The Debatable Land : The Lost World Between Scotland and EnglandeBook - 2018
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Fancy yourself a history buff, where the British Isles are concerned? Well, so did I. Did you know that for a long period of history, from the late Iron Age until the early modern period, there was a buffer zone between England and Scotland that belonged to no nation? Me neither! Happily, there exists a book to rectify this gap in knowledge, and it is a lovely read.
Author Graham Robb becomes interested in the region, dubbed The Debatable Land, after moving to nearby Liddesdale. He and his wife buy an old home set near the river, down a long drive, far from town. As avid cyclists with no car, they quickly meet neighbours, curious about this new couple who’ve moved to a remote location to cycle in British weather, seemingly on purpose. In chatting with the locals, they discover much of the area formerly belonged to neither England, nor Scotland.
Upon a little research, they discover laws from the early modern period stating any man was free to steal and murder within the bounds of the area, without consequence. Locals told stories of bands of reavers tearing through the no-man’s land, and leaving nothing behind. Statues pay homage to the most daring thieves.
Robb, a renowned historian, found this too tempting to leave alone. In The Debatable Land, he traces the history of the region as far back as he can. The story is fascinating. While locals are familiar with the reaving history from Elizabethan times onward, it turns out the roots of the area are deep, reaching into the late Iron Age. Robb, who has done much work on Celtic civilizations, points out these kinds of buffer zones between nations are a common feature of Celtic cultures. He’s able to piece together how the area evolved from a tool for peace – an area for animals to pasture, where no one may erect permanent structures or sleep overnight – to an area exploited by national interests and left with no defenses.
The history itself is fascinating, but even more so are Robb’s techniques for piecing together his research into a coherent whole. He synthesizes new information on an ancient region, including piecing together bits of evidence that could support historical roots for some of Britain’s foundational myths. It’s not often readers of history get to pick up a book where spoilers may apply. But, Robb has made enough original connections on enough significant material that spoilers do apply here. So, I’ll end this review by saying that The Debatable Land was the most enjoyable and exciting book of history I’ve read in some time, and is highly recommended to any readers interested in British or Celtic history.
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