Graham Robb, apart from being a distinguished historian, biographer and literary critic, is one of our most accomplished travel writers. His The Discovery of France remains a classic, made both engaging and accessible by his very francophile obsession with cycling. Indeed, his new book, The Debatable Land, opens with a declaration that ‘writing and cycling are inseparable pursuits’.
The debatable land in question is the thin wedge of territory between England and Scotland on the west coast which, for a period in the late Middle Ages, was officially declared as lawless by the parliaments of each country. The resulting piece of English legislation contains a quite magnificent disclaimer:
All Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy, all and every such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock… without any redress to be made for same.
As Robb comments dryly, ‘by all accounts they availed themselves of the privilege’.
Cattle raiders, or ‘reivers’ as they were known locally, roamed the land, and for obvious reasons the few human habitations were strongly defended. Today it remains relatively empty — a place where ‘it is quite possible to spend a long day walking across it without seeing another human being’. Not even Rory Stewart.
It is to this desolate landscape that Robb and his wife relocate from a comfortable college life in Oxford. Naturally they arrive at their isolated farmhouse by cycle.
Robb claims a trifle disingenuously (‘this book, which I had never expected to write’) that the idea of describing his new adopted home only came to him slowly, although for a historian such a hinterland was clearly a gift. The process was accelerated when he discovered a second-century Atlas of Roman Britain, showing that even then, this same area was a buffer zone between competing tribes.
He discusses the intriguing if highly speculative theory that the King Arthur of legend was a Roman centurion called Artorius, who led resistance to a powerful Scottish invasion around 180 AD. As described by the chronicler Cassius Dio, this was the biggest war fought anywhere in the Roman Empire during that time, and while a near catastrophe for the Romans — the Scottish got as far south as York — it was a formative event in the birth of a united British nation of the north.
A previous book by Graham Robb was about the Celts, and he remains a strong revisionist supporter of their true worth. Far from being ‘the tartan-clad warriors of ancient Britain who skulked in smoky huts like people of the Stone Age, living on porridge, roots and beer’, he sees them as much more advanced. They had towns and roads, high-speed transport and well-managed farms. They also used metalworking techniques which have yet to be reinvented.
Julius Caesar’s self-serving depiction of the British Celts as wild, druid-led and needing governance is one that still needs constant rebuttal, so deeply has it sunk into the popular imagination. Quite what Graham Robb would make of Jez Butterworth’s current ‘feral Druid’ series Britannia, which could have claimed Julius Caesar as a co-scriptwriter, goes unrecorded. But one can only imagine angry puffs of smoke coming out from his remote farmhouse if he has installed the Sky satellite dish.
Few archaeological voyagers have returned after venturing into the trackless mosses of Celtic history and Arthurian legend with their reputations intact. It is a measure of both Robb’s scholarship and enthusiasm that he does so with some brio.
Some of his esoteric investigations of map interpretation or Arthurian placenames might have been better served up as appendices for the more dedicated reader. But the book is at its best when he bicycles with the speed and ferocity of a Scottish reiver through these lost flatlands of history.
And it seems on further investigation that the cattle reivers were not quite as fearsome as might appear — or at least Robb, as he goes native, slowly becomes more sympathetic towards them. Most inhabitants of the Borders, he claims, would only go on one raid in their whole lives as some sort of act of initiation — ‘that glorious hectic day when grandfather earned the right to be called a man by burning down a Tynedale barn or making off with a Cheviot farmer’s sheep’.
That said, in the space of a decade in the 1580s, a total of 123 houses were burned by more than 2,000 reivers in seven separate raids. Only 11 of them died, says Robb. And adds that ‘by comparison with medieval sporting events, reiving of the traditional variety was a remarkably safe activity.’ So that’s all right then. Although presumably it wasn’t quite such a safe activity if you were inside the house that was being burned.