YOU could, if you were so inclined and had a strong arm, throw a stone from Graham Robb’s English garden and hit Scotland. His house in Cumbria sits snugly in a loop of the Liddel Water which marks the border between the two countries. The last of England, if you will.

The river is running at a lick on this chill February afternoon. There’s a cold snap in the air. It’s worse further north on the M74 where snow is falling, soft yet heavy, but as you travel south from Glasgow and drop down and down off Beattock the day turns to a sullen, quiet grey as you approach the border.

To get to Robb’s home you drive through what was once known as the Debatable Land, that buffer zone between two nations that was home to the notorious reivers who, by all accounts, terrorised this area between the 14th and 17th centuries.

Now, it’s a landscape of hills and farmsteads and sheep although the bloody past is remembered. In Rowanburn, there’s a large wooden statue of the reiver Lang Sandy Armstrong, hanged in 1606 for his involvement in the murder of Sir John Carmichael, warden of the Scottish West March.

Robb lives on the southern edge of the Debatable Land. Once upon a time leading Thatcherite Nicholas Ridley owned this very house. It is Ridley’s carvings you see in the stone in the circular entrance hall and on the pillars outside.

Given the former Tory minister’s relationship with Scotland, who’s to say he didn’t throw stones across the border? He did worse, after all. He was the man who gave us the poll tax.

“He did have a bit of a reiver mentality,” Robb admits. “He liked stirring people up.”

The present owner is not cut from the same cloth. “I was looking for peace and quiet. Or at least peace,” Robb says when I ask him why he moved here. He has found it. Recently his American wife Margaret went to the States for a three-week trip.

“She opened the door, looked at me and said: ‘Have you seen anyone while I’ve been away?’ ” He hadn’t.

Author, historian, former fellow of Exeter College Oxford, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Chevalier dans l’Orbre des Arts et des Lettres, Robb is English but could play for Scotland if he so chose (at 59, he’s possibly a little past it, but then he’s a keen cyclist and given Scotland’s performance in the rugby last week …) In short, like the house he lives in with Margaret, Robb is on the border of things.

He arrived here eight winters ago, by chance, from Oxford. He had wanted to be a bit nearer his Scottish mother.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight.  “Margaret said, ‘I’m not going to live in a house that had anything to do with Thatcher’,” Robb says. Obviously, she changed her mind.

“We didn’t think we wanted to live on the border. It seemed like a gimmick really, just an interesting point. And then we stayed. People at first said, ‘Why did you come up here?’ And then they started saying, ‘You’re still here then?’ “The normal pattern is people think it’s going to be like the Lake District and then they discover it isn’t and go back down south.”

The Robbs, though, have set down roots. Roots formed in friendships and, now, words. Robb’s latest book is entitled The Debatable Land. It is three-parts history (as you would expect of Robb’s historical pedigree) and one-part nature writing.

A vision of a marginal place (or at least marginal to the urban centres, not to itself of course) through time, written against a backdrop of both the 2014 independence referendum and the 2016 Brexit vote.

Robb is better known for his histories of France and such French luminaries as Balzac and Victor Hugo. He has written about the Celts before, but until he moved here, the Debatable Land wasn’t on his radar. “I never thought I would write a book about this place,” Robb admits. “The human history didn’t seem very interesting. It was mostly blokes in leather jackets hitting each other on the head and burning each others’ houses down. There didn’t seem to be any women at all. Just the reivers.”

A visit to the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle changed his mind. “They had a display about the reivers and how horrible it was and there was a gory video of what it was like living in the Borders for several centuries.

“And they used the ballads which are urban in origin. You’re not supposed to say that, but they were broadsheets and sold in cities by professional songwriters. The Lament of the Border Widow and so on.

“And I just thought, ‘Why did anyone live here if it was so awful?’ Because they were very mobile. It didn’t really make sense. It wasn’t a viable society as described.” It all piqued his interest. When it comes to history, Robb says, it’s the point where he doesn’t know the answers that most interests him.

“It’s always a good sign of a historian when they ask a lot of questions,” he suggests. “It’s more interesting to read anyway. Otherwise it’s this person saying, ‘I know what you don’t and I’m going to tell you’.”

And so he began to investigate the story of the reivers and found a picture that rather differed from the received wisdom. The Debatable Land takes in Ptolemy, King Arthur and the No127 bus (more of which later) but the bullet points are about the reivers.

The thing is, Robb suggests, that if the records are to be believed, they are not quite as black as they were painted. “The records are fantastic because the Scottish Parliament records and the English Parliament records are incredibly detailed. I realised most of these people only took part in one raid. It’s the typical young man’s rite of passage. One day you would go out and prove that you were a man by going out and stealing someone else’s sheep.

“So it wasn’t at all the anarchy that it was supposed to have been. It was very well organised and for that period the number of deaths is minute. Hardly anyone was killed.

“It was only later, once it did become anarchic because of the pressure from the two nations on either side, that you got people like Kinmont Willie [who famously escaped Carlisle Castle] and [the Duke of] Buccleuch who took advantage of the ancient law, as people do, and became powerful warlords. And they were the ones who are remembered and weirdly celebrated.”

The history of the Borderlands is not merely a history of strife. The truth is, between Roman and Tudor times, Robb points out, there is no archaeological evidence of anyone living in the Debatable Land and when the reivers did arrive they were just as likely to be the victims of state-sanctioned violence by both the Scottish and the English as the violators. The concept of summary justice had its own name here, after all – Jeddart Justice What emerges in the pages of The Debatable Land, then, is a vision of a land apart, you might say. Rievers saw themselves as neither Scottish nor English, Robb suggests. Their allegiances were to family.

As far as he is concerned, it has largely remained so. Borderers, whether English or Scottish, are Borderers first. The Scots along the Borders voted against independence, after all. Or most of them did.

The story of the Anglo-Scottish border, he says, is one of connections rather than divisions. And, you might say, that’s the story of Robb himself too.

As a child Graham Robb lived in the Midlands but grew up in a Scotland of the mind. His mum was from Glasgow, his father, a probation officer, was from Edinburgh, the son of an Aberdonian. His mother would grumble about what their English neighbours would say of Scotland, “the haggis and kilts and all that crap,” Robb recalls. His father would brush it off.

As for Robb, he found in Scottishness a sense of belonging. “You know when you’re looking for an identity? Scottishness, I felt, was my thing, even though I really didn’t know much. I was passionate about the Scottish team and Man United because it was [the team of] Matt Busby, Denis Law. And I knew my grandfather had been a sports reporter.”

Indeed, for The Herald in fact. He shows me an image of his grandfather William Gall at his typewriter.

It was, he accepts, a superficial identity. But Scotland was clearly part of his life. Coming to Scotland on holidays, he’d hear his father’s family speaking Doric. “I met my uncle and I couldn’t understand a word. He made the most of it. He was a cattle farmer and he said to me, ‘See the wee calfie in the field’. Apparently, I looked at my dad and said, ‘There isn’t a café in the field’.”

He wonders now if that exposure gave him his taste for foreign languages. He has spent much of his professional life teaching French.

Moving to Cumbria in 2010, he says, what struck him most was how Scottish it felt to him. The people of the place, their attitudes, felt familiar.

“The thing I found in north Cumbria that I associated with Scotland was a completely different form of class consciousness. Treating people for what they are, rather than putting them in a category first and then deciding how you are going to interact with them.

“In the south you can choose between resentment and exaggerated respect. All those little social dramas just seem to be completely missing [here] and that reminded me of Scotland.”

We are back to connections again. It is the story he sees in the landscape and the people all around him.

I suppose I arrive wanting to talk to Robb about the history of this place, but also about the very idea of the border itself and what that concept might even mean today.

I grew up in Northern Ireland, spent my early years under the shadow of the Troubles. For me the idea of the border as a child and teenager was as a marker of division and conflict.  Indeed, after reading Robb’s book, I picked up a copy of Garrett Carr’s The Rule of the Land, in which the author walks the line that divides Northern Ireland from the Republic. At one point, Carr describes the ancient ruins that dot the land he walks in as the “loose ends of an unfinished history, still to meaningfully settle into the background”.

That phrase “unfinished history” resonates in all sorts of ways for me.

Another place, of course. Because for most of the last century, and long before Northern Ireland was even a country, the Anglo-Scottish border could be said to be a finished history. An invisible line that was a divide in name only.

And then came the Scottish independence referendum. I think it’s clear from reading the book that Robb was against the idea of independence (and the idea of Brexit, for that matter). Not that he had a vote in the former.

But he reckons the idea of independence found less favour on the other side of the Liddel from him because in many ways for many Borderers the border is simply not a reality.

Robb talks on the page and in person about travelling on the No127 bus between Newcastleton and Dumfries.  “People on the bus were frightened as the referendum drew near because they knew it was an absurdity. To them and to us it seemed like something that wasn’t actually real, but something that was going to be put there by governments and something that hadn’t been there.

“It wasn’t as though there was some venerable ancient reality that was going to be restored and we would come back to some earlier state. It was a modern political imposition and that’s what the border seems here.

“It’s something that is masquerading as history which isn’t history at all. It’s an untruth. It’s history used to obtain an advantage of some kind.”

Well, yes, although political change doesn’t necessarily need a historical imprimatur (can you tell I voted yes?) And as for historical untruths, there are a lot of them flying around right now, aren’t there? We meet only days after Jacob Rees-Mogg had suggested that accepting EU demands on Brexit would be the first time since 1066 that laws had been “imposed on us by a foreign power without having a say over it ourselves”.

Which rather begs the question: who is the “us” in that statement?

The fact is, history is constantly being weaponised in politics. “Exactly,” agrees Robb. “It’s a projection of personal fantasies given the stamp of authority that is supposed to be provided by history.”

Leading up to the independence referendum, he recalls hearing an academic Scottish historian saying that reports of cross-border marriages were exaggerated in the Middle Ages.

“It’s in the bloody records in black and white,” Robb says in exasperation. “She was introducing retrospective demarcation between the two countries that didn’t exist.”

Cross-border marriages could be punishable by death up to the year 1600 and maybe beyond, he says. “And yet they married. As people will.”

As people still do, of course. The border is a line on the map, an idea in our heads, a stone’s throw through the air. Who knows if and when that might change?

Driving back to Glasgow, the M74 is blocked. Sometimes it’s just weather that divides us.

The Debatable Land is published by Picador, priced £20. Graham Robb is appearing at Aye Write on March 18. Visit for details