The Best Books For The Walking The Wild Side Of The Scotland-England Borderlands

The Books I Picked & Why

The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers

By George MacDonald Fraser

The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers

Why this book?

By the author of the wonderfully wicked Flashman novels, this is simply the best book I know on the Reivers (Rustlers) of the Scottish-English Borderlands C14-16th. I referred to it often when constructing Rose Nicolson and Fair Helen. As with Flashman, it depicts resourceful, desperate men and women, trying to survive and prosper amid the shambles of History – in this case, the ungovernable Borderlands. Finely researched, vivid and balanced, Fraser brings to life the extraordinary people of Borders myth and history. Imagine a Wild West that lasted some 300 years of horse and cattle rustling, kidnap and ransom, protection rackets (the words gang and blackmail - black meal or black rent - come from the reivers exploits), with some great narrative poetry and jokes grim or hilarious. A Borderer himself, Fraser gets the romance and the less romantic necessities that governed these intensely-lived, skillful, precarious lives.


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Witch Wood

By John Buchan

Witch Wood

Why this book?

Often seen as the finest of the great thriller writer’s more serious historical novels. Buchan, like his hero Walter Scott, was of the Borders and deeply immersed in its history. Fortunately, he took Stevenson rather than Scott as his literary influence, and wrote atmospheric, vivid, and pithy prose, with a great sense of the land, the speech, the mindset, all shaped into strong narrative. The conflicting urges between decency and the psychotic, kindness and wickedness, rationality and wild superstition – which Stevenson himself displayed in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde – run right through this book and, some would say, the Scottish psyche.


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The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England

By Graham Robb

The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England

Why this book?

 I love this as something quite different – essentially a close encounter with the Border by bicycle. He knows his history, writes well, and brings it all down to ground level, and conveys the lasting atmosphere (lovely, bleak, ruinous, enduring) of these Debatable Lands. A fine piece of historical travel writing by a deeply knowledgeable and astute writer. Makes you want to go and experience for yourself – if you do, take this book in your pannier (preferably waterproof).


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Kidnapped

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Kidnapped

Why this book?

Alright, so this timeless adventure starts in Edinburgh and moves through the Highlands and the West Coast of Scotland before returning to Lowland Scotland for its resolution, and takes place in 1751, after the Union of Crowns has finally settled the Borderlands. Yet in David Balfour and Allan Breck Stewart it dramatizes that same conflict between Reason and Impulse, the Romantic and Practical Necessity, that has its origins in the C16th-17th Catholic-Protestant struggle for hearts and minds and souls. It’s pacey, astute, unforgettable, while being highly insightful into the dual aspects of the Scottish psyche that the Reformation has left us with. Books like this formed my conviction that novels, however subtle and inward-looking, should also be at heart adventure stories.


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John Knox

By Jane Dawson

John Knox

Why this book?

So it is not a novel, but might as well be for its twists, turns, and transformations. Edinburgh in 1572 was a small town of some 3,000 families, so my real-life narrator William Fowler would know and meet one of its most notable citizens, Preacher John Knox of Haddington, along with his young and socially aristocratic second wife (the latter attribute was more a matter of gossip and criticism than the thirty-seven years age gap), and witnessed him being helped up into the pulpit at St Giles to give his congregation a last good talking to. This is the most recent (drawing on a major new cache of letters), and highly readable, life of the man who pushed Scotland towards a Presbyterian Calvinist form of Protestantism – crucially distinct from that evolving in England under the Auld Hag aka Elizabeth I. He is revealed as a much more complex and interesting character than I’d imagined. It’s a remarkable life of ‘the Great Rebuker’, whose years in exile had given him an English accent, except when rebuking, when he became broad as you like. He sounds like my father, a stern man who would occasionally made jokes, and was notably affectionate to his family.


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