This week, I’ve been living in the Debatable Land.
No, I’m not talking about Britain itself, although some of our European friends may beg to differ. I’m certainly not talking about the televised election debates – as you know, you’ll never get politics on this blog, least of all now. Nor am I talking about ‘somewhere vaguely around the Scottish border’ – the idea that all of it once formed a ‘debatable land’ is one of those stubborn myths perpetuated by bad historians, lazy politicians and meh journalists. Au contraire, the actual ‘Debatable Land’ is a very specific and very small area at the western end of Scotland’s land border with its dearly beloved neighbour. It’s no more than ten miles long and two to three miles wide, so it’s about the size of San Marino, Europe’s third smallest independent state. Its borders are completely anonymous, one of the key reasons why it became ‘debatable’ in the first place;* you can drive through it in a few minutes and never realise you’ve been in it, for there are no signs to tell you you’ve entered or left, and the land all around is pretty identical. For a couple of hundred years in the late middle ages, though, this was quite literally bandit country. Although most of the Anglo-Scottish border had been finalised, this one area hadn’t been. The inevitable lawlessness which ensued led to both governments adopting an extraordinary solution, namely permitting theft and even murder within the boundaries in the hope that it would dissuade people from living there. The issue was finally settled in 1552 when a border was drawn through the debatable land, much of it being marked by a visible boundary called the Scots Dyke, now hidden within a conifer forest.
(* Actually, it’s even debatable whether it was debatable, in the modern sense of the term; it’s also been suggested that the name derived from the old English word ‘battable’, land suitable for fattening livestock.)
Bandit country; or, more specifically, Reiver country. The border reivers, the ‘steel bonnets’ of legend, undoubtedly made the cowboys of the Old West or the Peaky Blinders look like utter snowflakes. Graham Robb, who lives hereabouts – in, of all places, the former home of Margaret Thatcher’s most louche Cabinet minister, Nicholas Ridley – records some of their at once hilarious and terrifying nicknames in his excellent book The Debatable Land: ‘Archie Fire-the-Braes, Buggerback, Davy the Lady, Jok Pott the Bastard, Wynkyng Will…Nebless Clem…Fingerless Will…Dog Pyntle Elliot…the Bastard of Glenvoren, Ill-Drowned Geordie, Ill-Wild Will…Gleyed John and Jock Halflugs’. Billy the Kid (duh?), eat your heart out. The rather less colourful surnames of these reivers still predominate in these parts: Armstrong, Charlton, Graham, Elliot and, umm, Nixon, along with many others. The Clan Armstrong Centre is just up the road, and the most famous Armstrong of all came here in 1972, when a fellow Reiver descendant was still in the White House. The most successful of the Reiver families was undoubtedly the Scotts, who eventually produced one of the most famous authors of all time as well as ending up as the Dukes of Buccleuch and, for good measure, Queensberry too. The current incumbent was until very recently the largest private landowner in Britain, and much of the land I’ve been walking on while staying here is owned by him – ditto much of Dumfriesshire, Midlothian, and, just for variety, Northamptonshire, where his ‘modest’ home (one of three, no less) is nicknamed ‘the English Versailles’. Oh, sorry, I forgot Cumbria too – when a newly built Royal Navy nuclear submarine puts to sea from the building yard in Barrow-in-Furness, it does so between two shores owned by, yes, you’ve guessed it. And that nice bit of western shoreline at the top end of Lake Windermere? Yep, his too. So all in all, some reiver descendants ended up unbelievably rich, famous and powerful. The moral of the story, gentle reader? Your ancestors, and mine too, should have done one heck of a lot more serious violent crime.
History, not just Reiver history, is literally all around me here. Across the field behind me, I can see the site of a Roman fort, one of the outliers of Hadrian’s Wall, which lies a few miles to the south. (Hmm, a wall that actually did its job. Got to be some sort of relevant connection I could make there…) The site of the fort is now occupied by a predominantly 19th century mansion which looks disconcertingly like a small, elegant French chateau, which ought really to be surrounded by its own vineyard and bathed in Mediterranean sun, not obscured by relentless Borders drizzle. Even so, the mansion is floodlit at night – hardly the most sustainable of choices, I’d have thought, as I’m fairly certain I’m the only person who can see it. Across the River Esk, which forms most of the view out of my living room windows, is a sixteenth century tower house and, next to it, an elegant eighteenth century church. Behind those is the still discernible route of the old Waverley railway line, which ran from Edinburgh to Carlisle until Doctor Beeching did his worst; a beautiful and useful route, apparently, and now the subject of a campaign to reinstate it. (Has there ever been a trainspotter named Beeching, I wonder? If so, how long did he live, and just how gruesome was his demise?) The building I’m staying in, now let by the wonderful Landmark Trust, once controlled the salmon traps on the river on behalf of the owners of the estate, but the traps so enraged the Scottish fishermen upstream that they once marched on the mansion, a scene described by Sir Walter Scott in Redgauntlet. (Technically, this side of the river, which marked the border of the debatable land, has always been English, but tell that to an enraged salmon-loving Armstrong who’s had a wee dram or six.) There’s even an unexpected piece of history which resonates with anyone from south Wales. Just five or so miles north of here is a typical little mining village, once at the centre of a small coalfield owned by, yes, you guessed it once again. It even has spoil tips and a replica pithead winding wheel memorial, recalling a man killed underground in the 1920s.
And so on.
Of course, none of this should be relevant to my actual purpose for being here, which is to plan out the story of the final book in my Stannard trilogy of naval historical fiction set in the sixteenth century. This one will be, to plagiarise Friends, the one with the Spanish Armada in it. The good news is it’s currently going really well. The bad news is that it’s going really well apart from the plot hole I’ve just encountered. Thus this post is displacement activity until the muse leaps salmon-like out of the river to slap me about the head and resolve said plot hole.
If the book appears on time next year, you’ll know s/he turned up.
[Breaking news – s/he did!]
Stephen Smith says
The ‘English Versailles ‘ is well worth a visit – such wealth from banditry!!
J D Davies says