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by Eric Robson
Frances Lincoln Limited – ISBN 0-7112-2589-3
Until recently, the name Border Reivers had only been known to me through listening to the Rugby Union scores. A team of that name play in the Celtic League along with other top teams from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. However, once I started reading Eric Robson’s book, The Border Line, I discovered that the name this Rugby Union club has taken played a very significant part in history since it was the name given to a ferocious community living on the frontier between England and Scotland.
Eric was born in the border area on the Scottish side of the boundary, living there for a number of years before moving to Cumbria. He therefore has family connections dating back many centuries and some of his ancestors were themselves Border Reivers.
Ever since the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of the wall across the neck of Britain in AD120, the border area between what eventually became England and Scotland has been a highly disputed territory. Its history is characterised by war and criminality, uneasy treaties and a distinctive romantic culture, neither wholly English nor wholly Scottish.
In this book, Eric describes his walk along the modern border line, following the route originally walked by James Logan Mack, an Edinburgh lawyer, in the 1920s. This walk commences on the west coast at the Solway Firth and finishes 105 miles later at Berwick upon Tweed. It follows rivers and burns, goes through the forests around Kielder and over high-level moors. Eric describes many points of interest along the walk: cairns and earthworks, castles and kirks, battlefields and boundary stones – all part of the colourful history of this region. He relates some of his adventures en route and discourses on the unique character of the landscape, as well as the kings, reivers and ordinary folk who peopled the area.
The result is a rich compendium of history and anecdote that will appeal not only to those with a love of history and interest in this little-known area of the country, but also to walkers. It is not really a guidebook that follows the walk itself. Only three maps are included; these being taken from Logan Mack’s originals, and are therefore eighty years old. These maps each cover about thirty to forty miles of the route and are useful to refer to whilst reading the narrative, but not for planning to walk the route. However, the narrative generates enough enthusiasm to make walkers want to get out and look at this area for themselves, using up to date Ordnance Survey maps of the area. It also contains many anecdotes by Eric about his years in broadcasting, as well as about the thousands of miles he has walked.
When asked about the book, Eric said, ‘I’ve always been fascinated by borders. Frontiers are strange places and throw up strange people. This was a frontier of Balkan proportions and it took the thick end of 1800 years to sort it out. Yet now it is almost totally ignored. It caused all that trouble and now most people in the south probably think that Hadrian’s Wall is the border. We need to strip away Sir Walter Scott’s romantic varnish of the reivers. These were never romantic characters. They were people living in a battle zone and making the best of it. I was born four miles inside Scotland but I still consider myself a Borderer rather than a Scotsman. That’s the thing about Borderers; they don’t owe allegiance to England or Scotland. They owe allegiance to themselves.’
Having read this fascinating book, when I next hear Border Reivers 25, Leinster 18, it will not just be a rugby score that I listen to, it will be reminder of the bloody history of this area of Britain.
reviewed by John Burland - Member No. 2