There are *sooooooo* many books out there nowadays that it’s really hard to keep track of the things you might be interested in; even harder to come across those books that you didn’t even know you might want to read. That’s one of the things I love about the randomness of charity shop finds; I’m very blessed to have a lot locally, and they’re often a source of the unexpected or serendipitous. “The Debatable Land” is a case in point: it turned up in one of our local shops a few weekends ago, and I recognised the author’s name and was intrigued by the title so I picked it up. Graham Robb is the author of “Parisians”; another charity shop find which lurked unread on the shelves for years and which I fear I’ve donated back again. Annoying, that…

Any road up, let’s explore “The Debatable Land”! The book’s genesis took place when Robb and his wife Margaret moved north to be nearer to his mother in Scotland. They ended up near the border, with Carlisle the closest big town, and while settling in Robb began to explore the landscape and find out more about the history of the place. Because tucked away in the north-east of the country is a small area known as the Debatable Lands; a place which was a kind of no-man’s-land, belonging to neither England nor Scotland and with its own set of rules and morals. As Robb and his wife wrestle with the extremes of the northern climate, as well as getting to know their neighbours, he delves deeper into the legends of the reivers – local outlaws/bandits/Robin Hoods/criminals, depending on your viewpoint – and a fascinating history it is.

The Debatable Lands were originally a neutral territory (at a time when England and Scotland were very separate countries); a place where no one was meant to settle, and anyone could graze their cattle. The area had its own legal system (March Law) which resolved disputes and the system worked until the middle ages, when interference by the two countries allowed local clan groups to take over. These groups fought off any attempts by the two government to take away control, and raided the neighbouring areas of both countries frequently (earning the name of the Border Reivers – a word for thief or ruffian), building up considerable fortunes. However, this state of affairs couldn’t really continue forever, and as England and Scotland began to move closer to a union, James VI and I took strong action against the clans, breaking much of their hold on the area.

Robb covers all of this history in detail, roaming the land around his house, identifying landmarks and historical areas where the Reivers lived and raided. And the book is beautifully illustrated with maps, drawings and photographs of the various locations which really bring the narrative to life. He’s happy to debunk the myths perpetuated (particularly by writers such as Sir Walter Scott) and bring some realism to the history of the area and its people. Interestingly, towards the end of the book Robb attempts to trace the events of the missing early centuries, where there is, naturally, no record of events. By re-interpreting Ptolemy’s ancient map of Britain, he finds records of the place existing in these times; and he uses this knowledge to tie the locality into a Northern route for the battles of the legendary King Arthur. These discoveries are particularly intriguing, and I would perhaps have liked to see them given more prominence.

The Debatable Lands (, via Wikimedia Commons)

All of this made fascinating reading, but I did have some slight issues with the book. The narrative is a little choppy – Robb jumps from personal events and investigations into the results of his findings, which would be fine, except that those finds are not presented in a linear fashion so the whole story of the Debatable Lands loses coherence. The final section, in particular, has a slightly tagged-on feel and is coloured by politics; indeed, as the book progresses, the issues of Scottish Independence and Brexit are a constant sub-text, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but I felt that it affected the cohesion of the book slightly. And I actually would have liked to read more about Robb and Margaret’s adventures in moving north to such a climatically extreme area, as those bits were particularly interesting.

So in the end this was an absorbing read, but not an outstanding one for me. Robb is an interesting author, and he writes really well (and also obviously researches really well, as some of his findings and deductions about the Debatable Lands were really engrossing). What I think the book needed was a bit of restructuring and a bit of editing to make it form a more unified whole; it rambled a bit in places (and I should know about that…) and lost impact because of the structural issues. Nevertheless, the whole topic of the Debatable Lands is absolutely fascinating and this is a good enough place to start exploring! If I ever move north again, I’ll have to try to pop over to have a look at the place! And I *really* wish I hadn’t donated back that “Parisians” book… 😦