Book Review: The Marches

The Marches:  A Borderland Journey Between England And Scotland, by Rory Stewart

As a human being I have often found myself dwelling in middle lands, border regions, contested territories on the periphery fought over by multiple parties, with complex views on identity and loyalty, and this book is about one of the ways in which this is the case through the author’s walk, along with his late father (who sounds like he would be one of those funny but cranky old men full of stories and sharp-witted judgments), in the middle regions of Britain, an area that was first defined by Hadrian’s Wall and the way that it made Northern England a military zone (as opposed to Romanized southern England), and that also includes lowland Scotland up to the Highland line.  The author’s father lived almost exactly on that line, and the author himself as of this book’s writing was a member of Parliament for one of the English border regions that includes the beautiful Lake District.  I have found my own travels and family history involved in precisely those same middle regions, having ancestors who were lowland Scot or part of that great diaspora of Scots and Scot-Irish who made it to places like Ulster and Canada and Western Pennsylvania.

The book itself tells some complex tales about the shape and influence of history, the way that some insight can be gained into these practices based on surviving material and linguistic evidence, and the nature of different worldviews held by a great many people who lived and died in this long-contested region.  The author speaks somewhat skeptically of Roman imperialism and the failure on the part of the Romans to ultimately win over their native population and comments on the similarities between the way that Britons saw the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes and the way that those Angles, Saxons, and Jutes saw later invading Norsemen.  The author tries to uncover something of the worldview of ancient settlers in the Lake District as well as the language of the little kingdoms of the Strathclyde and Northumbria that long were between the core of Pictland and Scotland in the north and England in the south until they were joined in conflict for centuries.  And most of all the author ponders the loss of contact with the middleness he was seeking and the strange rise of contemporary Scottish nationalism and the possible future fate of the now peaceful border becoming once again the locus for future conflict in case of successful Scottish secession.

Marches are areas defined by their borders.  Regardless of how artificial such lines are, they create a reality by virtue of their existence.  Did the Romans build a wall to keep the Picts out or to keep the Britons imprisoned within as taxpayers?  Why were the middlelands during the Roman period so devoid of civilian settlements?  Would the history of Great Britian had been different if Northumbria or Cumbria or Strathclyde been able to maintain their independence from the realms to the north and south?  Is the British identity so meaningless that Scots are willing to potentially toss it aside for either or both their own ethnic/cultural identity (itself rather complicated) as well as a European identity?  To what extent does it still matter that one is from the middle areas between the core of England and Scotland, in that people are treated differently for being from those peripheral areas?  This book does not come up with a lot of answers, but it does pose a lot of fascinating questions and shows the author coming to terms with the aging and death of his father as well as the question of nationalism and identity, the worth of family farming and celebrating rural life and one’s own personal history and wrestling with imperialism, all of which makes for a worthwhile and nuanced read.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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