Line of enquiry into personal identity

The procession to the Flodden Memorial in 2013
The procession to the Flodden Memorial in 2013

There’s no doubt about it. My idea of walking the entire border between Scotland and England (in 2013) was a crazy one.

It partly arose from doubts about my own identity. I was born and raised in Edinburgh, and then spent the first 10 years of my working life in Glasgow. 
But my parents weren’t Scottish. They had moved north two years before I was born. I myself have lived for the last quarter century in London.

I was also inspired by the sheer perversity of following an arbitrary line on a map, a line that – like all borders – we nevertheless invest with some kind of moral authority. The deserving lie on one side, we tell ourselves, the undeserving on the other.

And so the idea grew into an obsession. I studied maps in greater and greater detail, fascinated by the wandering course of this random line, and of the names along its way: Sarkfoot Point, Solway Moss, Scotland Gate, Liddel Strength, Skurrlywarble Wood, Hobbs Flow, Bloody Bush, Foulmire Heights, Butter Bog, Gallows Hill, Folly Farm ... I traced the line of the border along rivers, across fields, through thick conifer plantations, over remote and tractless hills and moors.

I could tell from the map that much of the route was far from picturesque. There were surprisingly few paths. That was part of the attraction. It would be a journey of discovery, of unexpected meetings, of encounters with the often bloody past. It would also be an inward journey, as my intention was to walk much of the way alone.

There were highs and lows. The lowest of the lows was on the bleak moorland hills between Kielder and Carter Bar. Here the border zigzags through knee-deep heather and peat hags, every now and again diving into a steep-sided cleuch only to crawl up the other side. The line of the border here was only finalised in the later 18th century by a bunch of lawyers acting on behalf of the local magnates, the Earl of Douglas and the Duke of Northumberland.

As I stumbled about in rain, mist and wind, I cursed the makers of all borders. Volunteering in a migrant support centre in North London, I’ve seen enough of the human misery created by borders and those who uphold them.

But the highs far outweighed the lows. There were the wild camps in remote places: at Scotch Knowe; on Deadwater Rigg; on the site of a Roman camp at the head of Coquetdale. There were stretches of great beauty: striding the ridge linking Windy Gyle, Auchope Cairn and the Schil; walking the banks of the Tweed amidst the golds of autumn; reaching at last the cliffs where the border meets the North Sea, with a full moon rising in the east.

And, most of all, there was the kindness of strangers: the shepherds at Penton who explained to me the mysteries of the sheepdog trial; all the wild Borderers who converged on Coldstream for the Flodden 500 Rideout; the Geordie fishermen on the Tweed who gave me shelter in their hut; the dog-walker in Horncliffe who offered me a bottle of beer when he found me sitting outside the pub waiting for it to open one dark November evening. And I’ll never forget the builder at Corries Mill near Gretna who told me, ‘No one bothers about the border, do they, eh? A load of nonsense. We’re all reivers like.’

There was one thing that walking the border taught me. We may not all be reivers, but – whether we come from Carham or Coldstream, Edinburgh or London, Europe or Africa or the Middle East or anywhere else torn apart by poverty, disease or conflict – wherever we come from, we’re all the same under the skin.

The book Walking the Border: A Journey Between Scotland and England is written by Ian Crofton. Photograph: Joyce Nicholls.