MP and travel writer Rory Stewart muses on history, memory and landscape as he traverses the borderlands between England and Scotland.
His father Brian taught Rory Stewart how to walk, and walked with him on journeys from Iran to Malaysia. Now they have chosen to do their final walk together along ‘the Marches’ - the frontier that divides their two countries, Scotland and England.
On their six-hundred-mile, thirty-day journey - with Rory on foot, and his father ‘ambushing’ him by car – the pair relive Scottish dances, reflect on Burmese honey-bears, and on the loss of human presence in the British landscape.
Travelling across mountain ridges and through housing estates they uncover a forgotten country crushed between England and Scotland: the Middleland. They discover unsettling modern lives, lodged in an ancient place, as their odyssey develops into a history of the British nationhood, a chronicle of contemporary Britain and an exuberant encounter between a father and a son.
And as the journey deepens, and the end approaches, Brian and Rory fight to match, step by step, modern voices, nationalisms and contemporary settlements to the natural beauty of the Marches, and a fierce absorption in tradition in their own unconventional lives.
‘This beautifully written book is a haunting reflection of identity and our relationships with the people and places we love’ Daily Mail
‘Suggests an open-mindedness in Stewart, a tolerance and flexibility that could make him an exceptional politician while it also continues to define him as a writer’ New York Review of Books
‘Travel writing at its best’ Guardian
The blurry geographic and cultural line between regions that have been (and might someday be) separate nations is explored in this ruminative travelogue. Stewart, an Englishman who grew up partly in Scotland and represents an English border district in Parliament, follows The Places In Between, his 2006 account of trekking across Afghanistan by foot, with this narrative of walking trips through English-Scottish border areas. Musing on the nature of frontiers, he ponders Hadrian's Wall marking Roman Britain off from the barbarian north; the Northumbrian lands where medieval Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse settlers uneasily coexisted; cross-border feuds that inspired Walter Scott's romances; and the separatist impulses surrounding the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. He also paints vivid portraits of the region's rich (though sodden) landscapes, and trenchantly critiques environment policies that try to return the human-scaled "living countryside" of 1,000-year-old grazing and farming terrain to wild bog and forest for the sake of biodiversity and carbon sinks. Stewart anchors his lively mix of history, travelogue, and reportage on local communities in a vibrant portrait of his father, who was both a tartan-wearing Scotsman and a thoroughly British soldier and diplomat. This is a subtle, clear-eyed, ardent case for the United Kingdom's future, one that recognizes cross-border divisions but deeply values ties that bind.