Book review: Between Britain, by Alistair Moffat

Rambling along the border between England and Scotland – and through centuries of shared history – Alistair Moffat’s new book invites us to dwell on our past, and also to consider what our future may be like, writes Allan Massie

Between Britain is a rather odd title for an account of a journey on foot along the sometimes wobbly line of the Anglo-Scottish border from Berwick-on-Tweed to Gretna and the Solway Firth. The hundred mile hike is arduous and sometimes painful (climbing a high barbed wire fence left the author with torn jeans and a bloody leg) yet the book is also a “history of histories, a tangled tale of half-forgotten truths” and, I should add, of reflections on the way things are now.

Alistair Moffat is a Borderer born and bred, and he makes the point that English people mostly know little of their border counties, just as Scots from the Central Belt and north are likewise just as ignorant of their most southerly region. The border itself is a line fixed quite late in the history of Britain and one that has shifted over time, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria having once extended as far north as Edinburgh, Berwick-on-Tweed itself having been Scotland’s principal port for centuries, while in the west kingdoms whose people spoke Old Welsh long had no regard for the border as it is now. Nor of course did the Romans, and the great Wall which the Emperor Hadrian ordered to be built in 121 AD runs well south of the present-day border.

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Though the book is given unity by the author’s walk, it rambles in time as well as place. Moffat has always been fascinated by Roman Britain and the so-called Dark Ages that followed the departure of the legions. His feet may follow a physical line, but his thoughts take us wandering through the centuries. His memories of childhood – teenage work on a farm, and playing rugby at school and for Kelso – jostle with accounts of saints of whom little is known for certain, of how the Roman legions constructed their camps after a day’s march, and of battles of which the details have long since become obscure. At other times when he writes of the reiving days – and there’s a splendid account of the raid to rescue Kinmont Willie from Carlisle Castle – he shows how little regard these lawless men had for the authorities either side of the border, though there was a Law of the Border established somewhat shakily by both the English and Scottish Crowns working in uneasy harmony. Moffat is a great storyteller and his stories are rich, full of interest.

He is an Anglophile with an affection and admiration for the English way of life, while also being, like many of us, puzzled and dismayed by certain manifestations of English nationalism which have emerged in his time. He dislikes its stridency while recognizing that it has been to some extent provoked by the emergence of an equally strident Scottish Nationalism, even while he is pleased we have a Parliament in Edinburgh. At the same time, though an admiring and supportive lover of Gaelic culture, at least since his years as director of programmes at STV, he loathes and despises Tartanry and is infuriated by the Tartan kitsch on sale at Gretna, the first village at the western end of the Border.

Britain is of course first of all a geographical term. There was a Britannia long before there was either an England or a Scotland, and Great Britain as a political rather that merely geographical reality only came into being as recently has 1603, when our James VI inherited the English Crown, though it had previously been spoken of as a possibility earlier. One of the many merits of this fascinating book is that it invites us to think about who we are and what our history means or might mean to us. It is also a reflection on what it has meant and may mean in the future. Much that is British has been created by Scots as well as English people – not only because an alternative national anthem, Rule, Britannia, was written by a Border Scot, the 18th century poet James Thomson.

A book such as this, which invites us to dwell on our past and also to consider what our future may be like, is very valuable.

Between Britain, by Alistair Moffat, Canongate, £20