some further research, Robb almost becomes a bit of an Arthurmaniac, and comes up with some new theories about Historia Brittonum, and the location of battles fought by ‘British Kings’ and ‘Arthur’. This is not my period in history, so I won’t comment further.
I’m going to see Robb at the Edinburgh Book Festival, on 18th August, and after reading The Debatable Lands, I’m really looking forward to his presentation.