What’s in a border? It depends who you ask and where you are at the time. For some people in some places it’s a straight line drawn arbitrarily across an expanse of snow or sand, sometimes fortified by fences and soldiers, sometimes only by laws governing rules on trade and migration.

For others, borders represent something more intangible. Language and cultural identity, for example, though borders can also cut across these things. And while some borders are long settled and little disputed, others are in constant flux as they are fought and argued over.

Alistair Moffat was born close to a border and has lived many of his 73 years in the vicinity of it. More than that, it has been a constant presence in his life regardless of where he is in the world. So much so that it greatly defines his understanding of self. He is a Borderer, with a capital B.

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Moffat’s border is the one between Scotland and England, of course. He has mostly lived with his back to it in the sense that his gaze has normally been to the north. To St Andrews, where he studied Medieval History in the early 1970s. To Edinburgh, where he spent the second half of that same decade as Director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. To Glasgow, where for a long time he worked at STV. And, increasingly, beyond those places to the Highlands, whose distinctive culture has come to define Scotland’s idea of itself, he thinks.

Moffat’s keen interest in the past and how it interlaces with the present has seen him produce a steady stream of books on historical subjects. These range from histories of Lindisfarne and the notorious Borders reivers – think Peaky Blinders but with swords and a taste for cattle rustling – to personal odysseys on foot along Scotland’s forgotten roads and byways.

Re-lacing his boots and blending all those interests together, Moffat has now hit the road again for a new book which is as admirable in its simplicity as it is daunting in its complexity – he has walked the length of the border between England and Scotland. His aim is to relate its better known stories and lift the veil on a few well hidden ones.

Perhaps most important of all, he wishes to turn his gaze on the bigger country to the south and re-assess the way in which identities there are changing. His title? Between Britain: Walking The History Of England And Scotland.

“There are two main reasons for writing the book,” he explains when we talk. The first was visible and hard to miss as he travelled across the Border on his regular visits to family in Northumberland: a growing number of English flags. “You’d see Saltires and Lion Rampants [on the Scottish side], but you never used to see a St George’s Cross. So I thought: ‘Things are changing.’”

The Herald: Alistair MoffatAlistair Moffat (Image: free)

The second reason was the wider political implication of that local expression of English identity. “It gradually became clear to me that while everybody thinks about Scottish nationalism – and it’s a very dynamic political force – it’s nothing like as dynamic as English nationalism. That has really changed lives. It pulled us out of Europe in 2016. We have got political parties now that have no policies, they just tell us what they’re against.”

Brexit and the politics of grievance feature here, of course. But Moffat’s other notion is that this English nationalism is fuelled in part by a vision of England drawn from literature. “The book doesn’t attempt any forensic definition, there’s no polls or surveys or anything,” he says. “It’s impressionistic, I admit that. But my contention is that fiction has been as, if not more, influential in forming a sense of Englishness than history has. So Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, Dad’s Army – I think all these things have had a tremendous influence.”

So, armed with his trusty Pathfinder maps and a new pair of boots, Moffat set out to walk from east to west and muse on all of this. It’s a journey of about 10 days on foot. He begins in the Berwick Bounds and winds up eventually at the Gateway Outlet Village in Gretna having bloodied his leg and torn his trousers to shreds falling over a fence. This is at the western end of the Scots Dyke, which once marked the division of the so-called Debatable Lands.

Along the way he passes places like Norham Castle, where in 1291 a conniving Edward I chose between the 13 claimants to then-vacant Scottish throne. Among them were John Balliol, who was eventually appointed, and Robert Bruce, grandfather of the victor of Bannockburn. It was Edward’s decision here that set England and Scotland on the collision course to that fateful battle of 1314.

It’s a well known story. But Moffat also peers into the farther corners of history as he criss-crosses the border. There he is able to coax other, less well-familiar characters to step out of the shadows. One is Prioress Isabella Hoppringle of Coldstream, who watched the Scottish army as it headed to disaster at the Battle of Flodden in September 1513 – then led her nuns onto the field in its bloody aftermath to tend to the dying. Oh, and she may also have been an English spy.

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“She’s a fascinating figure,” he says. “There are so few women in early Scottish history that Hoppringle is really interesting. I spent a lot of time looking for the priory and trying to understand her literary and physical viewpoint, as well as her political one.”

And it was in Coldstream while looking for the remains of Isabella’s priory that Moffat found a plaque commemorating the Coldstream Free Bible Press. Set up to counter monopolies on bible printing, it churned out nearly 180,000 copies of the Good Book in 1845 alone and at its height employed 300 people in the small Borders town.

Elsewhere he invokes the spirit – and recounts the story – of James Small, born to a farmer near Ladykirk around 1740 and a man who, in Moffat’s words, “changed the landscape.” He did this by re-imagining then re-inventing the plough, labouring hard on prototype after prototype – then essentially giving away the finished design for free, much as today open source software might be gifted to the world by a beneficent tech titan. If there is such a thing.

“Small didn’t patent it for some reason and that makes him a hero to me,” says Moffat. “I genuinely think that he did that deliberately. He would send wooden copies of his design to people and they would make them. In a way he was a great philanthropist, though he died in poverty.”

Of course Moffat glances over his shoulder at Scotland as well. And just as he sees political parties in England defining themselves by what they are against, he thinks Scotland has done something similar at a cultural level: chosen a face to present to the world based on its being the most un-English one available. The collateral damage is to Scotland’s distinctive regional identities, which become subsumed by, well, tartan.

“It suppresses regional identity. It devalues it. It says it’s not good enough. You go to weddings and every man wears a kilt and they’re dressed for the Highland games not a wedding … What does that say exactly? What it’s saying is: ‘Here’s a bogus identity, a false identity’. [It’s] Highland iconography colouring the whole thing. And why is that? Because you could not get more different from England than Highland culture.”

But being different from England “is not the point. The point is to be true to yourself, and the Borders has a powerful identity and a rich history and it’s being ignored by the tartanry. It’s literally a cultural cover-up.”

Sir Walter Scott, the arch-Unionist, started the process with novels which romanticised the Highlands and by tricking out the capital in tartan when George IV visited in 1822. Scotland, remember, had remained entirely untroubled by royal visits throughout the 18th century and for most of the one before it.

“The truth is the Highlands had been neutralised by appalling genocide and cultural erasure, but what Scott did was take the colourful bits and the strikingly different bits and clothe the whole thing in tartan,” says Moffat. “That started the ball rolling.”

But has what started as a pro-Union project been co-opted now to the ends of Scottish nationalism? Yes, he thinks. Scott’s intention was to differentiate Scotland as much as possible within the context of the United Kingdom, but that is not longer the case.

“Now it’s about being different from England. That’s the irony about Gaelic. Only around 60,000 speak it, and the native speech community is dying. There may be less than 10,000. And that is really different, but nobody can be bothered to learn it. So you see the core of Highland culture, the absolute kernel of it – the language – is withering. But all the other stuff, these outward signs like kilts, bagpipes and whisky, they’re flourishing. So it’s even more bogus in a sense.”

Walking into Gretna, bloodied from his fight with the fence, Moffat sees tartan products everywhere. He lists them: handbags, wallets, tea towels, hip flasks, notebooks, suitcases and more. It causes him to muses on a famous line from Song Of Myself, by American poet Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The Herald: Yes marchers in Glasgow. The Borders voted heavily against independence while Glasgow voted for itYes marchers in Glasgow. The Borders voted heavily against independence while Glasgow voted for it (Image: free)

He also thinks back to the start of the journey, to Lamberton Toll where the A1 crosses the Border near Berwick. Emblazoned on the English side were the Union Flag, the Cross of St George and the jagged yellow and red flag of Northumberland, a riff on the colours of the Percy family once dominant in the north-east.

“There there were lots of identities there – British, English and Northumbrian. Whereas on the Scottish side, you had three Saltires. That was it. That, I think, is new. And I go on about that in rather bad-tempered way in the book. Having a uniform identity imposed on me? Sod that, because it doesn’t add up to reality. It’s like saying England is England, but it’s not. England is incredibly diverse in all sorts of ways and so is Scotland. But I didn’t see that diversity shown at all.”

An inescapable conclusion from reading Moffat’s book is that, while he spies difference and sets out to chart change, he still views England and Scotland as polities which should cohere. Most Borderers feel the same: 67% voted No in the 2014 independence referendum. Does Moffat expect pushback from nationalists?

“It’s certainly Unionist, there’s no question about that,” he says of Between Britain. “We face global problems, we’re frying the planet, and union – uniting – is what we need to be doing, not dividing. These global problems can only be solved, can only be dealt with by global solutions. Division is not helpful, it really isn’t. I don’t see how being independent, separate from England, out of the British union could possibly be good for that. I don’t see how that can help.”

But wouldn’t regional identities be strengthened in an independent Scotland which no longer required a single face of Scottishness to present the rest of the UK? Wouldn’t independence stem that tartan tide?

“That’s certainly a possibility,” he admits. “The whole thing isn’t black and white by any means. It may be the case. But the signs are not necessarily good when you have the tartanisation and the Saltirisation at the Border saying: ‘This is Scotland’. Not it’s not.

“That’s the point of the Walt Whitman quote – you can be lots of things. You don’t have to be the one thing. English nationalism as much as Scottish nationalism pushes people towards that, to be the one thing. But none of us are that, so that’s something I object to. But the book’s not a polemic, it’s just my impression of where we are now.”

Where we are now is not a place marked on any map, though.

Between Britain: Walking The History Of England And Scotland is out now (Canongate, £20)