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Sounds like a dark place, like a DMZ, which is always anything but. What was debatable about this fifty-square miles? Why did it become open season on its citizens in the mids?

Exploring a formerly lawless enclave that spans Scotland and England.

Its origins are lost in the mists, but Robb suggests it is the oldest detectable territorial division in Great Britain, bordered by three rivers and the firth. The descendents of Kenneth MacAlpin, the Pictish King who claimed land for Scotland are far south as the River Tweed in the mid-ninth century — he is popularly considered the first king of Scotland — were not averse to pushing a little south here and a little south there, capturing Carlisle time and losing it again to the English.

Robb gets about his new patch by foot, bus, and bike, thus gets a close look at the lay of the land, for which he has a keen sense of mood.

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This is a shadowy, rain-soaked land, just right for the horrible acts that did take place on what by all means should have been a peaceable ground, that is until it was decided to set the bounds formally and that usually is the cause of strife. But it is also a handsome place, full of unexpected beauty that Robb exploits neatly.

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I grabbed a torch and scrambled up along the side of a gully to the top of the ridge: a huge red moon was darting its flames between the branches. The reivers, because of their dash and danger, get good coverage. The land is still there, though the Debatable is long gone. Still, Robb coaxes it back into being for us to marvel. Already a subscriber?

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Debatable Lands

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A short history of the Debatable Lands and Border Reivers

There's a world of new ideas in every books newsletter. View newsletters By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy. They see the countryside in which the reivers wreaked havoc from a perspective denied those stuck behind a wheel. He is not inclined to romanticise the latter. The short answer is that they had no alternative; the longer one is rather more complicated.

For good or ill, this was their home and reiving was less an opportunistic, atavistic activity than a way of life.

It was part of the annual cycle in which raising and rustling cattle went hand in hand. The reivers owed their allegiance not to any country or cause but to their immediate clansmen. But what was meant to be a six-a-side football match turned into a bloodbath when the Armstrongs, realising they were about to be ambushed, reacted as only they knew how.


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  8. On that score, Baron Poll Tax could count himself fortunate. As Robb pedals and buses around this grim terrain, he encounters a number of unforgettable, if not insouciantly violent, characters. One such is a venerable mole catcher called Wattie Blakey, whose job it is to exterminate the subterranean pests. Like the reivers of yore, Blakey is wedded to his profession, which he is no more able or inclined to separate himself from than they were from theirs.

    The second is the earliest account told from a British point of view of a major battle in these islands.

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