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Nowhere does a brooding winter sky quite like the west coast of Scotland. As I looked across the open estuary of the River Esk, pale yellow sunlight filtered through streaks of low-lying cloud, reflected in the mirror-like ribbons of water and ripples of sand exposed by the retreating tide. All around, fields dipped gently to flatten out along the shore of the channel, which snakes its way westwards to the Solway Firth. The lowland coastline, flanked by rolling hills, expands until the firth meets the Irish Sea, creating a natural break in the land between Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland and Cumbria in northern England.
Standing firm against a determined breeze, I was surveying the scene from what marks the south-western end of the border between Scotland and England. Peacefully admiring nature at work, it was hard to believe that this seemingly tranquil, rural landscape was once at the edge of one of Britain's most lawless, and for a time, bloodiest, regions: the area known as the Debatable Lands.
Today, this once troublesome region is a laidback, quiet part of the border where hardy animal breeds are reared and a sense of community reverberates among the long-established towns and villages. This lesser-visited corner of the UK is also where you can get close to the story of those who called the Debatable Lands home: feuding clans known as the Border Reivers. It’s a place where local histories and scant ruins linger among wooded valleys, fast-flowing rivers and open moorland that lend themselves to letting your imagination fill in some of the blanks of its much under-told story.
And what a fascinating tale it is. The Debatable Lands is believed to have been the last great territorial division in Britain. Here, from the 13th to the 16th Centuries, the region's clans plundered land and livestock and endless blood was shed. Straddling the border, the Debatable Lands flourished as a sort of anarchic no-man's land, not independent but too dangerous and lawless for either Scotland or England to be able – or want – to take control of.
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This was highlighted in a remarkable parliamentary decree issued by the governments of both countries in the mid-16th Century, some 300 years into the Debatable Lands’ story: “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.”
While this decree was made into law, it was more of a legal “out” for England and Scotland. Neither side wanted the responsibility of dealing with the Debatable Lands; and as they could not agree on who owned it or how it was divided, neither could be held responsible for it, either. As Dr Anna Groundwater, principal curator, Renaissance and Early Modern History, National Museums Scotland, told me, “It was not a valuable piece of land, high ground and poor farming potential, so it was probably seen as not particularly worth fighting for or defending.”
It was also a small area, something that struck me as I examined the map while waiting for a much-needed warming tea in the Cinebar Kitchen in the Scottish town of Gretna. The Debatable Lands ran just more than eight miles across at its widest, and roughly 13 miles from the elevated north down to the sandy-flats of the south with Gretna at its south-western tip and around one-third of the area extending into northern England. Gretna also proved perfectly placed as a launching pad for my foray, only a short detour from the A7, the artery that connects Edinburgh and Carlisle and cuts through the middle of what was the Debatable Lands.
It was probably seen as not particularly worth fighting for or defending
Gretna and its Green may be affectionately known as a safe haven for young lovers looking to elope, but the town also has an illustrious industrial heritage owing to the production of munitions for World War One, which drastically reshaped the community. The architecture reflects the early 20th Century well, such as the once-upon-a-time colonial revival-style cinema, whose adjoining cafe I was thawing out in.
The line between Scotland and England was established with the Treaty of York in 1237. As Graham Robb writes in his 2018 book, The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England, it is “probably the oldest national boundary in Europe”. But when it was finalised, it seems that it drew a line through lands that were essentially familial, dividing some held territory in two. Therefore, the border symbolised state-led authority and the Debatable Lands became the flashpoint of a rebellion of sorts, where powerful families plundered each other in both Scotland and England and neither government was committed to sorting it out.
The region became a no-go zone, a hazardous region frequented by the Border Reivers; “reiving” being a Scots word for plundering or raiding. Reivers busied themselves with a cat-and-mouse style game of stealing each other’s livestock. As Groundwater points out, that this occurred both “across the border and within each kingdom” shows that it was “not only English versus Scottish but internal crime, too”. Although raids weren’t confined solely to the Debatable Lands, most of the bloodiest took place in this untouchable territory, and it essentially became Britain’s fourth country, sitting alongside England, Wales and Scotland: a miniature, no-go area abiding by its own rules.
[It is] probably the oldest national boundary in Europe
The wild, often barren landscape, punctuated only by small communities, certainly adds to the effect. Towns such as Canonbie and Langholm are now local centres for fishing and hiking but grew from the remains of family settlements within the Debatable Lands. There are other well-marked ways of getting personal with the outdoors here. The coast-to-coast Reivers Cycle Route, for example, is a 173-mile stretch from that takes in many Borderland highlights including the Debatable Lands, although, you can pick and choose sections.
Taking another brief detour from the A7, I found myself in Rowanburn, a village with a well-kept public garden and the unmissable imposing wooden carving of Lang Sandy, so-called for his considerable height at more than 6ft, very tall for the 16th Century. Full name Alexander Armstrong, he was the last chief of the all-powerful Scottish Armstrong clan in the Debatable Lands, and a much revered and feared reiver. He long resisted attempts at pacification by the Crown and was eventually hanged with his 11 sons in around 1610, a fate that was to befall many of the region’s reivers.
The place I really wanted to visit, however, was nearby Gilnockie Tower. Mere minutes from Rowanburn, I was soon ambling up the driveway to what is one of the finest remaining examples of a lowland Pele tower – a compact fortified keep built for defence, unique to the border region – and now home to the Clan Armstrong Centre, a small museum and essential Debatable Lands stopping point.
Confusingly it’s also known as Hollows Tower due to its adjacent location to Hollows Village, something that Ian Martin, project manager at the tower, explained as we headed inside the depths of the more than 500-year-old building.
Perhaps because there are few tangible remains from the period, Gilnockie Tower is a space in which the Debatable Lands comes alive. It’s every bit the defensive tower, from its impenetrably thick stone walls to its tiny high windows and roof-top lookout where you can easily picture a guard keeping watch. The tower, which endeavours to open all year, houses a small exhibition and cafe, and, as Martin tells me, offers tours (booked in advance) that “are designed to take people well into the 16th Century, deep enough to give them a flavour of family life at that difficult period”, including, for example, everyday conditions and the daily chores and traditional dining habits of those living through this unruly time.
Discussing my route along the A7, Martin tells me that there’s a desire to see a more concerted effort in attracting visitors to the region: “As you drive up the road to Canonbie, Gilnockie Tower, Langholm and on through the Borderlands,” he said, “the history of the textile industry, both woven and knitted wear, is presented in some wonderful exhibitions [in the likes of Hawick, close to the Debatable Lands]. Much more of these experiences are being developed, all in the effort to open up a visitor route through the A7 corridor that has fundamentally been ignored for years.”
The region’s remoteness, however, was of no concern to the reivers of their day. The Debatable Lands existed in its isolated manner until, officially speaking, 1551, when an agreement between the two countries prompted the building of Scots’ Dike in 1552, which “settled the exact boundary between the countries of Scotland and England,” according to Martin. This man-made embankment, little of which is visible today, was a three-and-a-half-mile-long barrier that finally divided the Debatable Lands in two.
It was initially more symbolic than practical, as this barrier did nothing to stem the flow of reiving. It wasn’t until 1603 that the border areas became a real focus for the unifying monarch, King James VI & I, King of Scotland and the first Stuart King of England, following the Union of the Crowns. New wardens were put in charge of tidying up the region and prominent reivers were rounded up. Some, like Lang Sandy, were hanged, many were exiled, and the process of instilling a semblance of law and order began in earnest.
Winding northwards up the A7, with Gilnockie Tower in the rear-view mirror, I struggled to get my head around how this small patch of land, the most debatable of areas, had excelled at such remarkable lawlessness with colourful characters and tales to boot, while, simultaneously, remaining so very under the radar.
And that’s where the appeal in the Debatable Lands lies; the intrigue of this unfathomable period and, by association, the surrounding towns and villages of the Borderlands, whose natural landscapes remain – almost – as wild and untamed as in the days of the reivers.
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